The Synagogues in the Past
The Soviet Period
The decree on the separation of church from state and school from church, issued on January 23, 1918, deprived all religious organizations of the status of a legal entity and, thus, the possibility of owning property, including synagogues and cemeteries. Following the decree, the Jewish religious communities established dvadtsatki, groups of 20, into whose care the nationalized synagogue buildings were given gratis, for use – on the condition that they not be used for any other purposes than worship. Private, i.e. individually owned, synagogues were expropriated, together with other property of their owners. Jewish schools were transferred to the authority of the People’s Commissariat (Ministry) of Education, Jewish hospitals - to the Commissariat of Public Health, and Jewish alms houses - to municipal departments that provided social services, etc.
It is important to note that, at this time, religious communities were forbidden to collect membership fees and wealthy contributors were either bankrupt due to the imposition of Soviet rule or emigrated. Hence, due to the lack of financial resources, after the Revolution old synagogues were hardly ever repaired and new were not constructed. Furthermore, many synagogues in Ukraine and Belorussia were burned, destroyed, and desecrated during military operations or the numerous pogroms of the civil war that lasted from 1918 to 1921.
During the years of the NEP (New Economic Policy, 1921-1928) there was a short period of liberalization in government policy toward religion in general and the religions of ethnic minorities in particular. In a number of large cities, like Moscow and Leningrad, to which many Jews came in search of employment, this led to an increase in the number of synagogues and prayer houses. However, in most cases, they were located in rented apartments or other premises provided by the authorities rather than in buildings, newly constructed for the purpose. An exception was the wooden synagogue of the Lubavich Hasidim built in the Marina Roshcha suburb of Moscow in 1926.
Even during the NEP synagogues were sometimes closed due to the efforts of the Yevsektsiia, the Jewish sections of the Communist Party. For example, in 1925 the famous Reform Brody Synagogue in Odessa was closed and turned into a club. At about the same time, all six synagogues on Market Square in the city of Gomel were expropriated. They were turned into a club for metal-workers, a shoe factory, a cooperative dining room, and dormitories for veterans and workers while the largest of them became the new home of the local city council. Nevertheless, in 1926 there were still 1,103 synagogues legally operating in the USSR.
The years 1928-1929, when the remnants of a market economy were liquidated, were marked by new anti-religious legislation and a government campaign aimed at the mass closure of churches and synagogues. As a rule, the closures came “at the request of workers,” i.e. following resolutions passed by personnel at factories and plants where there was open voting according to the direction of Party organizers. The press took an active part in the anti-religious campaign, referring to synagogues as clubs of businessmen and Zionists and nests for the spreading of anti-Soviet slander.
Usually, the expropriated synagogue buildings were first transformed into clubs for workers in the sewing and leather industries (where there were many Jews) and renamed after famous Russian or European revolutionaries of Jewish origin. Subsequently, the buildings were given to other organizations and all Jewish connection with them was lost. A number of choral synagogues became the homes for theaters (in Baku, Kherson, Kiev, Minsk, and later in Kishinev) or philharmonic orchestras (in Ufa and Vinnitsa). The Minsk Choral Synagogue was first transferred to the Belorussian State Jewish Theater and after World War II - to the Russian Dramatic Theater, it was then totally remodeled. Mogilev and Kharkov synagogues were converted into sports clubs and a synagogue in Tver into a police station.
Numerous appeals to high authorities from thousands of religious Jews against the closure of their synagogues rarely succeeded. Those most insistent in their appeals were put on trial and sent to prison. It sometimes happened that the authorities forced religious Jews themselves to “request” the closure of their own synagogues. For example, on February 8, 1930, a general meeting of the Kostroma Jewish religious community unanimously (!) resolved:
1. in accordance with the general lack of housing in Kostroma and the particular lack of suitable large premises for such needs as clubs, nurseries, etc. and, in a gesture toward satisfying such needs, to announce to the administrative department [of the municipality – M.B.] we voluntarily agree to give up the premises of our synagogue for cultural needs;
2. in the event that an order is issued by the local authority to close our synagogue, we shall not pursue our right to appeal within two weeks to central authorities;
3. we request that the administrative department provide us with a small premises for the fulfillment of our religious needs, if possible in the center of the city and one not in need of repairs.
