To find out more about Jewish life in St. Petersburg, In Your Pocket sat down with chief rabbi of St. Petersburg Menachem Mendel Pewzner, who has held this position since 1996!
Before assuming this post, Rabbi Pewzner graduated from the New York Yeshiva “Tomhey Temimim Lubavitch”, has a semicha and is qualified to serve on the Rabbinical Court. His wife, rabbanit Sara Pewzner, is the head of Jewish curriculum department of the community’s secondary school “Beit Sefer Menachem”.
- Tell us a little about yourself. Where were you born, where did you grow up, why did you decide to become a rabbi, etc.?
- I was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. Inspired by the teachings of the Lubavitchter Rebbe I was educated with the ideals of teaching the Torah and Judaism to Jews who were not raised with a Jewish education.
- How did you end up being a rabbi in St. Petersburg?
- After the fall of communism, Chabad Lubaivitch sent emissaries to help rebuild Jewish life. My family and my wife’s family have roots in St. Petersburg (Leningrad); my parents and her grandparents lived here before the war so when we were off ered a position here it seemed challenging yet exciting!
- Jews in Russia have had a turbulent history to say the least. How would you assess the changes in Jewish life in St. Petersburg that you have witnessed during your time here?
- Full infrastructure. The Community implements a wide range of projects and events related to Jewish life in the Synagogue, as well as at various city sites in cooperation with other Jewish organizations. There is an active Jewish religious life in the Community: daily prayer services, Torah classes, Brit-Milah, Bar and Bat Mitzva celebration, Jewish weddings and funerals. The Community runs many educational institutions including schools and kindergartens. The Community features multiple informal educational programs for all ages: a children’s club, teen and student programs. Charitable programs such as soup kitchens and social programs provide help for the poor and needy. Jewish Community centers are active in different areas of the city. Large-scale holiday and cultural events are held regularly. The Community possesses well-developed media tools: a webpage, a newspaper and social media websites. The Community is open to anyone taking an interest in Jewish culture and religion. Private donations from local and foreign philanthropists help sponsor community
activities. The Community leaders - with the support of the Governor and the city administration - significantly contribute to the development of tolerance in our city. Famous politicians, public and cultural figures, scientists and business leaders visit the Synagogue to acquaint themselves with Jewish life in Saint Petersburg.
- What’s St. Petersburg’s Jewish community like and how big would you say it is?
- I would say there are roughly 80,000 Jews in St. Petersburg. They’re mostly educated and refined.
- In your opinion, which places are a must visit for anyone who’s interested in St. Petersburg’s Jewish history?
- Shul. Cemetery. Alter Rebbe (founder of Chabad Chassidus) was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress, which is a museum today and there is a wax figure of the Rebbe there. The Ethnographic Museum has a Jewish exhibit. There is a Jewish tour of different interesting Jewish points of interest in the city.
- What’s your favorite thing to do/place to go in St.Petersburg on Shabbat and the High Holidays?
- We have services in the Shul with many visitors on the High Holidays. We also like to make community Shabbat dinners with different themes.
- What’s the best kosher food you’ve had in St. Petersburg?
- Farshmak - it’s a traditional Russian Jewish dish which is basically chopped herring with onions and some green apples for tang. Good with a shot of vodka!