New JCC springs to life in St. Petersburg

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What just seven years ago was unthinkable has taken shape in two adjoining apartments in St. Petersburg.

Earlier this fall, what is believed to be the first Jewish community center in the former Soviet Union opened its doors in the Russian city that under Communist rule was called Leningrad.

Now, for the first time since the fall of Communism, St. Petersburg's 100,000 Jews have a communal home.

"This is to be a central address for the Jews of St. Petersburg," said Eva Seligman-Kennard, assistant director of the Bay Area Council of Jewish Rescue and Renewal in San Francisco, which helped purchase the apartments.

Seligman-Kennard said it is hoped the new JCC will be a place "where people feel the strength of the community, the unity of the community."

Unlike many American JCCs, which serve primarily as recreational and cultural centers, this Russian JCC is likely to become the hub of St. Petersburg Jewish life, housing everything from Jewish organizations to a nursery school, child-care programs and Jewish publications, she said.

Previously, Jewish organizations in the Russian city lacked permanent homes, and were subject to soaring rents due to the enormous cost of living increases throughout Russia.

The BACJRR bought the adjacent apartments that house the new center together with the Jewish Association of St. Petersburg and the Joint Distribution Committee. The apartments — which cost $95,000 in total — are located in a central and safe location of the city, said Seligman-Kennard.

One of the apartments was previously leased by the BACJRR to house the organization's Harold Light Jewish Center on Human Rights, the Jewish Association of St. Petersburg and Ami, St. Petersburg's biweekly Jewish newspaper.

That apartment, as well the second apartment, is currently being remodeled to better suit the new JCC's needs.

Despite the remodeling, however, the St. Petersburg Jewish community has already started to partake of the center's offerings, which include excursions of Jewish St. Petersburg, adult education classes, a woman's club, a student video club and a debate club.

Meanwhile, for the BACJRR, support of the St. Petersburg JCC is a continuation of a six-year relationship with the St. Petersburg Jewish community that was established through the Yad L'Yad (Hebrew for "hand to hand") program.

That program, which the national umbrella organization of councils for Soviet Jews initiated, enables Jewish communities in the United States to "twin" with cities in the former Soviet Union.

San Francisco and St. Petersburg have become partners, enabling the Jewish community here to financially support a number of Jewish projects in St. Petersburg; share knowledge in such areas as education, technology and community relations; and establish an ongoing correspondence with the city's Jewish residents.

The new JCC, says the BACJRR, is by far the biggest undertaking in that relationship.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.