Friday, July 20, 2012

July 19, 2012 St. Petersburg, Russia

July 19, 2012 St. Petersburg, Russia

What a great day.

We took the day off from touring to celebrate the b’not mitzvah of Allie and Jacquie Gribens.

We learned early in the morning, after we decided to let the girls sleep later and just take a cab to the synagogue (instead of the Metro), that St. Petersburg doesn’t really have cabs.  You have to call and order one each time you need a ride somewhere.  Given the rain this morning, and rush hour (which runs until 10 am), we were told that a cab wasn’t available.

So, we rushed the girls up and gave them all of 5 minutes for breakfast.  Then, a group of us headed to the Metro station.  (The b’not mitzvah, the rabbi, some grand parents (and my tallit) were able to get a ride in the Hotel shuttle van).

Under the expert direction of Marc Press, we negotiated our way through the subway system and to the street of the synagogue.  We found the address, only to discover that the building was under construction and entry was forbidden.

Marc, Marc, Shayna

Jamie, Josh, Nick, Brian

So, at that moment, the van folk were (apparently) in the synagogue wondering where the congregation (us) were?  A few phone calls back and forth, a canal with a boat as a landmark, and we were able to find our way 30 minutes past the original 10 am start time (though we were fairly convinced they wouldn’t start without us!).

We gathered at St. Petersburg Reform (progressive) synagogue led by Rabbi Helena Rubenstein.  (OK, her name is actually Elena Rubinstein but it sounds the same…)

Rabbi Stacy Friedman from our congregation in San Rafael led along with Rabbi Rubenstein, a cantor, an organist, and the gabbai.  They mixed up the melodies, some from our service and others from theirs.

Rabbis Rubenstein and Friedman

Passing the Torah

Torah reading.

Rabbi Rubenstein was Russian born and raised, made aliyah to Israel with the collapse of the Soviet Union, eventually earned ordination in the Israeli program of HUC in Jerusalem, then was called back to Russia to lead this congregation.

Between our English, her Russian, Hebrew emerged as the best common language for communication.

The Gribens created their own siddur for the service, including everyone there in some sort of honor or reading.

The service was wonderful….and the whole idea of a mother-daughter bat mitzvah really meaningful.  At one point, Rabbis Friedman and Rubenstein, the two bnot mitzvah, the cantor and organist were all leading the service together… 6 women…who would have thunk?!

Allie giving her d'rash

We learned from Rabbi Rubenstein about her congregation, about Jewish religious life in Russia and St. Petersburg, about Reform, about her experience as a woman rabbi.

Jacquie shared her disappointment at not being able to have a bat mitzvah at age 12 or 13 where she was raised in Mexico, only to close by explaining how much more meaningful it was for her to stand next to her daughter…together.

Jacquie giving her d'rash.

Rabbi Friedman spoke about how most of us there in the room had ancestors who left these parts of the world generations ago….and now Allie, by her decision to become bat mitzvah in St. Petersburg, was bringing us all back.

Rabbi Stacy Friedman conferring a blessing on the b'not mitzvah

Rabbi Rubenstein, in Hebrew, thanked Allie for beginning her journey as a Jewish adult in St. Petersburg.  That got me thinking about the past 4 weeks..  We began with the goal of introducing Shayna to the memory of her great great grandparents’ lives around the turn of the 20th century in eastern Europe. 

Inevitably, we came crashing into attempted genocide..and near genocide in Poland, at least.

To close our trip by participating in a worship service when another Jewish adult (OK, 2 including Jacquie) is added to the community brought it all full circle…and is the perfect way to begin the process of returning home.

 A well photographed event.

The group.

After the service, we enjoyed a great kiddish luncheon, Russian style.

From there, we were met by a representative of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, responsible for supporting Jewish communities in 70 countries around the world, including of course, Russia.

We planned on taking the metro to St. Petersburg’s JCC but on the way to the station, our Russian JDC guide a small public bus waiting at a stop.  Since it was moving towards the JCC, she instructed the 20 or so of us to hop on. 

Bruce bought tickets for everyone and we drove off.

At the next corner, two Russians approached and boarded the bus, only to notice it was full of American tourists.  To have captured the look on their faces as they had to convince themselves that yes, indeed, this was a public bus..

Off the bus, we learned, now for the third time, that a “short walk” in Russian is NOT and tour guides make every day an aerobic workout.  We were moving briskly for over half an hour to get to the JCC building.  We were exhausted, already, on arrival.

Our moods quickly improved as we toured the building, learned about their pre-school and kindergarten, about their programs and cultural events, about how they reach out to a heavily assimilated Russian Jewish population.

The interior of the JCC

We visited the offices of Hillel and I got a picture with the director to forward to Alon at SF Hillel.

The most inspiring though, was when we crashed the senior lunch program.  They brought in a singer who was crooning old Yiddish songs with accompaniment by an accordion.  They invited us in to join them.  At the moment, it was just fun.

Towards the end, it dawned on me…we were sitting in a room full of Jewish people hearing Yiddish.  Wow.  There hasn’t been that many “sitting in a room full of Jewish people” on this trip (at least not eastern European Jews participating in Jewish activities).  Certainly, we haven’t heard Yiddish, the language of the Jewish people of eastern Europe for centuries as well as the language of Shayna’s name (and therefore the very reason for taking this trip).

I pulled out my iphone and just started recording the moment.

It was sweet and affirming and left us with tremendous gratitude.

(We toured the JCC in two groups.  When the other group, with Rabbi Stacy, had their turn with the seniors, Rabbi Stacy joined the singer and they danced together as well.  I am sorry I missed that..)

Taking pity on our group, one of the staff members agreed to escort us on the public bus back to our hotel.  This time it was all 23 of us...


The bus stopped right in front of St. Petersburg’s famed Food Emporium.  Time to snap some photos…and eat…

After a few hours to rest at the hotel, we walked to St. Petersburg’s oldest restaurant (serving food since 1735) as well as one of its highest rated establishments (ranked #1 by several sources) for a celebration dinner hosted by the Gribens.

We put the kids at one huge table and the adults at the other, squeezing 15 of us into a table of 11.  They brought out two wines and then…..the vodka…  We toasted, and reflected, and appreciated, (and drank) through a multi-course dinner that was out of this world.

If you saw these two handles on the bathroom door, which one would you enter?

By 10:30 pm, we walked back to the hotel to get the girls asleep.  Tomorrow, it’s the Hermitage Museum…


  1. OK just asking but who but "the goyim" show up spot on time for bar mitzvah services? :-D. A complete non-sequitor for you today...last night's opening film at the SFJFF @ the Castro "Hava Nagilah" was an absolute hoot! Highly recommended if you make it back in time for the Marin, Easy Bay or Peninsula showings! Educational, touching, funny. Best SFJFF film I have seen in years and full of teachable moments the the American Jewish experience.

  2. Fantastic...and I recommend the one "400 miles" sponsored by B'chol Lashon. I saw an earlier edit and its inspiring...