According to incomplete information of the Central Statistics Committee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Russia, in 1904 there were 1,962 synagogues and Jewish houses of prayer in the cities and towns of the Russian Empire, excluding the Kingdom of Poland and Karsk Province (the latter now is a part of Turkey). However, these figures do not include information about 32 cities, including St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Riga, where there were, of course, a number of synagogues. The vast majority of synagogues, naturally, were located where a large majority of Jews lived, that is in the provinces of the “Pale of Settlement.” Thus, for example, in Kiev Guberniia (Province) there is information about 216 synagogues and prayer houses, and in other provinces as follows:
Volynia – 194, Vitebsk – 189, Podolia – 168, Mogilev – 161, Vilno – 139, Bessarabia – 114, Minsk – 103, Poltava – 95, Kherson – 92, Grodno – 68, Chernigov – 57, Kovno – 55, Tauria – 54, Courland – 43, and Ekaterinoslav – 31.
Among the synagogues there were many old remarkable ones, for example, the Great Vilno Synagogue (built in 1635), the Lutsk Synagogue (the first third of the 17th century), the Great Vitebsk Synagogue (the early 19th century), the Main Odessa Synagogue (1850), etc. Already in 1904 there were synagogues, or at least prayer houses, in the majority of the towns of the Russian hinterland (including such “purely Russian” locations such as Rybinsk, Tambov, and Velikie Luki) and in remote ones like Krasnoyarsk and Tomsk. In Irkutsk Guberniia alone there were five synagogues.
The lack of a clear distinction between “synagogues” and “prayer houses” made an accurate count difficult, not to mention the fact that many of them were not registered though this was legally required, due to legal or bureaucratic obstacles that the communities faced when they tried to register them. For example, according to the Russian Building Code, cities with up to thirty Jewish households could have only a molitvennaia shkola (“prayer house,” the Russian term used for the Hebrew beit-midrash), while cities with between thirty and eighty Jewish households could have a synagogue. While in the Pale of Settlement it was sufficient to obtain permission to build a new synagogue from the local authorities, to build one in Nizhnii Novgorod or Kazan permission was also required from the department of foreign (i.e. non-Russian Orthodox) religions of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in St. Petersburg. Such permission depended not only on fulfilling the letter of the law but also on the fluctuations of government domestic policy regarding its Jews. As is well known, this policy was more often hostile than tolerant.
According to current legislation, synagogues were not allowed to be located close to churches nor could they be so resplendent as to overshadow nearby Christian edifices. Thus, for example, approval for the design and location for the building of the St. Petersburg Choral Synagogue (opened in 1893) took several years. The community did not receive approval for their chosen building site in the center of the city since it was considered too visible, while the original plan of the synagogue had to be redrafted since it was considered too ornate.
In Nizhnii Novgorod the authorities for a long time refused to grant permission for the construction of the Choral Synagogue. As a result, the Jewish community decided on a ruse. After the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by revolutionaries in 1881, the community requested permission from the governor-general to construct a chapel in memory of the Tsar “as part of a planned synagogue.” The governor felt compelled to hand on the request to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. When Ministry officials in St. Petersburg gave permission for the construction of the chapel, they de facto gave permission to construct a synagogue, which was completed in 1884.
On more than one occasion assaults were made on the synagogue. Thus, in June 1892 the new Moscow governor general, the Grand Prince Sergei Alexandrovich ordered the Moscow Choral Synagogue that had been finished the previous year to be closed, its large cupola crowned with a star of David removed, and the building either given over to another Jewish communal institution or sold. At the same time nine of the fourteen Jewish prayer houses in Moscow were closed. Moscow’s Choral Synagogue was reopened only on June 1, 1906.
After 1905, when it had become easier to receive permission to build synagogues, there was a building boom. The number of synagogues and prayer houses increased by a factor of one and a half in the course of five years. In 1910 in the Russian Empire (minus the Kingdom of Poland and Karsk Province) there were 529 officially registered synagogues and 2,240 prayer houses; a large majority, 378 or 71.5% of the synagogues and 2,024 or 90.4% of the prayer houses, were located in the Pale of Settlement. On the territory of present-day Ukraine there were 1,298 synagogues and prayer houses, in Belarus – 746, Lithuania – 271, Russia – 271, Moldova – 87, in Latvia – 73, Georgia – 17, Azerbaijan – 13, Estonia – 3, Armenia – 1, and in the republics of Central Asia – 24.
