The Return of Synagogues


Fifteen years ago there were only about fifty synagogues in the USSR and these were “for use” for the Jewish religious communities that had no rights. Today in the Commonwealth of Independent States there are at least one hundred buildings and parts of buildings that have already been returned to the communities or are in the process of restitution. Many of these have been returned as property. Among the buildings returned are major synagogues in Odessa, Kiev, Kharkov, Dnepropetrovsk, Kirovograd, Nizhnii Novgorod, Samara, and Kazan. Many of these have already been partially renovated and some have been completely restored. The synagogues serve not only religious needs; often they are also the main Jewish centers where the city’s Jews receive social aid and cultural services.

Obviously the process of restitution is limited by the amount of Jewish communal property. If one assumed that all such property would either be returned or compensated for, then we are quite far from this. In Moldova, for example, restitution has hardly begun and in Kiev or Odessa themselves dozens of synagogues could conceivably be returned.

A recent (June 30, 2001) resolution of the government of the Russian Federation removes authority for returning synagogues from local bodies and transfers it to ministries in Moscow. Consequently, one can expect increased dependence of provincial Jewish communities on national Jewish religious organizations, whose role will grow in regard to lobbying for the restitution of community property.

As of the present time, the limits of restitution activity have been defined by the following factors:

  • There no grounds for hoping that the governments of CIS states will soon agree to pay compensation to Jewish organizations for property that is still not returned or no longer exists;
  • Except for the largest cities, CIS authorities are not inclined to return more than one building per city;
  • Buildings occupied by major functioning cultural institutions (e.g. theaters or philharmonic halls) are not being returned;
  • Many synagogue buildings are located in places where Jews no longer live and, hence, there is no one to return them to;
  • The majority of synagogues are at least one hundreds years old and many of them are in a dilapidated condition. Thus, there is no sense in trying to renovate them;
  • Thus far most of the communities have not yet made use of the returned synagogues to gain income and provide for the needs of members of the community. If this were so, there would be sense in communities fighting to regain additional buildings. However, in the CIS today it is difficult to gain a significant income from synagogue premises. Furthermore, the authorities maintain the view that synagogues are being returned for religious and communal activity, not for profit.

In the light of the above, the process of restitution will evidently gradually come to an end and the Joint’s restitution program will shift (it is, in fact, already shifting) toward the renovation and reconstruction of returned buildings where there still remains much to be done and considerable financial resources are required. Much effort is given to providing legal aid in regard to registration of Jewish communities and to correctly drawing up contracts for ownership or use of synagogues buildings.

What will be the future of returning synagogue buildings?

The future of synagogue buildings will depend on how Jewish life develops in the former Soviet Union. On the one hand, the Jews of the CIS are experiencing a profound demographic crisis. On the other hand, their economic situation is basically better than that of the surrounding population, to some extent due to the philanthropic activity of the Joint and other foreign Jewish and, sometimes, non-Jewish organizations. At present the number of Jewish organizations operating in the CIS, the print runs of Jewish newspapers and books on Jewish topics in the local languages, the proportion of the Jewish population involved in one form or another of Jewish life – all exceed the corresponding indicators for most of the countries of the Diaspora. Many Jews are discovering that it is now good to be Jewish and this strengthens their Jewish consciousness. Jewish businessmen and bankers have learned that contributing to Jewish philanthropy, including renovating synagogues, may further their own business interests. Therefore, it may well become the case that many synagogues that were restored to the Jewish community via the restitution process may well look forward to a long new life.



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22 Jul 2007 / 7 Av 5767 0