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Meet Me in ... St. Petersburg

October 19, 2006 By:
Ben G. Frank, JE Feature
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A "magnificent and tragic city": Certainly, an apt title for a locale that endured 900 days of hell during the World War II blockade of the then-Leningrad, now again called St. Petersburg.

Tragedy, of course. A million souls died, most from starvation.

While not forgotten, today this shiny, glittering renaissance city of Peter the Great -- this "window on the West" -- with its dazzling sunlit views of the waters of the Neva river lights up the "white nights."

No wonder the great German writer, Goethe, called this city, "the Venice of the North."

Beautiful St. Petersburg -- today cleaned up, polished, charming, alluring -- welcomes tourists from all over the world. No more drab, grimy, gray walls with unsmiling men and women huddled against the buildings. No more old-fashioned GUM-like department stores. No more KGB cameras pointing at the renovated Grand Choral Synagogue.

Today, this second capital of Russia is alive, classic, cultural, European and just plain artsy. You just have to start from Arts Square to view some of the city's prettiest streets. Walk past the Grand Hotel Europe to the Nevsky Prospekt.

Ah, the Nevsky Prospekt, that famous street about which the great Russian author Nikolai Gogol wrote: "There is nothing finer than Nevsky Prospekt, not in St. Petersburg at any rate, for in St. Petersburg, it is everything ... " Shop in the many boutiques; or in Gostinny Dvor, the department store that houses fashionable shops; or Passazh, an arcade of shops, both on the Nevsky.

So many sites, so much history: The Winter Palace, the Hermitage, St. Isaac's Cathedral, the Rostral Columns, Smolny Institute (where Lenin and Trotsky planned the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution); St. Peter and Paul Fortress; and the Aurora, the cruiser whose gunshot began the Red attack on the Winter Palace.

But there are many Jewish sites, including a new wonderful center for the city's 100,000 Jews. If you travel on a cruise ship to St. Petersburg as this travel writer did over three days, you should have enough time to visit Jewish institutions.

Despite the filling out of sometimes complicated forms, even on a cruise, it's better to have a visa to Russia.

And if American Jewish travelers really want to see what is happening in enhancing and building a Jewish life in Russia, they should stop at what the Jews of St. Petersburg now call home: YESOD, the name of the building that stands for the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Home, located on Bolshaya Raznochinnaya 25a, St. Petersburg.

The new state-of-the-art, 21st-century, four-story, 75,000-square-foot, $11 million building -- replete with meeting rooms, offices, class rooms, and, after 9/11, a blast-resisting security wall -- stands as one of the largest Jewish buildings in Russia. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee organized and sponsored the capital project, involving partners and foundations.

Now, YESOD acts as the hub and focus of a broad spectrum of Jewish programs, including JDC-supported Hesed Avraham and the Youth Club of the Jewish Agency.

To defray the cost of the upkeep, part of the facility will be rented out as commercial space.

Russia is fast developing a middle class, and Jewish leaders here wanted to present to all people a comfortable, modern facility that would attract more Jews to an active Jewish life.

The building is absolutely beautiful and well-suited for large community events. For example, several Israel Independence Day celebrations took place here. More than 450 people took part in the first event.

Indeed, YESOD is quickly becoming known as a "convener" -- a place in which different Jewish organizational players can come together to plan events.

"The U.S. donors who supported the new building did so after first giving most generously to the welfare programs, and then chose to invest in the living future of the community by putting up YESOD," said Rabbi Jonathan Porath, JDC Country director for Western Russia, including St. Petersburg.

Cruising is a good way to tour St. Petersburg and the Baltic Sea. One line that does a good job is Regent Seven Seas and its all-suite Seven Seas Voyager (www. TheRegentExperience.com).

All the major cities have active Jewish communities.

To learn more, visit: www. saint-petersburg.com.

Ben G. Frank is the author of A Travel Guide to Jewish Europe, 3rd edition, and A Travel Guide to Jewish Russia and Ukraine, as well as the recently published A Travel Guide to the Jewish Caribbean and South America.


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