Belarus

According to the estimates of Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola's “World Jewish Population, 2016,” Belarus, a historically important center of Jewish learning in eastern Europe, is home to between 10,400 and 25,000 Jews. Despite being able to practice Jewish religious and cultural life freely, manifestations of anti-Semitism have been a cause of concern for the Jews in Belarus. The Jewish community in Belarus is represented by the Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Associations and Communities – the Belarusian affiliate of the World Jewish Congress.

WJC Affiliate

Union of Belarusian Jewish Organizations and Communities

Telephone: + 375 17 286 79 33
Fax: + 375 17 286 79 33

Website: beljews.org
President: Vladimir Chernitsky


Community News


History

The presence of Jews in Belarus can be traced back to the 14th century, when what was then called Belorussia was a region of Poland-Lithuania, and Grand Price Vytautas of Lithuania allowed Jews into the region. In addition, some Jewish merchants traveling between Poland and Russia, settled in Belorussia. Jewish settlement there was interrupted briefly at the end of the 15th century when the Jews living in Bellorussia were expelled, but they were allowed back into the region in 1503.

With the establishment of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the 16th century, Belorussia became a part of this federation. As a result, the majority of Jews in Belorussia were members of the Lithuanian Jewish communal representative body during the period. Jewish life in Belorussia was somewhat harsh, as many Christian citizens of the region tried to dissuade Jews from settling in the region. Measures that prohibited Jews from certain jobs and from building synagogues were implemented in different areas of the region, and in some cases, Jewish communities in Belorussia were physically attacked. Nevertheless, the Jewish population in the region continued to grow.

With the establishment of yeshivas in Brest and Grodno in the 16th century and one in Minsk in the late 17th century, the region became influential in the field of Jewish learning. It was not, however, until the partitions of Poland in 1795, as the result of which Belorussia became part of the Russian Empire, that Belorussian Jews began to take part in broader Russian society. Under Russian rule, Jews were able to find better jobs than those afforded to them in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

However, Belarusian, Russian, Lithuanian, and Ukrainian Jews were later forced to live in the Pale of Settlement, as Tsarina Catherine the Great wanted to limit the influence of Jewish mercantilism and appease non-Jewish merchants in the region. In the Pale of Settlement, poverty and destitution were rampant, though Jewish intellectual life continued to prosper. The mid-1800s saw the Haskalah enter Belorussian Jewish life and greatly influence the community. Hasidism also became influential among Jews in the region.

The Belorussian Jewish population continued to increase throughout the 19thcentury, and by 1897, the Jewish population in the region was so large that many Belarusian cities, including Minsk, were inhabited by a majority of Jews. However, the overall abysmal economic conditions of Jews in Belorussia during this period could not be ignored, and many Jews in the region began emigrating at the century’s end. Many of those who remained became Zionists, while others joined the socialist Bund movement, which strived for social equality for Jews.

Cooperation between these organizations saw the creation of small Jewish armies to combat pogroms and defend Jewish communities in the region against violence – this was particularly the case during the Russian Revolution of 1905. During World War I, Beoarussian Jews experienced violence conducted by the Russian and Polish armies. Having been expelled from western Belorussia due to it being in a combat zone, Belorussian Jews found themselves on the border between Poland and Russia and accused of spying for both countries. The Polish army attacked Jewish communities closer to the Polish side of the border, while the Russian army massacred those under their control.

Following the 1917 Revolution, more Jews joined radical political parties. Belorussian Jews cautiously supported the new Bolshevik regime, believing that it was a better alternative than a potentially more reactionary government. The Bund slowly began to espouse support for the Bolsheviks and other Jewish organizations in Belorussia began to follow suit. In 1921, the Treaty of Riga divided Belorussia between Poland and the Soviet Union and Jewish life in the country became somewhat stable. Many Jews in the region worked in trade or white-collar occupations in the city, and Yiddish was recognized as an official language.

However, the Soviet leadership heightened its campaign against religion and conducted a mass closure of synagogues in Belorussia in 1929. This saw a general decline in Jewish religious and cultural life in Belorussia, and by 1938, Yiddish had lost its status as an officially recognized language. Moreover, the annexation of western Belorussia by the Soviet Union in 1939 exacerbated such developments, as Jewish religious institutions in the area were immediately shut down and Jews living there were expected to assimilate into broader “Soviet” society.

After World War II, Belorussia remained under Soviet control, and with Communist rule, antisemitism continued to be prevalent in the region. Various anti-religious (and particularly anti-Jewish) campaigns shut down the remaining Jewish institutions in Belorussia and many Jews were arrested. The postwar years saw a gradual decline in the Belorussian Jewish population as a number of Jews emigrated to Israel and the United States throughout the successive decades.
During Perestroika, there was a revival of Jewish life in Belorussia as a number of Jewish cultural institutions were established in cities throughout region. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the establishment of the independent Republic of Belarus furthered this trend and saw the formation of a Jewish communal representative organization, the Union of Belorussian Jewish Organizations and Communities.

