Thousands of people across Russia came to visit local synagogues on Saturday night as part of the international Night of the Museums event, which offers free tours and programming in various museums and cultural centers overnight. As part of the event, an increasing number of synagogues in the region open their doors to visitors each year, much to the delight of the public, that comes in large crowds and often forms long queues outside of the Jewish places of worship just to get in.
Petersburg’s Grand Choral Synagogue was open Saturday night from 1 am to 5 am welcoming over 2,200 visitors. This was the fourth year the synagogue was taking part in the event, and each year the amount of visitors grows.
“Traditionally, the wider public perceives the synagogue as something exclusive and mystical, and make use of a chance to peak into this ‘unknown’ world,” said Mrs. Anna Brodskaya, PR coordinator of the synagogue. “Also, from our experience, about a third or a fourth of the visitors have Jewish roots, but they feel uncomfortable coming to the synagogue on their own. This event gives them the opportunity to come as part of the crowd, and many of them stay in touch from there on.”
The rest of the public, Mrs. Brodskaya said, are just active, curious city residents who are interested to find out more about a different culture. “Surprisingly, many of them also stay in touch with the synagogue and come to our large events and concerts, finding answers to their inner earnings in Jewish culture.”
Among the Petersburg’s synagogue ‘white night’ program were tours of the synagogue’s complex, a photo booth and an outdoor kosher cafe as well as a series of mini-concerts by local quartets, performing traditional Hasidic melodies, klezmer music and classical pieces of Jewish composers.
Meanwhile, across the country, Rostov’s Soldatskaya synagogue was a first-time event participant this year and the staff were amazed by the amount of people who showed up.
“Over 900 people visited the synagogue. We weren’t expecting this sort of enthusiasm – the synagogue’s walls just couldn’t fit all those wanting to get in and the queue to the entrance spread around the block,’ said Mrs. Inna Shvartsman, the synagogue’s programs coordinator. “Next year we will try to come up with a way to accommodate everybody.”
The synagogue’s program for the night included culinary workshops, museum exhibitions, storytelling about the life of the local Jews throughout centuries and question-answer sessions with the rabbis. Part of the program was organized by the community’s youth club and EuroStars members, who were explaining to the public the symbolism of Jewish holidays until the wee hours of the night.
“There were a lot of families with children and a lot of young people – everyone was asking questions and in the end they were very thankful for the event, saying that it really made a difference in their perception of the Jewish community,” Mrs. Shvartsman said.
Among other Jewish cultural centers that participated in the museums’ ‘white night’ were synagogues in Nizhny Novgorod and Samara, JCC in Oryol and the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, where the visitors were equally enthusiastic.