Presidential Visit to the Grand Choral Synagogue


President Bush, and his wife, Laura, left, leave Saint Petersburg’s Grand Choral Synagogue, Sunday, May 26, 2002, with St. Petersburg’s chief rabbi Mendel Pewzner, right, and his wife Sara, second from right. Jewish leaders welcomed Bush to St. Petersburg’s synagogue on Sunday and voiced their support for his efforts to end what they consider outdated U.S. legislation that links trade with Russia to Jewish emigration.

(AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

On the last day of President Bush’s historic Russian tour, he made a visit to the Kazan
Cathedral a Russian Orthodox church and later visited with the Chief Rabbi at the Grand Choral Synagogue in St. Petersburg. The President and First Lady Laura Bush, extended their visit to hear stories of the Synagogue’s journey since it was first built in 1893 and the great trials up until its recent reconstruction. The entrance of the Grand Choral reads Edmond J. Safra Synagogue, named after a businessman who was the victim of murder and is honored for his donations that helped with the renovation. With a local population of 4.5 million people, the Synagogue is particularly special because it is the only house of worship for Jews in the area.

When speaking on his visit, President Bush emphasized his strong belief in the freedom of religion saying, "I’m impressed by what I’ve heard from religious leaders, Christian and Jewish, here about the state of affairs in Russia… One of my strong beliefs is that people should be free to worship, and I’m pleased that that’s taking place here in Russia,"

The President said that the synagogue "is a spectacular place for people to gather and worship an Almighty God — and worship an Almighty God freely."

Avraham Berkowitz, with the Federation of Jewish Communities, talked about the change. During the Soviet era the Synagogue remained open but those who came to worship were under constant KGB surveillance and lived in fear of losing their jobs or experienced other forms of harassment.

Rabbi Menahem-Mendel Pewzner, an American who was born in Brooklyn, is the chief Rabbi at Grand Choral Synagogue, and has been for nearly a decade. Rabbi Pewzner spoke of the importance of President Bush’s visit saying, "For the Jewish community the question for many years, and especially in the last 10 years, has been, ‘Can you really be a Jew in Russia and not be afraid to practice your religion?’… And I think the answer is yes, you can. If the President comes to this synagogue, then that is a statement that things have changed."



Choral Synagogue St. Petersburg, Russia

May 26, 2002
10:49 A.M. (L)

THE PRESIDENT: Good morning, everybody.

Q Good morning, Mr. President.

THE PRESIDENT: Today we’ve had a — a beautiful morning. We’ve been to a church and a synagogue. One of the non-negotiable demands of individual dignity is freedom of religion, and I’m impressed by what I’ve heard from religious leaders, Christian and Jewish, here about the state of affairs in Russia.

We went to a cathedral that up until recently was a museum of atheism, and today it’s a place where people can worship God freely.

We’ve been to a synagogue that was, even though open, was not a welcoming sight for many Russians, and today it is a spectacular place for people to gather and worship an Almighty God — and worship an Almighty God freely.

And one of my strong beliefs is that people should be free to worship, and I’m pleased that that’s taking place here in Russia. It’s important for this country that religious freedom flourish and there be tolerance of all faiths.

And it’s been a very rewarding morning for Laura and me, and we want to thank our hosts and thank the Russian people. Last night, I was very impressed and pleased to see so many Russians lining the streets and they were so welcoming to the American delegation. We’re making great progress in our strides toward freedom — I mean, toward friendship and our mutual respect of freedom.

Thank you for your hospitality.

Q Mr. President, yesterday Pakistan went ahead with their planned missile tests.


Q Do you think that has had any impact on the situation there? And do you believe this is something they should have gone forward with at this point in time?

THE PRESIDENT: As you know, we expressed our strong reservations about the tests. Obviously, we hope that there is restraint in the area, that that not be viewed as a provocation. We’re continuing to work the diplomatic channels, as are other nations. I mean, everybody understands the danger of a serious conflict in the region. And slowly but surely we can erode the distrust that has arisen in the area so that they can —

Q Do you think the situation is as tense and dangerous there now as it was in January where, in hindsight, it appears they came very close to an armed conflict?