Despite independence from the Soviet Union and the formation of a democratic government in Belarus, there are still concerns about the Belarusian Jewish community’s status in the country. Antisemitism continues to be somewhat widespread, if not latent, in the country, and the Belarusian government has taken a generally indifferent position on such incidents.

A law detailing officially recognized religions was passed in 2002, and though it included Judaism, there is a general sense of unease about the law, which some fear may lead to more discrimination. Despite such concerns, Belarusian Judaism continues to exist and operate in a manner not afforded in past years and under past regimes.

The Years of the Holocaust

At the outbreak of World War II, the Soviet Union was largely focused on assimilating the western portion of Belorussia. Jewish noncommunist leaders and activists, among many others, were sent to the Gulag in an effort to ensure that this portion of Belorussia was completely “Sovietized,” an endeavor that came to an end in 1941 when the Germans invaded the USSR.

The arrival of Nazi armed forces on Soviet territory saw a large number of Belarusian Jews attempt to flee to Soviet territory. Some escaped, but many others were either stopped by approaching German troops or by Soviet soldiers who prevented Jews from crossing the border. Many of those left to the mercy of the Nazi army were massacred en masse by the SS and local Belorussian police. There were also several pogroms throughout Belorussia, and those who managed to survive the explosion of violence, were placed into ghettos. The largest such ghetto in the region was in Minsk.

By 1942, a large portion of Belorussian Jews had been murdered, and the mass killing intensified even more in late 1942 and early 1943. Those Belorussian Jews who were able to join the anti-German partisans or who fought in the Soviet army were among the only Jews to survive in Belorussia. By the end of the Holocaust, nearly ninety percent of the Jews in Belorussia had been murdered.

Demography

Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola’s estimated the Belarusian Jewish to be between 9,500 and 25,000 Jew as of 2018. The majority of Jews in Belarus live in the capital, Minsk. There are other Jewish communities in Brest, Vitebsk, Gomel, Mogilev, Hrodna, Babruysk, Polotsk, Mazyr, Baranovichi, and Pinsk.

Community Life

The main Jewish communal representative organization in Belarus is the Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Associations and Communities, which is comprised of about one hundred Jewish organizations from nearly twenty Belarusian cities. Besides acting as a representative organization working to ensure that Belarusian Jews are accounted for in governmental or regional affairs, the Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Associations and Communities also works to aid the practice of Jewish religious and cultural life in the country.

Jewish charitable organizations provide food, homecare, and medical care to needy Jews. Among these organizations are the public charitable Jewish organization Chesed Rachamim. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) financially supports the Union of Jewish Associations and Communities. Additionally, Maccabi and a children's choir are active in Belarus.

There are several Jewish organizations for war veterans and Holocaust survivors, such as the Belarusian Association of Concentration Camps and Ghetto Survivors, the Belarusian Jewish Union of War Veterans, Partisans, and Underground Fighters, and the Republican Holocaust Center public union. The World Association of Belarusian Jewry helps to financially support war veterans in Belarus, though the organization itself is based in the United States. Moreover, Belarusian victims of the Holocaust receive compensation from the Swiss Fund for Needy Victims of the Holocaust.

Religious and Cultural Life

Jewish life in Belarus is diverse and varied, with the major streams of Judaism active in the country. For the most part, Jewish religious life is decentralized, and there are a substantial number of local organizations that operate independently. This includes the Union of Religious Jewish Congregations of Belarus (OIROB), the Judaic Religious Union in the Republic of Belarus (IROB), and the Association of Progressive Judaism. The OIROB mainly unites the representatives of the Hassidic Chabad Lubavitch movement, the IROB, the orthodox congregations, and the Association of Progressive Judaism oversees Reform Jews.

Each stream of Judaism has its own chief rabbi: the chief rabbi of the OIROB is R. Shneur Deitch, the chief rabbi of IRO is R. Avraham Benenson, and the chief rabbi of the congregations of Progressive Judaism is R. Grigory Abramovitch. The IROB claims it controls 14 communities, the OIROB mentions 13, and the rest belong to the Association of Progressive Judaism.

Kosher food is available in Belarus, and five Belarusian enterprises currently have Kosher certification for some of their products.

Jewish Education

The Union of Jewish Associations and Communities and the Jewish Agency run 13 Jewish Sunday schools that cater to about 500 students. There are two other Sunday schools run by the Reform movement as well as a Sunday School for deaf Jewish children. In addition, Jewish classes are taught at Minsk School No. 132 and there is a Jewish national school in Gomel. The Orthodox Union supports Bnei Akiva schools in Minsk, Chabad supports two high schools, and the Karlin-Stolin congregation funds a high school in Pinsk. Additionally, there are other institutes such as the Jewish Bi-L gymnasium and the Or Avner school in Minsk, the Beys Aharon boarding school in Pinsk, and Or Avner schools in Mogilev and Babruysk. There are 5 Jewish kindergartens in Minsk, Gomel, Hrodna, Mogilev, and Vitebsk. Organizations such as Chabad, Aish HaTorah, and the American Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), have created cultural and study groups to help maintain Jewish traditions within the communities.