The heads of the Kostroma Jewish community were able to collect enough members to pass this humiliating decision only with a second effort. Apparently, few people were willing to vote for it.
Often the process of liquidation the synagogues was initiated by local commissions for religious affairs, which received orders from above. These commissions tended to act via other institutions, such as housing associations, sanitary and fire prevention departments, and financial supervision bodies. Inspectors sent by these bodies to synagogues reported dirt, noise, the violation of technical and fire regulations, and failures of the dvadtsadka to take proper care of the property. Then, the inspectors’ reports were used as pretexts to put an end to the rental agreement regarding the synagogue. After the closing of the synagogue, members of the dvadtsatka were often fined for damage to property and, sometimes, even taken to court.
Thus, by the end of 1929, the majority of the large synagogues in the USSR - in Kiev, Odessa, Kharkov, Zhitomir, and Dnepropetrovsk – were closed. Although a decision was made in early 1930 to close the Moscow and Leningrad Choral Synagogues, a change in Stalin’s domestic policy saved the synagogues. A little later permission was given to open a synagogue in Kiev.
The next wave of repression against Jewish religious activity came in 1936-1938. This time it was accompanied by the closure of the majority of the remaining synagogues, often the last ones in their respective cities. In 1937 alone (by November 15) 29 synagogues had been closed in Ukraine, including 14 in Kiev Province and 13 in Vinnitsa Province.
This campaign of synagogue closures affected also the Caucasus and Central Asia regions. However, due perhaps to the greater religious commitment and solidarity of Georgian, Mountain, and Bukharan Jews or to the greater caution with which Soviet rule carried out its anti-religious policy in these non-Slavic regions, many synagogues there remained open. In Derbent, in 1938, Mountain Jews even succeeded in reopenning a synagogue that had been closed.
Again in the late 1930s, as in 1929, appeals and protests from religious Jews in all parts of the country were received by municipal executive committees, republic and national commissions on religious affairs, and even by Chairman of the Central Executive Committee of the USSR Mikhail Kalinin. These were mostly submitted by elderly Jews, written by hand, with grammatical mistakes and sometimes in Yiddish. They were filled with the pain and despair of people who were being deprived of their God. These petitions, sometimes with one signature, sometimes with hundreds, were sent - despite the fact that during these years synagogue activists were arrested and, sometimes, shot even without such initiatives. However, the vast majority of Soviet Jews at this time were no longer interested (or feared being interested) in matters pertaining to synagogues. Only 17.4% of them admitted to being religious in the All-Union Population Census of 1939.
In 1939 and 1940, in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the USSR occupied the Baltic states, part of Poland (known as Western Ukraine and Belorussia), Rumanian Bessarabia, and part of Bukovina. These regions contained large Jewish populations with a corresponding number of synagogues. One synagogue existed in Vyborg, on the Karelian Isthmus, that was annexed to the Soviet Union in the wake of war with Finland. Many synagogues were located in the Zakarpatskaya Oblast (the Russian Carpathians) and in Kaliningrad Oblast (formerly Western Prussia); these territories became part of the USSR following World War II.
After the beginning of the war with Germany in June 1941, some prayer houses (both legal and semi-legal) appeared in Soviet Central Asia and Siberia, regions to which Jews from Poland, the Baltics, and Bessarabia who had not had time to become sovietized were evacuated or exiled. However, almost all of these prayer houses were in rented apartments or shacks. On the territories occupied by the German armies, of course, no synagogues continued to function since those who used to pray there were annihilated by the Nazis.
Toward the end of the war, in May 1944, the Soviet government established the Council for Affairs of Religious Cults (CARC), which soon began to receive numerous requests from Jews who were returning home. The Jews wanted to receive back confiscated synagogue buildings and to open new synagogues. During the war government policy in regard to religion liberalized to some degree since Stalin desired broad support for the war effort. The resolutions of the Soviet of People’s Commissars “On the opening of prayer houses of religious cults” and “On prayer houses of religious community associations” (issued on November 19, 1944 and January 28, 1946, respectively) authorized the return of some prayer buildings to worshippers.