Starting in the second half of the 19th century, with the spread of the Haskalah (enlightenment) among Jews in Russia and the rise of a Jewish financial-industrial elite, in the large cities large synagogue buildings began to be built in the West European style, with two-storey halls for a thousand worshippers or more, a women’s gallery, and, often, a special balcony for a choir. “Choral synagogues” were built in Odessa, Berdichev, St. Petersburg, Vilno, Moscow, Ekaterinoslav (now Dnepropetrovsk), Elisavetgrad (Kirovograd), Nizhnii Novgorod, Samara, Minsk, Kiev, Kharkov, Baku, and other cities. By the beginning of World War I, almost every large town in the Russian Empire could boast of at least one large, imposing synagogue.
Some scholars believe that the proliferation of large, beautiful synagogues indicated a decline in the religiosity of a certain part of the Jewish population which, allegedly, was interested not in the essence of religion but in external appearances and the prestige that accrued to luxurious synagogues. Such edifices were filled only on major holidays because a considerable part of the community’s members ceased attending synagogue even on the Sabbath.
However, the vast majority of synagogues in towns or shtetlech of the Pale of Settlement inhabited by traditional Jews were small, often wooden structures of unimposing architecture. Such buildings had little chance of surviving in the brutal 20th century, which did not spare the residents of those shtetlech either.
In the provinces of the Pale of Settlement, as a rule, synagogues were the property of the Jewish religious communities, which were formally disbanded in 1844, but actually continued to exist in one form or another under the guise of religious or philanthropic organizations. Outside the Pale, every synagogue had an elected governing board, to which the synagogue building belonged. Some synagogues were located in rented premises or in the homes of private persons: these, of course, were not property of the community.
In the large cities synagogues were not the only communal property. Sometimes the community or Jewish public organizations owned the premises of yeshivot, Talmud-Torahs, professional and other schools, hospitals, welfare societies, almshouses, orphanages, etc. Thus, for example, Odessa, Kiev, and Berdichev had Jewish hospitals. The mutual aid association of Jewish salesmen of Odessa had its own building, as did the local Jewish trades school of the Trud association. In St. Petersburg the Association for the Spread of Enlightenment among the Jews in Russia had its vocational schools for girls and boys located in a communal building. The St. Petersburg Jewish orphanage and almshouse had buildings of their own. Nevertheless, synagogues comprised the main property of the Jewish community.
For Russian, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, and Bessarabian Jews the synagogue was not only a place for worship. There was usually also a beit-midrash (study hall) there. Poor yeshiva students often slept in the synagogue. On Shabbat and holidays festive meals took place in the synagogue. Aid to the poor was sometimes also distributed on the synagogue premises. The community also met there to discuss regular problems. Jews often had no other place beside the synagogue to teach and study, and to hold various kinds of meetings.
It is hardly surprising that, when political parties appeared in Russia, the synagogue also began to be used for party gatherings and political meetings, first by the Zionists and then also by the socialists. During the revolutionary period 1905-1907 revolutionary youth would occasionally interrupt services, armed with sticks and revolvers, hand out leaflets and call on worshippers to disobey the government. On Yom Kippur in Vilno young Bundists pushed their way into the Large Synagogue and began eating bread and drinking beer in front of the shocked worshippers. In Odessa an anarchist threw a grenade into a synagogue full of people since he considered them “bourgeois.”
World War I saw hundreds of thousands of Russian Jews driven from their homes. Some of them were expelled from combat areas on the unjustified grounds that they were spying for the enemy; others fled before the onslaught of the German and Austro-Hungarian armies. In the towns of central and eastern Russia where refugees began to arrive, the local communities offered them temporary shelter in their synagogues.
Since most of the Pale of Settlement was quickly occupied by the Germans and Austrians, in 1915 the Russian government allowed Jews to temporarily reside outside the Pale. Existing synagogues there could not encompass all the newcomers. Furthermore, the refugees were less assimilated and more religious than the local Jews and, thus, wanted to pray separately. As a result many new synagogues were built within Russia proper.