The Grand Choral Synagogue of St. Petersburg is Europe’s second largest synagogue. Situated just a few blocks away from the Mariinsky Theater, it was built between 1880 and 1888, and consecrated in 1893.
The history of the Jewish community of St. Petersburg is truly fascinating. Initially banned from residing anywhere in Russia under the decree by Catherine I, many Jewish people settled in St. Petersburg and, over the years, the local Jewish community grew to become very powerful by the 19th century. Many rich and educated Jewish people worked as bankers, doctors and entrepreneurs, and the Jewish population had higher literacy rates than the St. Petersburg average. Although almost a dozen Jewish houses of worship existed by 1870s, these was no large synagogue to serve all Jewish community of St. Petersburg.
The initial construction of the Synagogue became possible following a building permit that was granted by Emperor Alexander II who had introduced a number of reforms officially allowing Jewish people to reside in St. Petersburg, as well as other Russian cities outside of the Pale of Settlement. Although no building in St. Petersburg was allowed to be higher than 23 meters (the height of the Winter Palace), Alexander II allowed the Synagogue to be 47 meters high provided certain other conditions were met. A group of architects responsible for the design modeled the new synagogue after Berlin’s Oranienburger Strasse New Synagogue with its Moorish and Byzantine style.
During the Soviet regime the members of the St. Petersburg Jewish community were persecuted by the authorities and the Grand Synagogue was closed in 1930. The Communists planned to convert the building into a movie hall but WWII foiled those plans. During WWII years the synagogue worked as a hospital and re-opened as a religious centre shortly after the war. The Synagogue nowadays has re-gained its status as the center of the Jewish community and operates a kindergarten, two schools, two charitable canteens, and a match-making service in addition to offering Jewish religious services.