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Our Summer in the Great Choral Synagogue

Our Summer in the Great Choral Synagogue

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Although there is a large, active Jewish community in St. Petersburg, Russia, including many full-time Chabad emissaries, during the summer there is a greater influx of tourists, so we were recruited to assist them. We spent the majority of our days at the entrance to the 124-year-old Great Choral Synagogue, trying to connect with visitors and passersby.

Over the course of the summer, we put on tefillin with 606 men, gave out Shabbat candles to 252 women, had countless hours of conversation about Jewish life, and connected multiple people to their local Chabad center. Of the people who put on tefillin, 51 were first-timers, which we celebrated as their bar mitzvahs.

The majority of the bar mitzvahs were with St. Petersburg residents who were visiting the synagogue—a historic landmark, many of whom were denied a Jewish education back in the day, and therefore didn’t have much Jewish knowledge to impart to their children. In fact, we had a memorable father-son joint bar mitzvah, and another gentleman shared that he had spent his entire life searching for meaning, and realized he had finally found it. Four of our ‘bar-mitzvah boys’ returned every single weekday after their initial visit to continue putting on tefillin daily, and when we left we made sure to connect them with another Chabad rabbi. We have since learned that they are still at the synagogue every morning, and one of them has even purchased his own pair so that he will never miss a day.

Jacob, probably in his mid-seventies, was visiting from France. When we asked him if he would like to put on tefillin, he politely declined. An hour later, he was still studying the beautiful architecture, so we decided we would give it another shot. This time, he explained that his father had lived through the Holocaust, narrowly escaping execution at several death camps, and as a result raised his children without any Judaism. In fact, when he had turned thirteen, his mother had wanted to celebrate his bar mitzvah, but his father was adamantly opposed. “If I do put on tefillin now,” he said, “I feel like I will be disrespecting my late father’s memory.”

We expressed our sympathies, but added that his father is in the World of Truth now, where every mitzvah is valued so dearly. And while every mitzvah is important, putting on tefillin connects us with G‑d in a unique way. We talked some more and soon Jacob sat up straight and said he was ready.

We helped him wrap the straps on his arms and head, and slowly said the blessings together. Jacob’s entire demeanor changed. He was joyful and composed, and asked us to photograph this moment for posterity. We sang and danced together, and then Jacob got ready to leave. “Thank you very much for my bar mitzvah. You boys were right.” He pointed to his heart and continued. “I truly feel that my father is rejoicing with me.”


Yosef Mintz & Mendel Bleich
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