Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Late Stage MBA/Josh Moritz/One Russian Assignment Completed

It is interesting to go to a city that people wanted to leave during the reign of the Soviets, but which is now becoming a magnet for tourists, entrepreneurs and even Russian Jews who have become disillusioned with Israel, the United States and other parts of the world. According to sources, nearly 100,000 Jews have returned to St. Petersburg in the last few years. Time does change habits.

During the week of March 15, 2010, I attended classes at St. Petersburg State Graduate School of Management (GSOM) with my MBA and undergraduate classmates from Babson College, located in Wellesley, MA. During a break, I made a visit to the Grand Choral Synagogue in St. Petersburg, Russia, which was renovated in the early 2000’s through a generous donation from the Safra family. It is the only synagogue in St. Petersburg, Russia today and the largest in Europe. Like so many synagogues founded in the late 1800’s under the Tsars, it was closed by the communists until their fall.

For me, seeing the synagogue was mandatory.

My first date with my wife was a rally to free Soviet Jews held November 1987 on the Mall in Washington, DC. It was one of the final rallies before the fall of the Soviet Union, a culmination of at least some that I helped organize and many that I attended as a high school student, undergraduate and young adult in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Although that Washington, DC rally is now somewhat a blur, the date is not, having spent about 6 hours talking on the drive down and back, and then drinking coffee with my future wife Jane and our friend Johanna Skilling at Dupont circle after doing our chanting and cheering at the rally.

Emigrating from the Soviet Union required a lot of creativity before the fall of the Soviets. For example, I was approached in 1979 by a young woman asking that I marry her sister who was living in Moscow so she could emigrate to the United States as my wife. While not a wide spread practice amongst American and Soviet Jews, marriages did take place, although I respectfully declined the opportunity.

These emigration marriages also generated some interest amongst the non-Jews of St. Petersburg. During a lunch break at St. Petersburg State, I was relating my Soviet marriage proposal to one of the graduate students, Olga, from GSOM. Although only 22, Olga related to me that her father, who is not Jewish, used to call these marriages “Jewish Transportation.”

Hardly an anti-semetic remark, it probably reflected more of the desire of everyone who wanted to leave a country where it was hard to make a living under a repressive society. I hope to interview Olga’s father more on the comment at a later date.

Once inside, I was greeted in a fashion that was as much New York as it was St. Petersburg. When I tried to explain to the receptionist that I did not speak Russian, she just yelled louder. Made me feel like I had just entered the YMHA on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in 1981; the way to communicate seemed to be the more confused you looked, the louder the explanation got.

While the synagogue from the outside might be mistaken for one of the Greek Orthodox Churches dotting St. Petersburg, its copula is barren of a cross or even a Star of David. On the inside, it looks like many Moorish or Sephardic Synagogues you might find in New York City with a pulpit in the middle and an ark upfront. Simple in design, lacking in mosaics or art, in many ways it reminds me of the B’nai Jeshuran Synagogue in NY, a place my family belonged to about 10 years ago.

While I did not stay for services, I donated a few rubles, not out of a sense of guilt, but out of amazement that at least one assignment from youth is finally completed.