The basic policy of the JDC, which at this time was beginning to expand its activity in the countries of the CIS, was not to invest money in “bricks and mortar” but rather in “people and programs.” This approach was appropriate in regard to the Soviet Union, where the right of private property was not guaranteed. However, when the restitution of synagogues became possible in the CIS, the JDC decided to change tactic and support this process.
One of the main goals of JDC activity in the CIS has been to assist in the revival of Jewish life, partially via the establishment of community centers. At this time the social, cultural, and religious centers that sprung up one after the other had to either rent premises or be satisfied with cramped and inappropriate quarters allocated for their activities by local authorities. Rent was expensive and placed a heavy burden on the budgets of the still weak communities. Furthermore, it made no sense to seriously renovate rented premises since the owners could at any moment refuse to extend the rentals. In such circumstances, the restitution of synagogue buildings offered a real solution to the problem by providing Jewish organizations with their own spacious premises in the center of the city and, thus, significantly, hasten the process of community-building.
In 1991, following a decision by Michael Schneider, executive vice-president of the JDC, in consultation with Asher Ostrin, the JDC’s CIS director, a program of support was inaugurated for restitution activity in the CIS. At the JDC’s New York headquarters the program was supervised first by Gideon Taylor and, from 1999, by Herbert Block. In Jerusalem, in the Russian division, this program was coordinated first by Diana Shimoni, followed by Jeremy Shine, Jonathan Rudnik, and again by Diana Shimoni; since 1997, it has been coordinated by Michael Beizer. The latter participated in the program from its inception as a consultant. In the CIS itself the program has been implemented by the JDC’s regional offices, with the assistance of local specialists: the lawyers: Vladimir Maslov (Odessa), Aleksei Durasov (Ekaterinburg), and Elvira Lubavina (Nizhnii Novgorod): the construction engineers and architects: Mikhail Stavnitser (Kiev), Anatolii Shveld (Zaporozhie), Natalya Bass (Samara), Zinoviii Pozin (Minsk), Moisei Danielashvili (Tbilisi), Zoya Kagarmanova (Ekaterinburg), Dmitrii Lubavin (Nizhnii Novgorod), and the historian of architecture Iulii Lifshits (Kiev). Many other engineers, architects, lawyers, and historians served as occasional consultants to the restitution program. The launching of the restitution program signaled a 180-degree change in the policy of the JDC, which would now spend money on “bricks” also.
In view of the facts, that information about Jewish prayer houses and synagogues had never been complete and that many of them had been either located in rented premises or did not survive, at best one might have hoped that there remained in the former Soviet Union perhaps one thousand synagogue buildings that could be located and whose past ownership by Jewish communities be legally proven. Of course, the return of these synagogues would be useful only if their condition was not too dilapidated and local Jewish communities had resources to maintain and use them. Apparently, less than half of the surviving synagogues satisfied these requirements, especially since they were often located in small towns of the former “Pale of Settlement” where hardly any Jews remained.
Within the framework of the restitution program, first Michael Beizer and then the communities themselves began to collect archival and other historical materials relating to confiscated Jewish communal property, particularly synagogues. At the same time, an investigation was carried out to learn whether these buildings had survived and to determine the current addresses of those that did exist. By the end of 1993, 52 existing synagogues that qualified for possible restitution were located.
However, the finding of such properties was not sufficient. Something else was needed: the local Jewish leaders had to be prepared to fight for them. Here one encountered the fear of confronting the authorities that was deeply entrenched in former Soviet citizens. Furthermore, only religious organizations could claim the return of synagogues and, in such organizations initially there was a lack of charismatic figures capable of leading restitution activity.
The JDC had to convince community leaders of the possibility of success. It also had to teach them about the procedures for regaining the property, while simultaneously providing them with archival, legal, and engineering aid at every step of the process. The JDC also undertook to help communities with financing the repair and reconstruction of returned synagogues. In time other sources of financing also appeared.
Since, as noted above, by law synagogue buildings could be returned only to religious associations, in order to gain synagogue premises secular Jewish groups had to set up Jewish religious communities even if there were few religious Jews in their areas.
If the registration of a community was not carried out properly, the community might have to pay a heavy price for it. This happened in Gomel, where the authorities exploited mistakes in the registration of the community to force the community to buy the building that had been returned to it eight years previously. In this case, since the community lacked the necessary funds, the JDC bore the expenses.
As a result of restitution activity in Russia, in 1991 synagogues were returned in Moscow (on Bolshaya Bronnaya St.), Nizhnii Novgorod, Penza, Irkutsk (the ground floor of an already operating synagogue was returned); in 1992 – in Chelyabinsk, Omsk, and Samara; in 1993 – in Perm and Tyumen. In Ukraine in 1991 synagogues were returned to Jewish communities in Dragobych, Kirovograd, Nikolaev, and Vinnitsa; in 1992 – in Ivano-Frankovsk, and Nikolaev (a second synagogue), Odessa (on Malaya Arnautskaya St.), Shepetovka and Zhitomir; in 1993 – in Belgorod Dnestrovsky and Odessa (a second synagogue, on Osipova St.)
In spite of the non-binding formulation of the law in Belarus, several former synagogues were handed back to Jewish communities. In 1992 a former synagogue was returned in Gomel. In December 1993, the executive committee of Grodno ordered that the large building of a synagogue be transferred for the use of the local Jewish religious association (it was handed over on January 1, 1994), while earlier, in September 1993, the Pinsk city executive committee made a similar decision in regard to a one-storey building in a former suburb of Pinsk, Karlin, where the earliest Belorussian Hasidism had originated. In the capital of Belarus, Minsk, in 1994 the Jewish Religious Association of the Republic received a separate complex of three buildings on Dauman St., which had not been Jewish property. This was in exchange for a small decrepit building of a synagogue that had existed on Kropotkin St., and for relinquishing claims to two other surviving synagogue buildings in the city. Subsequently, in 1998, the building of the synagogue on Kropotkin St. was handed over to the local Habad community.