Russia and the Jews

My decision to keep a record of our trip included a plan to learn more about the history and present circumstances of the Jewish community there.   I had a vague idea of Russian Jewish History (I was Hodel in Fiddler on the Roof after all!).  Vague topics were floating in the back of mind such as the Khazars, the Pale of Settlement, pogroms, something about the assassination of Alexander II, Kantonists, Stalin’s Night of Murdered Poets and Doctor’s Plot, Trotsky, the Six Day War, Refusniks…

In order to sort out the facts, I launched an internet search which more than a month later is still in progress.  Every piece of information leads to another question and another search. The story is too hard, too long, and much too complicated to put on this blog but I encourage you to look into it yourself. 

There is no doubt that the situation for Jews in Russia is better now than it has been in its perhaps 1000 year history but still it is something of an enigma.  Freedom of religion is accepted, but I found no synagogue listings in the long list of religious organizations in newspapers or magazines.  There are several synagogues in Moscow but even the large ones are not overtly visible. 

Masorti Olami (the world organization of Conservative Judaism) lists a congregation in Moscow on their web site.  An email address, a name and a phone number are given, but no address.  Weeks before our trip I sent an email to the e-address listed but received no response whatsoever.  I assumed that making contact once we arrived would be easier.   I was able to make phone contact and was given an address.

Connecting with the modern Jewish movements in Russia was important to me.  I had visions of sending JTS cantorial students there to lead Shabbat services.  I hoped to set up pen pals for our BHC beit sefer students. 

We knew the area and had no trouble finding the street but when we arrived, the address was two large buildings; one a music school, the other an apartment building.  There were no signs listing the synagogue or service times.  We concluded that the Friday evening gathering (there was nothing on Shabbat morning) was held in someone’s apartment but we had no idea which apartment.  The security guards of both buildings knew nothing of any Jewish gathering.   After wandering around for a half hour or so in hopes of seeing someone with a kipah, we gave up. 

A day or so later I mentioned the incident to colleagues and when they heard the term Conservative Jewish Congregation, they started laughing and told me there was no such thing.  It seems that it even the Moscow Jews don’t know about it.

We visited the Grand Choral Synagogue of Moscow on a weekday.  It is situated a few blocks from the former KGB building where so many people including a lot of Jews were tortured and killed.  It is on a small, side street and although it is a big building and topped by a Star of David, it is not easy to find.  On this weekday thetraditional synagogue now has the outward appearance of being now ultra-orthodox with classes for adults and children being taught in the style of a Chabad yeshiva. (Click on photos for more information.)

Grand Choral Synagogue

Moscow's Grand Choral Synagogue


Grand Choral Synagogue

Moscow's Grand Choral Synagogue


Having booked a hotel (a gargantuan thing from the Soviet era) walking distance from the Grand Choral Synagogue in St. Petersburg, we were able to attend Shabbat morning services.  The cavernous sanctuary offered tefillah to about 100 people maximum.  An ultra-orthodox minyan was held in another part of the building and though the main service was a traditional one, the rabbi, and Torah reader and many of the congregants were ultra-orthodox.   



Grand Choral Synagogue

St. Petersburg's Grand Choral Synagogue

The cantor was good and the five-voice, male (of course) choir sang (very beautifully) music from standard repertoire – Sulzer, Lewandowsky, etc.  I sat with a few others in the women’s balcony and watched as Edwin was called to the Torah for an aliyah.  We were invited to lunch but as the men and women were seated separately, we declined and left after making Kiddush.

The Grand Choral Synagogue

St. Petersburg's The Grand Choral Synagogue

My inconclusive conclusion is that there may be a movement of liberal religious Judaism in Russia but it is hard to find.  The only beit sefer for children that was apparent was run by Chabad.  Perhaps because of lack of skills the traditional synagogues have become ultra-orthodox as Chabad and other such organizations are able to subsidize the salaries of rabbis and Torah readers thus offering trained clergy to shuls which otherwise cannot afford it.

The invitation to Edwin to teach a course in Jewish music is proof that there is some desire for knowledge of Jewish topics.   His class was offered in the Department of African and Asian Studies of the Moscow University.  The institute is called Hebrew University and operates on a grant from an American donor.  The faculty teaches a handful of topics: Jewish history, Hebrew, Kabbalah, etc.  A visiting professor comes each year from Hebrew University in Jerusalem to share their expertise.

Institute for African and Asian Studies

Institute for African and Asian Studies

 The institution is situated directly across the street from Red Square in a beautiful, new renovated building.  It is a small institute sharing space with the rest of the Department of African and Asian Studies.  Offices are shared.  Classes move from room to room.  Often they are held in offices where administrators are working and phones are ringing.  If there aren’t enough desks, students sit on benches for 3-hour classes.   There are no complaints about the inconveniences from the students. 

Edwin’s class was held two evenings each week.  The days changed each week because of scheduling conflicts and lack of space.  The class was taught in Hebrew and most of the students had no problem keeping up.  Many of them had spent time in Israel and it was often the case that one parent lived in Israel and one in Russia.  However there were also students with no Jewish connection at all.

There were about 15 students in the class.  I say “about” because there were different students in each class.  After a couple of weeks Edwin asked why some of the students were not attending regularly and was told that the students must take a full degree in a non-Jewish subject in order to graduate from the university.  Any classes that they chose to take in Jewish studies are extra and on their own time.  Thus the students were carrying a full load of classes and then coming as often as possible to the classes offered by the institute.  We were told that the number of students and the attendance in Edwin’s class was usually large.  The students were open, intelligent and interested.  If we needed help, the students were our best source.

A Jewish presence can be found here and there in State museums which now display works by Jewish artists previously banned.  There are Kandinsky’s and Chagall’s here and there.  We saw a fabulous temporary exhibit at The Mikhailovsky Museum in St. Petersburg called “American Artists from the Russian Empire.”  Several paragraphs into the introduction there is a hint these artists left Russia because they were Jews. 

It is believed that there are more than 1 million Jews in Russia today.  Quite a number came back after making aliyah to Israel.  Some were never Refusniks but also never joined the Party.  Some kept some sort of Jewish identity.  Some chose or were forced to assimilate.  Religious freedom is the law now in Russia.  Churches are being built and people attend.   The ultra-orthodox Jewish movement seems to be attracting some.   Secular Jewish studies attracts a few college students.  Perhaps the modern Jewish movements are also growing and because of the winter and difficulties with language we just weren’t able to find them.  My search continues now that I’m back in Jerusalem. 

Sculpture at the Grand Choral Synagogue

Sculpture at the Grand Choral Synagogue


2 Responses to “Russia and the Jews”

  1. Hels Says:

    I am very interested in the Choral Synagogues, particularly St Petersburg (because I don’t know Moscow as well).

    You saw and enjoyed a small choral performance on shabbat, and I know about the 2003 large orchestral performance. But why are they called Choral Synangogues? Was there a long history of musical performances in these two synagogues – for members only? for all Jews? for all Russians? Noone seems to know.

    many thanks
    Art and Architecture, mainly

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