Vasily Stasov designed the Grand Choral Synagogue in St. Petersburg, Russia. It was completed in 1893 as a central worship space for the area’s growing Jewish community. One of the synagogue’s most notably opulent features is its 47 m copula. It was also possible to get married here at the lavish adjoining wedding chapel. The synagogue stands as a reflection of the prominent roles many Jewish individuals played in this period of Russia’s history. Today you can visit this house of worship, which was entirely restored in 2003. There are a variety of activities on offer and several surrounding Jewish cultural shops.
From Building to Opening
From 1884 to 1888 the main construction took place and in 1888 the cupola of the Grand Choral Synagogue was decorated and the process of interior design began. On December 8, 1893 the Grand Choral Synagogue was officially opened and consecrated during a most lavish ceremony. The door was opened with a specially designed silver key and 7 Torah scrolls were brought into the hall. It had taken so many years to be accepted into society and over 24 years to raise money, plan and receive permission, but finally the Jewish community of St Petersburg had their Grand Choral Synagogue.
The World Wars
During WWI a 100-bed hospital for the wounded, of all confessions, was organised by the Jewish community, on the premises of the synagogue. And the Synagogue was bombed by the Nazi army during the Siege of Leningrad between 1941 and 1943. However, the hospital remained in operation. The Jewish community managed to survive the blockade, as well as many other oppressions over the years.
During the Soviet Era the Jewish community had a rocky relationship with the authorities and the Grand Choral Synagogue was closed several times, only to be re-opened after the authorities realized the importance it played within the community. A famous Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn was even imprisoned for “anti-soviet” activities. However, the Grand Choral Synagogue remained a part of the community and the persistence of the Jews in St Petersburg kept it alive. Fund-raising was banned, traditional rituals were made un-lawful, and the activities inside the Synagogue were watched closely by the authorities and secret police. In the 1970’s and 1980’s repairs were made to the Synagogue but all was still not well. Many Jews were refused emigration and forced to stay in the Soviet Union – the Grand Choral Synagogue became an important place for communication and refuge. In the mid to late 1980’s there was a youth movement and the Synagogue started to fill up again with those wishing to worship. Cultural organisations were formed during Perestroika and concerts were held in the Grand Choral Synagogue.
Today the Great Choral Synagogue of St Petersburg is a registered landmark and an architectural monument of federal importance as well as, of course, an important cultural center for the Jewish community in St Petersburg. The Synagogue runs several schools and is involved in charitable works such as a Yeshiva that dispenses cheap meals to Jewish pensioners. There is also a Matzobakery and a Kosher restaurant along with a souvenir shop for visitors.
Several renovations have taken place during the last 15 years including renovation of the concert hall and a new Mikvah.
There is now an informative exhibition on Jewish history in the foyer of the Great Synagogue (Bolshaya Sinagoga), whose magnificent prayer hall, with its stucco squinches and stalactite mouldings, has been restored following a 5 million dollar donation from the Saffra family in 1999, along with others from the diaspora. This hall holds in excess of 1,200 people and has woman’s galleries on three sides.
The Synagogue is praised for its wonderful acoustics and it is said that by placing ones ear in the right place, one can hear the minutest of whispers from way across the opposite end of the hall, your guide will show you where to put your ear.