In terms of Jewish secondary education, there are a number of options for students, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, interested in Judaic studies. After the Marc Chagall International Institute for the Humanities – a Jewish university that was opened in 1999 in Minsk – was closed in 2004, its Jewish Studies department was first transferred to the Department of International Relations, and then to the Department of Humanities of Belarus State University.

There have also been a number Jewish academic conferences, events, and publications in Belarus. International academic conferences on Jews in the Changing World were held in 1997 and 1999. In 2000, on the 140th anniversary of famous Belarusian Jewish historian S. M. Dubnov’s birth, Dubnov readings were organized. Six issues of an academic collection on issues of Belarusian Jewish history and culture have been published since 1996. The Jewish historical-journalistic magazine Mishpokha has been published since 1995, having first appeared as the historical-journalistic almanac of the Vitebsk municipal Jewish community. In 2005, the editors of Mishpokha and the Mishpokha Jewish Cultural Center launched a series of books called Shtetls of Belarus (three issues published as of September 2010). Later, a series called Memory Reborn was also published, as well as Shtetl and Family Stories (five issues published as of September 2010).

Since 2014, hundreds of Jews, including foreigners, have gathered at the annual Limmud FSU Jewish learning festival.

youth

There is a system of summer camps for children and youth. The Hillel youth organization has been functioning in Minsk since 1997. The Hillel and the Sochnut, together with the International Center for Jewish Education and Field Studies and with the support of the SBEOOO, organized a project called “Student Expeditions to Jewish Sites in Belarus; A Seminar On Wheels” in 2005. Since then, nearly 300 young Jewish men and women from Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine have taken part in the project.

jewish media

There are several Jewish publications in Belarus, including a monthly newspaper entitled Aviv that is published by the Union of Belarusian Jewish Organizations and Communities. Other Jewish publications in Belarus include Berega (published monthly by the Orthodox Union), Gesher (published by the Bobruisk Jewish community), Karlin (published by the Pinsk Jewish community), and Mishpokha (a yearly journal published in Vitebsk).

Information for Visitors

Once part of the Jewish heartland in Eastern Europe, Belarus had several notable Jewish sites throughout the country, as it was renowned for synagogues, sages and yeshivas. However, its Jewish heritage has been devastated over the past century, both by World War II and by Soviet rule. Many of the hundreds of Jewish cemeteries were destroyed, their gravestones were removed for use as paving and construction, and the sites Jewish cemeteries and mass graves were built over, ignored or marked with monuments that failed to note that the victims were Jews. As many as 700 synagogues or more once stood in what today is Belarus, but only about 100 survive; most are ruined, empty or transformed for other use, with just a handful used for worship.

Today, there are grassroots and other efforts to document and preserve Jewish heritage. Many historic Jewish sites have been renovated in recent years and synagogues and Jewish cemeteries, confiscated by the Communist Party, have been returned to Jewish communities, as well as yeshivot and other buildings.
Some of the top Jewish attractions in Belarus include the grave of Israel Meir Kagan, or the Chofetz Chaim, one of the most influential rabbis in Europe before the Holocaust. The sixteenth century synagogue in Grodno, which UNESCO declared a World Heritage Site in 2007, also attracts a steady stream of visitors, as does the Khatyn Holocaust monument. The small Jewish shtetls of Pinsk and Babruysk are among the very last of their kind in Europe. There is also a ruined, 17th-century fortress synagogue, located in an architectural preserve on the territory of Bykhov Castle, in a fortified compound that also includes a former Catholic church.

There is a comprehensive and up-to-date survey of Jewish cemeteries in Belarus that was carried out in 2017 by the European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative with the support of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad. It includes information on more than 150 Jewish cemeteries, including GPS and condition of the sites.

In 2002, the Museum of History and Culture of Belarusian Jews opened and has since served as an educational center, teaching and researching the Holocaust, as well as the history and culture of the Jewish people. Yama, a Holocaust memorial in Minsk, was first built in 1946, but was renovated and rededicated in 2000. In November 2005, a Public Academy for Jewish Culture and Arts was established, however it could not be registered by the Ministry of Justice because only state institutions are allowed to contain the word “academy” in their names.

Israel

Belarus maintains full diplomatic relations with Israel.

Embassy of Israel in Belarus  
pr. Partizansky 6a
220033 Minsk, Belarus
Telephone:
(+375) (17) 330-25-00
(+375) (17) 330-25-10 / 15 (Consular)
Fax: (+375) (17) 330-25-55
Email: info@minsk.mfa.gov.il

updated


September 2018

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