The CIS Synagogues, Past and Present
In the Jewish Tradition, a synagogue is known by three different names.
It is a Beit Tefilla – a place of prayer. It is a place where Jews gather to express their spiritual longings – their hopes, their desires. It is a place to which Jews come for solace in times when they mourn, for reassurance when they are afraid, and to experience the joy and happiness of their Tradition.
A synagogue is also a Beit Midrash. It is a place where Jews come to learn and to be intellectually challenged. It is a place of books and of teachers, where Jews come to enrich themselves in a way appropriate for the People of the Book.
Finally, and most importantly, the synagogue is a Beit Knesset, literally, a place of gathering. It is a place to which Jews come to experience community, to share in the togetherness of an eternal people.
When the JDC first returned to the Soviet Union after an absence of several decades, we concentrated on programs and partnerships. Soon we realized the importance of buildings – the need for physical flagships that represent the focus of these emerging communities. Synagogues that had not been taken away needed to be renovated, and synagogues long ago converted to other uses had to be reclaimed.
This book documents the labors of many people to reclaim and renovate synagogues throughout the Former Soviet Union. The real challenge, though, is being met by many who are breathing new life into these buildings, to make them houses of worship and study, and places for Jews of all kinds to meet and create living, vibrant Jewish communities.
We at JDC are proud to be their partners.
Director, CIS Program
American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
“Then they would deliver the money that was weighed out to the overseers of the work, who were in charge of the House of the Lord. These, in turn, used to pay the carpenters and the laborers who worked on the House of the Lord, and the masons and stone cutters. They also paid for wood and for quarried stone with which to make the repairs on the House of the Lord, and for every other expenditure that had to be made in repairing the House.”
(Kings II, Ch. 12, 12-14
[Jewish Publication Society translation])
In Jewish history the role of the synagogue as a social institution has been a special one. Over the course of centuries public life has centered around it. The authorities often saw the synagogue as a symbol of Jewish corporate life and of Jewish separation. Thus, it is not surprising that the fate of synagogue buildings on the territory of the present Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) reflects both the role of the community in Jewish life and the policy of the ruling authorities toward the Jews.
As a result of the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century the Russian Empire gained a large number of traditional Jews and Jewish communal religious affairs came under the control of the government, from which permission had to be obtained to build or open new synagogues. Although such permission was not always granted, the number of synagogues increased nonetheless.
In the Soviet period the majority of synagogues in the USSR were closed and the Jewish population was largely alienated from those synagogues that were allowed to remain open. This, together with other factors, led to the almost total secularization of Soviet Jewry and an increase in the tempo of its assimilation. Synagogue buildings had been expropriated from religious Jews were in a state of decay either due to an intent to harm them or, more frequently, as a result of inappropriate use or lack of repairs.
With the break-up of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics into its successor states conditions were created for a revival of Jewish life and the return of synagogue buildings to revived Jewish communities. Of course, the restitution of Jewish community property that is taking place today is only partial, just as a total revival of Jewish life is hardly possible there given the mass Jewish emigration that has characterized the past decade, the demographic crisis, and the break in the transmission of Jewish tradition from generation to generation. Still, the process of restitution and reconstruction of returned synagogues has been proceeding for more than a decade, as a result of which the synagogue, as a house of prayer, as a communal institution, and as physical premises where Jewish public organizations are located, is playing an increasingly important role in the countries of the CIS.
The present work is not only a historical study. It is first of all the product of a decade of work by the author and his colleagues in restoring synagogues of the CIS to Jewish communities and in restoring these buildings. It was in the process of working at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (the Joint or the JDC) that copious material about the synagogues was collected in the form of archival documents, newspaper clippings, requests for official registration of the synagogues and the documentation related to this process, copies of legislation, official regulations, plans for the reconstruction or repair of the synagogues, blue prints and sketches of the buildings, field reports of JDC employees, correspondence relating to this whole question, minutes of seminars on the restitution of Jewish communal property, etc. In addition, an impressive photo-archive was compiled that makes it possible to follow the stages in the reconstruction of a number of synagogues. This book is enriched by this photo-archive, supplemented by photographs and post-cards from the archives of the JDC and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, the Center for Jewish Art of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the St. Petersburg Judaica Center, and the Central State Historical Archive of St. Petersburg. Additional illustrations come from the Russian Jewish Congress, the Federation of the Jewish Communities of Russia, and the personal collection of the author.
There are few serious studies of synagogues in the CIS. Those that do exist basically focus on architecture, specifically the oldest buildings located in the area of the western border of the CIS. Research on synagogues built in Russia itself during the late 19th and early 20th centuries is lacking. One can find information about these only in studies of local Jewish lore and history. It is hoped that Our Legacy: The CIS Synagogues Past and Present will help fill this gap.
In writing this work, the author concentrated on the synagogue buildings themselves and largely refrained from delving into the history of Jewish religious life in the USSR. However, it was not possible to discuss the fate of synagogues without at least briefly considering official policy toward religion in general and Judaism in particular.
In order not to repeatedly cite the same sources, the English text of the book (in contrast to the Russian original) has dispensed with footnotes. However, even the Russian text contains relatively few footnotes, especially in Part II. One reason for this is that many of the documents consulted have not yet been deposited in any archive and, thus, have no archival identification number. Furthermore, the author has often relied on his personal observations during numerous visits to the Jewish communities of the CIS.
The majority of photographs included were received by the JDC long before work commenced on this book. They were taken by JDC employees while carrying out their work or sent by Jewish communities that the JDC has been aiding to regain and repair their synagogues. For this reason, even when it is not known who took the photos, it was deemed appropriate to use them in a book that highlights JDC activity. The majority of unattributed photographs were taken by the following JDC personnel: Jonathan Rudnick, Mikhail Stavnitser, Zinovii Pozin, Dmitrii Lubavin, and the author. Thanks also go to Yulii Lifshits, Yuri Aleinikov, Sarah Levin, and Vladimir Kantor, who have been given credit in the captions to their photos.
The author wishes to express his gratitude to the regional office directors of the JDC in the CIS, who aided him in gathering material for the book; these people include Leonid Smirnov, Alex Gershtein, Yaacov Ophir, Yigal Kotler, Anat Moshe, Meir Zizov, Vladimir Glozman, Meir Even, and Joel Golovensky. The author also thanks Anna Tsaluk of the JDC’s Moscow office.
Thank also due to those who offered advice and critical comments while this work was in preparation, first of all to Prof. Benjamin Pinkus, Dr. Avraham Grinbaum, Dr. David Raskin, Dr. Viktor Kelner, Dr. Mera Sverdlova, Mr. Dan Haruv, and Mr. Misha Mitzel. Dr. Yisrael Cohen performed the double service of translating the text and editing it.
Special thanks are due to the director of the JDC’s CIS program, Asher Ostrin, for his support of this project and his introductory remarks to the book, and to Herbert Block, assistant to the executive vice-president of the JDC, for his advice. Finally, the author wishes to state that, while work on this book was done within the framework of his work at the JDC, the views expressed are his own and not necessarily coincide with those of the Joint Distribution Committee.