This year was the first year I spent the High Holidays away from my home temple in Seattle, Washington. While I am not the most observant Jewish person, I have always enjoyed the High Holidays, as well as other Jewish celebrations.
I started the High Holidays with the Erev Rosh Hashanah (evening services) at The Grand Choral Synagogue. While it is Saint Petersburg’s only synagogue, it is the third largest synagogue in Europe, and it is truly gorgeous. It is located about a 30 minute walk away from the university.
To get inside the synagogue grounds, you have to go through a gate with some security checks. I was worried because I saw some people with a ticket, and I did not have one. It turned out to be okay, and I was able to go inside. After putting my coat away at coat check, I stood there very awkwardly not knowing what to do or where to go. However, a very friendly orthodox man came over and explained to me where to go.
In this synagogue, like all orthodox synagogues, the men sit in the main section in the bottom, and the women sit in the pews above. I headed up there, and joined the rest of the women and children sitting up there. While there were many orthodox in attendance, there were also quite a few who were not. There were about 30 other women and children up there, and I was one of the only ones by myself.
The praying started around 7:00, and lasted about 20 minutes. To be completely honest, coming from a very community-oriented synagogue, I did not like the service very much. There was a rabbi “leading” it, but you could not hear him, and all the men were praying at their own tempo. To do a complete 180, most of the women were not even praying, but having more of a social hour. And the kids were just running around, and some were even playing with very noisy toys. Overall, it did not seem very spiritual, and so I just sat there for 20 minutes and appreciated the beautiful architecture of the synagogue.
After the service, I noticed there were lots of tables with food set up. I hadn’t realized there was a meal after the service, but when I asked, they said there were no more spots open. I later realized that this is probably what the other people had tickets for. While standing in line to get my coat, I noticed there was huge influx of people coming into the synagogue, apparently to attend the dinner after the service. It seemed like while there was a large community of Jewish people in the city, being Jewish is more of a cultural identity more than a religious one.
I decided not to go to the Rosh Hashanah day service at the synagogue, and instead researched and found a few Jewish community centers in the city. I decided on Esod located in the city center. My friend Ally and I went, and it was not what we were expecting at all! Turns out, it was a concert/book reading with these two Russian Jewish men, actor Mikhail Politsyimako and writer and blogger Alexander Gutin. They wrote a book of short stories about the lives of Soviet Jews, and read some of them out loud. It was a very interesting event, but for my friend who doesn’t speak much Russian, it wasn’t as rewarding. They did have unlimited apples and honey, the traditional Rosh Hashanah treat, and this was quite tasty!
For Yom Kippur, I was not able to find any events at the different Jewish centers around the city, so I decided to give the synagogue another chance. It was quite similar to the last time, so I just enjoyed being in a beautiful place for the evening.
I later learned that there are Chabads around the city that also had services for the high holidays. The biggest one is called Maor Chabad. If I had learned of them earlier, I probably would have tried that option.
Overall, the High Holiday season in Saint Petersburg did not go quite like I had expected, but I still had a nice time exploring part of the Jewish side of Saint Petersburg!