Jewish St. Petersburg

Anyone who has read or seen the cinematic adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, a tale of Jewish ancestral detective work that creatively weaves through multiple generations, cannot help but..

Anyone who has read or seen the cinematic adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything Is Illuminated, a tale of Jewish ancestral detective work that creatively weaves through multiple generations, cannot help but recall those hilarious moments when the main character (also named Jonathan) navigates rural Ukraine in a miniscule car with his translator, a smelly dog, and a blind old man who happens to be the driver.

Like Jonathan, many of us yearn to uncover the lost stories of our Jewish heritage in distant lands, to trace the footsteps of our ancestors, to inhabit the space where they once stood.  But unlike Jonathan, we choose not to travel in unsafe and uncomfortable conditions.

Sophia Kulich, a Ukrainian-born travel consultant who lives in Palm Harbor, Florida, has just the solution.  Sophia owns and operates a niche, one-of-a-kind travel agency specializing in Jewish heritage tours.

While Kulich is a well-seasoned veteran of all-things-travel, her true passion is customizing tours for individuals, families, and groups wishing to personally experience their Jewish ancestors’ cultural and physical landscapes.  Working with a network of expert in-country guides and local tour operators, Kulich is able to conduct family-specific research, providing an unparalleled customizable experience for this type of travel.  Recently she was able to help a group of clients find the Ukrainian family who hid and saved their mother from the Nazis in a Ukrainian village.  Needless to say, it was an emotionally powerful encounter.

Kulich’s Jewish heritage tours include, but are not limited to, countries throughout Western, Central and Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Morocco, Turkey, Russia, and the former Soviet Union. In addition, she provides kosher private tours and trips to countries with notable Jewish immigrant populations such as Peru, Argentina, South Africa, and China. Each tour has its own itinerary with room for customization.  This article about Jewish St. Petersburg is the first in a series of countries important to Jewish culture, all of which hold a wide array of travel opportunities for exploring both the past and present.


St. Petersburg, the Northern Capital of Russia, is the most European-like city in the country and one of the world’s largest cultural centers. The city is well-known for its unique historical monuments, unmatched as architectural ensembles.

St. Petersburg’s exceptionally rich past is inseparably linked with the heritage of Jewish people. The late 18th century marks a significant turning point in Russian Jewish history, when many Jews left their small towns, known as shtetls, and came to St. Petersburg, the Czarist capital.

As Russia’s  Jews became better educated, attained greater prosperity, and moved closer to the to highest Russian authorities in their socioeconomic status, their influence was felt even among their brethren who still lived in the poor shtetls along Imperial Russia’s Western border.. St. Petersburg became the center for Jewish publications, organizations, and social services that had an impact far beyond the boundaries of the city. This was an era of great flourishing in the cultural life of St. Petersburg’s Jews, in Hebrew writing, in Jewish ethnography and history, in drama, art and music.

Out of this community came such creative luminaries as Simon Dubnov, Marc Chagall, Yasha Heifetz, Osip Mandelstam, and Isaak Babel. By the late 19th- and early 20th centuries, the small community of Jews, once temporarily living in St. Petersburg, had transformed into a permanent culture enriched by political and social traditions.  Not only was St. Petersburg the nucleus of Jewish life in Russia, a dauntingly large country, but it had become an internationally significant center of Jewish life.

St. Petersburg saw the creation of international Jewish organizations and the organization of Zionist congresses attended by the most famous Jewish political figures. Chabad-Lubavitch, an important movement in Orthodox Judaism, has many of its roots in St. Petersburg’s spirited and socially-active turn-of-the-century atmosphere.


The Big Choral Synagogue is an architectural monument of importance to all of Russia. The Synagogue complex includes the Grand Choral Synagogue, the Small Synagogue, the Wedding Chapel with the first Community museum, a kosher restaurant, a shop, and a Mikvah. Being the only synagogue in the city, the Choral Synagogue has become the center around which Jewish life in Saint-Petersburg takes place.

Today the Grand Choral Synagogue is not only a magnificent monument of architecture, but also the “a pulsing heart” of the Jewish community. Many Jewish organizations are concentrated around the synagogue.  It doubles as the visiting center for different people wishing to get acquainted with the Jewish tradition, religion, culture, food or simply to receive encouragement or wise advice from a rabbi.

The exhibition at the Russian Museum of Ethnography, “History and Culture of the Jewish People on the Territory of Russia,” traces the Jewish culture’s history, from the epoch of biblical Patriarchs to the period when Jews lived within the Pale of Settlement, a term used to describe Imperial Russia’s Western border region that was once populated with poor shtetls.

At the opening ceremony, Mikhail Shvydkoy, the Director of the Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography, stated that “The new exhibition is one of the stages of establishment of a full-scaled museum of Jewish culture.” The Jewish Memorial Cemetery in St. Petersburg was opened in 1875 as a Jewish section of the Preobrazhenskoe Cemetery.  Its complex of buildings became the spiritual and cultural centre of the St.Petersburg Jewish community. The wooden worship house for cleansing and burial services was reconstructed in stone in 1908. Inscribed on old tombs, one can find an array of Jewish symbolism: the Star of David, Kohen`s hands, menorahs, Torah scrolls, tables of the covenant, and the tree of lament. Many of the monuments were designed by famous architects. The so-called Holy Brotherhood was in charge of burials, ensuring that all burial practices abided by special rules.  The cemetery had a permanent supervisor (Shamash) and an architect. Among those buried here are railway entrepreneur and public figure S.S.Polyakov, publisher D.G. Ginzburg, sculptor M.M.Antokolsky, and historian M.S.Altman.

Sailors of the Baltic Fleet, which perished during the Great Patriotic War, and citizens who died in the Siege of Leningrad are honored. Kolomna quarter used to be a thriving Jewish neighborhood and was once home to Salman Rubashov. Here you will find important educational centers such as Conservatoire, founded by Anton Rubenstein, State University, the Academy of Arts, all of which were attended by many Jewish students and served as Jewish cultural focal points.


Сhoral Concerts are performed  by Gregory Yakerson and the male choir of the Grand Choral   Synagogue. The repertoire of Mr Yakerson includes many  Jewish folk songs, professional vocal music written by Jewish composers, and Judaic-Baroque music. Since 1995, a popular ensemble of Klezmer musicians has performed at the St. Petersburg Jewish Community Center.  They perform chazzanut, folk songs, and of course,klezmer musik. The music salon at the Samoilov Family Museum. was opened in St.Petersburg in 1994. A small concert hall revives the musical traditions of the Samoilov house, where regular musical soirees with celebrity guests were once held.

For more information and reservation, contact : Sophia Kulich, Jewish Travel Agency, 727-254-4373, 877-466-2934

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