THE PRESIDENT: I think that any time you have countries with nuclear arms, that a tension, serious tension is dangerous. And it’s hard for me to measure the degree of tension. Let’s just say it’s tense now and it was tense then. So we’ve just got to continue to work the problem, and we will. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to defuse the situation.

Q Mr. President, are you inclined to agree with your advisors who say that we should deal with Chairman Arafat, or those who think he should be frozen out?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, you know, I get all kinds of advice. People know my opinion about Chairman Arafat, and that is that he has let the Palestinian people down.

He hasn’t delivered. He had a chance to secure the peace as a result of the hard work of President Clinton and he didn’t. He’s had a chance to fight terror and he hasn’t. Evidently, there’s a new attitude emerging among some of the leadership in the Palestinian Authority and the answer is, we’ll see. We’ll see if he can deliver.

The key for the — for peace in the region, as far as I’m concerned, is for the Arab world to continue to fight terror, to do what they say they’re going to do. We believe that that’s happening more than ever. And that we develop the institutions necessary so that a Palestinian state can emerge that will be at peace with Israel. And that start — first step is to have a security force that actually keeps the security. As well as, the reforms ought to align authority and responsibility so people can be held to account for success or failure.

Q I just want to follow up and make sure I understand what you are saying, when you’re saying that apparently there’s a new attitude in the Palestinian Authority and we’ll see. Are you —

THE PRESIDENT: Well, you’re beginning to see talk of reform. You know, if you read the press accounts, there’s — people are beginning to question out loud as to why there hasn’t been success. One of the things that we’ve been trying to do is to say people must be responsible. My speech on April 4th called upon –outlined the responsibilities necessary to achieve peace.

So I’m beginning to hear — this is publicly I’m beginning to hear, I might add, discussion about well maybe we ought to assess how to make the Palestinian Authority more accountable, and that’s what I was referring to.

Q But you’re not referring to any good words or deeds you’re seeing out of –seeing out of Arafat. So are you saying that the time has now run out on Arafat and we’re not going to deal with him? Or he’s still got a chance to do it right?

THE PRESIDENT: No, what I’m saying is that what we need to do is develop the institutions necessary for there to be a responsible Palestinian state. And it starts with security.

One of the things that’s interesting is when you talk to European leaders, there’s an interest about helping the Palestinian people, the Palestinians with economic development. But it’s hard to promote economic development when there is concerns about graft and corruption. And so there needs to be– there needs to be institutions that will be transparent, institutions that will hold people responsible for the expenditure of money, institutions necessary to make sure that the good hearts of the world, when they apply to the Palestinian people, will be met with good results.

Q Can I follow on Ron’s question?

Q Sir —

Q Is Director Tenet going back to the region this coming week?

THE PRESIDENT: You’ve had a big day today, Stretch — three questions.

Q It’s because he’s taller, you know.

Q That’s a pool, because we all want to ask that one, though.

THE PRESIDENT: He’s also booming. He’s also booming out there with his question, butting in. No — anyway — (laughter.)

Q My apologies to Patsy.

THE PRESIDENT: Poor Patsy, here she is trying to be dignified —

Q That was my question anyway.

THE PRESIDENT: It was your question?

Q Yes, I was trying to be dignified.

THE PRESIDENT: Well, would you like to ask it, so you can —

Q Sir, is Director Tenet going back to the region next week?(Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: As you know, I expressed — I said that I was going to send Director Tenet back to the region. I haven’t changed my mind.

Q Next week?

Q — the role of Russia on the Middle East question?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, President Putin has been very helpful. And he’s been helpful because he has — he has insisted that there be accountability and responsibility in the region, and he has been a — he makes it very clear that the Russian government is — rejects any kind of terrorist activities that disrupts the peace process in a very strong voice for reason and for reasonable policy, and I appreciate that a lot.

Thank you all.

Q This week for Director Tenet?

THE PRESIDENT: See you in France.

Q Thank you, Mr. President.

END 10:58 A.M. (L)