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Two Historic Synagogues Reopen in Russia, One After 90 Years of Disuse

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Grand Synagogue of Kaluga and 130-year-old ‘Small Synagogue’ in St. Petersburg are refurbished

The historic building of the Grand Synagogue in Kaluga, Russia, opened this month after nine decades of inactivity, with detailed renovations bringing it back to its former luster. Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar participated in the opening ceremony on Oct. 8, along with Rabbi Mendy Zaklas, rabbi of the Jewish Community of Bryansk, Russia; local community leaders; and heads of city and region administration.

The Grand Synagogue of Kaluga—a city in central Russia with a Jewish population of about 2,000—was built by the community in 1913, and served as such up until 1926, the last time the synagogue welcomed Jewish worshippers at its doors. At that point, the building was handed over—first to the labor union and then to a college of fine arts, and all Jewish activities there stopped.

It wasn’t until only two years ago that the regional administration made a decision to return the building to its historical owners. Since then, the local Jewish community—with the help of the Federation of Jewish communities of the CIS—conducted major renovations, both of the building’s interior and its exterior facade, which were decaying and run-down. Of course, all new communications materials and wiring had to be installed for contemporary usage.

The reopening of the synagogue is an epic event for the Jewish community of Kaluga, residents say, and will serve as a catalyst for reviving Jewish life in the area.

“The synagogue will serve not only as a place for religious services, but as an active center of community life, and cultural and educational programs,” said Rabbi Berel Lazar at the opening ceremony. In addition to prayer services, the synagogue will host a center for the elderly, a children’s Sunday school, a kosher cafeteria and a library.

‘A Joyous Moment’ in St. Petersburg’

In related news, the oldest prayer hall of St. Petersburg, Russia—the “Small Synagogue,” opened its doors to the public after four years of renovations in the days following Rosh Hashanah. The synagogue is a beloved city landmark that has been the hub of Jewish life even under the most grueling conditions in the past century. Members of local Jewish community, business and cultural leaders, and heads of city administration celebrated the opening.

Built in 1886, the Small Synagogue (called so in comparison to the city’s Grand Choral Synagogue that was built seven years later) is part of St. Petersburg’s synagogue compound. As opposed to the main synagogue that carried only perfunctory functions under the Communist regime, the Small Synagogue remained the real center of community cultural life and tradition throughout the years. Even during World War II—when the city was under German siege and people were dying routinely from bombings, hunger and cold—the Small Synagogue remained open.

During the years of Perestroika, the Small Synagogue was the first place that saw a renewed interest in Jewish roots among the younger generation.

Activity never stopped, but the building had become broken-down. Both the facade and the historical interior, including the gold-covered bimah, uniquely patterned ceiling and wooden floors were in dire need of restoration.

In 2011, the city’s Jewish community—with the generous help of Lili Safra, in memory of her late husband Edmond Safra, undertook the massive effort needed to restore the synagogue. Over four years, the building underwent major renovations and now boasts its original historic glory.

“The reopening of the Small Synagogue is a joyous moment,” said Rabbi Menachem Pewzner, the chief rabbi of St. Petersburg. “And it is symbolic that this happened on Rosh Hashanah, the time for renewal and blessed beginnings.”                (Chabad.org)

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