For almost 125 years the Grand Choral Synagogue of St. Petersburg has served not only as the main house of worship for local Jews but also as the heart and soul of the community, providing hope through all its travails. Despite the restrictions placed on the practice of Judaism from the era of the czars when it was built until the fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, like the Jewish citizenry, it suffered but survived. In recent years, the synagogue has prospered.
Finally completed in 1888 after eight years of construction, it is renowned as one of the most beautiful synagogues in the world. The Grand Choral Synagogue is the second largest in Europe, seating 1,200 worshippers in the main sanctuary, consisting of a men’s section surround by three seating areas for women. Designed in an eclectic Moorish meets Byzantine style with a grand dome and extravagant terra cotta detailing, it was in a terrible state of disrepair until 2001, practically crumbling into ruins, when a generous $5 million bequest from the Safra family paid for its complete, painstaking restoration. The site was finally unveiled to great acclaim in 2005.
An Orthodox synagogue under the direction of the Grand Rabbi of Saint Petersburg himself, the synagogue attracts Jews from far and wide to pray, marry, become bar and bat mitzvah, and to appreciate the famed musical portions of the religious services. A tradition since the temple’s opening, and the inspiration for the “choral” in its name, the cantor is backed by a synagogue chorus of 22 voices.
There are daily morning and evening services and multiple services on Jewish holidays. In addition to participating in worship, the congregation is integral in caring for those in need, providing assistance to more than 1000 sick and elderly community members. Over 300 children and families are served free meals everyday from the synagogue charity canteen.
The temple complex also houses an ornate wedding hall, community center, mikveh, yeshiva, religious day school for children, and a kosher fine dining restaurant and matzo bakery. One of the most important goals of the synagogue is to provide a festive and merry place where St. Petersburg’s Jews can reconnect with the traditions of their ancestors by learning the Jewish rituals and rites of passage that were denied to them for so long.
After so many years of struggle, the Grand Choral Synagogue is finally fulfilling its destiny as a beacon of spirituality and culture in a country where so much of the global Jewish identity was created, yet where the free practice of the religion that gave birth to it was so severely constrained. A renaissance for St. Petersburg’s Jews has finally arrived!