From the vantage point of Natan Sharansky, the former Russian refusenik now an Israeli Cabinet Minister, Jewish life in S. Petersburg is looking dramatically different these days. One of hundreds attending the groundbreaking ceremony of the proposed new home of S Petersburg Jewish Day School, part of the Or Avner School Network, in S. Petersburg last week, Sharansky addressed the crowd, recalling his days in communist Russia.
“To see a city where Jewish education was once a capital crime now home to a magnificent institution such as this, is to witness a miracle,” he said.
Founded in 1996 by Rabbi Mendel and Sara Pewzner, Chabad emissaries to S. Petersburg, the S. Petersburg Jewish Day School has grown from its initial 40 students to 200 with no signs of registration slowing down.
Operating in cramped quarters and bursting at the seams in recent years, the school was granted its new site, a former public school partially destroyed by an interior fire several years ago, by city officials, with the
stipulation that they undertake to restore it. Current plans call for renovating the structure to include modern, airy classrooms, state-of-the-art equipment, a gym, library, and small synagogue. Upon completion, the 4,000 square meter facility, near Petersburg’s city center, will enable the school to accommodate an additional 200-300 students. It will be an ideal home for a Jewish Educational Complex serving the needs of the city’s large Jewish population, says Rabbi Mendel Pewzner, who serves as S. Petersburg’s Chief Rabbi.
But there’s a lot to be done first. Last week’s groundbreaking ceremony, attended by some 500 people, including figures like Mr. Lev Leviev, benefactor of the Or Avner Network and president of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the CIS, Russia’s Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar, Mr. Shaya Boymelgreen of New York, and Sharansky, who was in town for S. Petersburg’s Israel Day, kicked off the 2 million dollar campaign for the building’s restoration.
It was also a time to give thanks. In a touching highlight of the ceremony, Yanna Yachimova, a student at S. Petersburg Jewish Day School, presented a diary of her experiences at the school to Mr. Leviev in appreciation of his support. “Here is where I learned to be Jewish,” she told him, “I learned about the holidays, and Jewish life, and Hebrew. Thank you for giving me this opportunity.”
It was a historic moment for S. Petersburg, observes Mrs. Sara Pewzner,director of Jewish studies and the driving force behind the developement of the school, as Rabbis and dignitaries laid the symbolic first stone for the reconstruction of the building. Designed to educate S. Petersburg’s next generation of committed Jews, this building is more than a structure, she says, “it’s a guarantee for our future.”