The Grand Choral Synagogue of St Petersburg is the 2nd largest synagogue in Europe and has an interesting history. It represents the perseverance of the Jewish community of St Petersburg to have their own place of worship (and a beautiful one at that). It was created in Moorish style and is in the city center near the famous Mariinsky theater. It is considered the Grand Synagogue for the Jewish community of St Petersburg.
On September 1, 1869 permission from the authorities was given to start construction of the first synagogue to replace the existing chapels scattered around the city, giving the Jewish community an opportunity to have their own place of worship. A committee was formed, headed by Horace Ginzburg, to start planning and fundraising for the synagogue. The largest contribution was made by Evzel Ginzburg and large donations were also given by S.S. Polyakov and I.A. Vavelberg along with several other contributions totaling over 100,000 rubles. However, their contributions were still not enough to construct the beautiful synagogue and a loan was taken from the St Petersburg-Moscow Commercial Bank for 70,000 rubles along with additional contributions from Horace Ginzburg along with brothers Samuel and Daniel Polyakov.
Several locations were looked at for the synagogue but the Policemaster-general of the time, F.F. Trepov gave various reasons to deny the initial proposals — once it was because the planned site was too close to a Russian Orthodox Church and another time saying a Synagogue shouldn’t be located in a residential area. In 1878, F.F. Trepov was dismissed from his post and finally, after 10 years of negotiations the Jewish community of St Petersburg was able to purchase the house of A.A. Rostovsky with a land plot along Bolshaya Masterskaya street on January 16, 1879 for 65 thousand rubles.
A discussion was held about the design of the synagogue and it was decided a competition would be held. The winning architects were Bakhman and Shaposhnikov, whose design was submitted to Tsar Alexander II only to be turned down; Alexander thought it should be more modest. Fortunately the architects re-made their design for free and on May 16, 1883 Alexander II approved the second design and construction could begin. From 1884 to 1888 the main construction took place, in 1888 the cupola of the Grand Choral Synagogue was decorated and the design of the interior began. On December 8, 1893 the Grand Choral Synagogue was officially opened and consecrated during a lavish ceremony. The door was opened with a specially designed silver key and 7 Torah scrolls were brought into the hall. It took 24 years, but finally the Jewish community had their Grand Choral Synagogue.
During the Soviet area 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 of 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 1970s and 1980s 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 1980s there was a youth movement and the Synagogue started to fill up again with those wishing to worship. Cultural organizations were formed during Perestroika and concerts were held in the Grand Choral Synagogue.
Today the Grand Choral Synagogue is still an important cultural center for the Jewish community. The Synagogue runs several schools and is involved in charitable works such as running a soup kitchen. There is also a Matzo bakery and a Kosher restaurant along with a souvenir shop for visitors. Several renovations have taken place during the last 10 years including renovation of the concert hall and a new mikvah.
You can see the Grand Choral Synagogue during the tour «Religious St Petersburg» or other city sightseeing tour in St Petersburg.