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Daniel Pesin

A Pesach Conversation with St Petersburg’s Chief Rabbi

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Before Pesach, I had the pleasure of speaking to Rabbi Menachem Mendel Pewzner, the Chief Rabbi of St Petersburg, Russia, about Pesach celebrations in his community, as well as Jewish life in Russia as a whole, and the way that it has developed since the Fall of Communism.

As per the Chief Rabbi’s profile on the Jewish Community of Saint Petersburg website, he became the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s emissary in Saint Petersburg in 1992, and serves as the rabbi at the Grand Choral Synagogue, which is one of Europe’s largest synagogues. Since 1996 he has been the Chief Rabbi of Saint Petersburg.

The Grand Choral Synagogue in Saint Petersburg. Photo Credit: Diana Pesin

Before assuming his current post, Rabbi Pewzner graduated from the New York Yeshiva ‘Tomhey Temimim Lubavitch’; he has a semicha (rabbinic ordination) and is qualified to serve on the Rabbinical Court. A respected leader in community outreach, education, and youth programmes, Rabbi Pewzner also is a member of the Conference of European Rabbis, is the Chief Rabbi of North-West Federal Region of Russia, is a member of the FJCR (Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia) Council of Rabbis, and is a member of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s emissaries committee in the Commonwealth of Independent States (Former Soviet Republics).

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Daniel:

My first question is what are the main ways that, specifically in Saint Petersburg, Pesach is celebrated? Is this different to the way it is celebrated in other parts of Russia, and is Pesach seen or celebrated differently in Saint Petersburg as opposed to different parts of the world?

Chief Rabbi Pewzner:

Well, I think Pesach in most parts of the world, every place has its specifics. Sometimes the challenge is that if Pesach is later on the year, not the beginning of April, closer to the end of April, you have to start the seder later, because of the northern situation. But other than that, the preparations for Pesach are that we have to bring in matzos in advance and make sure there’s enough wine in advance and make sure that people have everything that they could to celebrate Pesach. A lot of the products have to be imported. But thank G-d a lot of the products are already made in Russia today, such as the meat, the chicken, and some other products. So that’s a big help. But obviously one of the biggest challenges is the informing the people of the laws of Pesach, how to prepare for Pesach. For that we put out a booklet of how to prepare for Pesach at home and how to do all the proper necessary preparations and that’s how we prepare.

Saint Petersburg’s Grand Choral Synagogue before the Passover Seder on Wednesday, April 5th, 2023. Photo Credit: Nathan Pesin

Daniel:

You said that you have some things imported but some made locally in Russia. Has this changed while you’ve been the Chief Rabbi of Saint Petersburg? How important would you say is the shift from having things imported to having them made locally?

Chief Rabbi Pewzner:

Well, it’s a very important thing. Number one, you’re not being dependent on importing and number two, it makes a great price difference. So it changes the whole infrastructure.

Daniel:

Yes. And, more broadly, when you became Chief Rabbi, what would you say was the extent of Jewish infrastructure generally in place, not only in terms of Pesach?

Chief Rabbi Pewzner:

I’ll give you an example about Pesach. Years ago, many people, besides the more educated people I’m talking about in Jewish practice, the people knew that on Pesach you eat matzos, right? But what are the other rituals of Pesach? Very few people knew. How you actually make a seder table, how you have to recite the Haggadah, 4 cups of wine, all the other details, the Maror, the Charoset, that was much more in a limited way; people only knew you ate matzos on Pesach. So that’s also an example of Jewish life in general. People knew that they were Jewish. They identified with their Jewishness, you know some more, some less.

But there was no full infrastructure of a full-fledged Jewish life. There was a lack of Jewish educational institutions. In a sense anything that was above the minimum was lacking. So by putting it in place, all these Jewish institutions (higher education, and school education for children, kindergartens, programs for the youth, for the elderly), that changes the whole infrastructure, the information; mostly the greatest thing is that today, the information is so much broader, so that anyone who has an interest can really learn and be part of Jewish life.

Daniel:

Yes. It’s remarkable if you think about it, the way you’ve had such a great change of infrastructure. How did you initially go about doing that –  what are some of the first steps that you took?

Chief Rabbi Pewzner:

The first steps that you do is you search out for what people would need and want to enhance their Jewish experience. So usually you start with the kindergarten, then you expand it to elementary school, then high school.

And then you start one program, another program. You gradually try to fit the needs of the people and the possibilities that you could do, connect it and there you go.

Daniel:

And, looking forward, are you fully happy with the infrastructure now? Would you like to develop it in the future?

Chief Rabbi Pewzner:

We’re looking to have skyscrapers. So now we’ve built a foundation, we built a few floors. We want to reach the skyscrapers. So you’ve got to go more and more and more.

Daniel:

Yes. It’s not an easy question to answer, but what would you say that the prevailing spirit is of Pesach in Saint Petersburg, Russia or overall?

Chief Rabbi Pewzner:

The idea of Pesach is brought out in a strong way. People are praying for redemption. Redemption meaning personal redemption, and personal in a true way of freedom and in a true way of cohesiveness with spirit of unity.

Daniel:

This year, is there a sign that more people are going to be involved in some of the events that will be put on?

Chief Rabbi Pewzner:

Yes –  we’re seeing a lot of interest by many people, more than in the past, so we’re going to have more people participating than in the past few years.

People in Saint Petersburg’s Grand Choral Synagogue before the Passover Seder on Wednesday, April 5th, 2023. Photo Credit: Nathan Pesin

Daniel:

Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions, and I wish you a Chag Pesach Sameach!

Chief Rabbi Pewzner:

Good luck – Happy Pesach!

About the Author
I am a student at Westminster School in London. I greatly enjoy English and creative writing; at school I was given the English Prize (Nicholson Cup), the Booth Clibborn Reading Cup, and earned first place in the Writing Competition, which was judged by the Head of English at Westminster School. I have also had my writing featured in school publications. Beyond school, I recently received a prize from Jewish News (the UK’s largest Jewish newspaper), and also wrote an article which was published in the Algemeiner, which is the “fastest growing Jewish newspaper in America”; the article was about the speech I gave at Westminster Abbey to hundreds of students, commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day.
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