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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reviving Judaism in St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG -- On a cool day in the Jewish cemetery, a young man with a beard and a skullcap quietly sings a psalm in Hebrew at the grave of his great grandfather.

A breeze sighs among the crowded tombstones as if history itself were trying to respond to Zalmen Lazaroff's prayer.

But the family history of this Texan is locked away in KGB archives, which hold the story of his great grandfather, Shimon Lazaroff, the former head of Russia's Hasidic Jews who died in 1933 after release from Stalin's camps.

Zalmen, 19, has been petitioning the former KGB for a year to receive the files, which include pictures and interrogation transcripts of one of the most important Jews in the Soviet Union during the 1930s.

"I want to know what they took him away for, what they interrogated him about," said Lazaroff, a fluent Hebrew and Yiddish speaker whose English is a mix of Texas drawl and Brooklynese. "If I get the files, maybe I'll find out why he died."

As Lazaroff waits for Russian bureaucrats to open his past, he and other Lubavitch Jews are patiently building the future of St. Petersburg's orthodox Jewish community.

The gulag, persecution, emigration -- everything that resulted from 70 years of anti-Semitism -- eroded whatever Jewish identity had developed under the tsars.

"Jews here have been through a spiritual holocaust," said Rabbi Mendel Pewzner, 25, a Lubavitcher from Brooklyn, in his office in the choral synagogue, the center for rebuilding St. Petersburg's 120,000-strong Jewish community. "Lubavitch encourages us to go out and help other Jews, it's a great challenge."

One sign of a successful start is more than 60 circumcisions performed, mainly on adults, since June. Another is the boys in black garb rocking back and forth in the synagogue over Hebrew texts. And soon Pewzner hopes to increase their matzo bakery's output to export the ceremonial bread to Eastern Europe.

The only city to have been visited by all seven Lubavitch rabbis -- spiritual leaders chosen for their devotion and scholarliness -- St. Petersburg is the quasi-historical capital of the Lubavitch movement, a Hasidic Jewish sect founded in 18th-century Belarus and now headquartered in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

But despite having the second largest synagogue in Europe, St. Petersburg's Jews remain among Russia's most secular, a tradition inherited from pre-revolutionary times when wealth and assimilation with Russian culture set them apart from other Russian Jews.

Jews have been in St. Petersburg since its founding. Peter the Great's favorite court jester was a converted Jew. But only in the late 19th century were Jews -- merchants, craftsmen and the college educated -- allowed to live in Russia's imperial capital.

Pewzner said that during the communist period, Jews suffered especially from truncation from the world Jewish community. Consequently, most Jews here have no idea about what it means to be Jewish. "They're not even at the state yet where they're looking for identity," Pewzner said.

To speed this process, Lubavitchers have launched religious programs for all age groups. After learning about their heritage, however, many Jews take off for the United States or Israel. Although emigration has slowed from flood levels in 1990, many decide life will be better -- or at least more predictable -- outside Russia.

But Pewzner said the Jewish community is still sizable in St. Petersburg. "The fact is, there will always be a lot of Jews here," Pewzner said. "Even if we were left with only 20,000 Jews in the city, that would be bigger than most Jewish communities in the United States."