Jewish communities in Belarus have a long history. The first Jewish settlements in Belarus were in Brest and Grodno, and later in Minsk.
Jewish learning flourished in the region. Yeshivas were established in many towns throughout the country and Hasidism was also a growing movement.
Once a central hub for Jewish life, Belarus was renowned for its synagogues and yeshivas. However, many of the buildings that housed them were nationalized after World War II by anti-religious and often antisemitic governments.
In many places the structures that remained standing are now being converted to other uses. This is a common trend in Eastern Europe. A number of former synagogues are now being used as residential and commercial units, including the Great Synagogue in Ostrino and the 19th-century Great Synagogue in Porazava, near Slonim.
A 17th-century synagogue in Bykhov, a town near Minsk, is one of the best preserved examples. Its interior features stucco walls and paintings on the dome of the bimah.
Several other Jewish communities in Belarus have restored synagogues, some of which are still functioning today. The Babruisk Synagogue, located in the heart of the city of Babruisk, was rescued from neglect and has been renovated to become an important place for religious and cultural activities.
There are a number of rabbis in Belarus, both local and foreign-born, who serve the needs of the community. There are also several Jewish schools, including one in Gomel and two in Minsk.
Jews in Belarus are divided into two streams, Orthodox and Progressive. There are about 100 Jewish cultural groups in the country, with the majority of them being small in size.
The Jewish community is largely concentrated in the capital of Minsk, where it has several synagogues and numerous other religious institutions. In addition, there are many kosher restaurants in the city and a few Jewish schools.
Other cities with thriving Jewish communities include Grodno, Brest and Vitebsk. There are a number of Jewish schools in these cities and rabbis are available to serve the needs of the community.
In addition, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has several charitable organizations in Belarus that provide food, homecare and medical care to needy Jews. The Jewish Federation of the Republic of Belarus also has a large number of cultural and educational programs to help maintain Jewish traditions within the communities.
Yeshivas have long been a key part of Jewish culture. They are a place where Jews can learn from teachers, study the Torah and other religious texts, and make friends with other students. In Belarus, there are several notable yeshivas that have played an important role in the history of Jewish learning.
A renowned rabbinic scholar, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, founded the Volozhin Yeshiva in 1803, revolutionizing Jewish education and setting the standard for Torah study. The yeshiva soon attracted students from around the world.
The early Chassidic movement, which began in the 1700s, had many adherents in the region that now makes up Belarus. It was a spiritual movement that sought to live a fully observant Jewish life. It was also a political movement, with its followers taking positions on government councils and other public committees.
In the 16th century, Jews began to settle in the Belarusian towns of Brest and Grodno. These communities developed a number of important institutions, including schools and synagogues.
Shaul Wahl, a prominent leader in the area of Brest, was known for his piety. He was also a powerful religious scholar and served as a member of the Va’ad, or Jewish Council governing Jews in the region.
Prince Radziwill was impressed by the young man’s scholarly abilities and invited him to live with him in his castle. It was there that Shaul began to study the Bible and other Jewish texts, achieving fame in the area.
When Bathori, the king of what is now Belarus, died in 1586, two major factions fought over who would succeed him. In an audacious move, Prince Radziwill suggested that if the nobles wanted a wise leader who could lead the country to prosperity they should ask for the help of a Jew.
A brilliant young Jew named Shaul had been studying at a yeshiva in the nearby town of Brest, and Prince Radziwill offered him a job as a teacher at his castle. The young man took up the offer, and soon he was an extremely popular leader.
Another influential figure in Jewish history was Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna, who lived in Lithuania and was known as the “Vilna Gaon” or the “Vilna Genius.” Together, they revolutionized the way Talmud was taught, focusing on moral character and development rather than simply learning the rules of Jewish law. The combination of these two men’s ideas paved the way for widespread Torah study in Europe.
Many of the most important leaders of the Chassidic movement have come from the Jewish communities of Belarus. Their incredible spiritual lives have shaped the way that Torah study is taught today in Eretz Yisroel and around the world.
Belorussia, which lies on the path between Russia and Poland, has a long history of Jewish life. It was first visited by Jews in the 14th century, and today there are approximately 12,000 Jews living in the country.
During the 17th century, Hasidism began to gain popularity among Jews in Belarus, and by the 19th century it had become the dominant Jewish ideology. Unlike in other areas of Europe, Hasidism did not split into different factions; rather, the movement remained unified.
Hasidism is characterized by exuberance and ecstatic prayer, as well as other practices that reflect a deep desire to connect with G-d. Throughout the 19th century, the movement developed many Hasidic centres, each with its own Rebbe and community.
While Hasidism was a popular choice among Belorussian Jews, it was also controversial within the Orthodox world, especially in Eastern Europe. Many Mitnaggedim, or Orthodox rationalists, were opposed to the Hasidic movement. This explains why Hasidism did not spread as quickly in Belorussia as it did elsewhere in Europe.
In addition to its impact on the religious life of the Jewish community, Hasidism also helped shape the political landscape. As Gershom Scholem argued, “Hasidism was not an isolated phenomenon; it sunk into a political instrument of reactionary forces that had a significant impact on the formation of the Polish state”.
By 1921, the Soviet government had taken control of Eastern Belorussia, and Jewish organizations were quickly shut down by the Communist Party. This forced many observant Jews to relocate in Western Belorussia, where the economic situation was less severe.
Even in these less-affluent regions, however, Hasidic life was still strong, and observant Jews in Belorussia continued to study Torah and practice piety. The region became a centre of Jewish learning and cultural activity.
A number of renowned Torah leaders from Belarus also studied and lived in Eretz Yisroel. Among them are Rav Aaron Kotler (see profile) of Slutzk, who guided generations of students in the ways of Torah and piety; Rabbi Moshe Elchonon of Baranovitcher, who led one of the most famed yeshivot in Belarus and shaped hundreds of students who would go on to become great Torah teachers themselves; and Rabbi Isser Zalman Meltzer of Kletzk, who taught countless students and wrote a shiur that continues to inspire fourth and fifth generations of shiurim the world over.
The Jewish communities in Belarus are a mixture of secular and traditional. A few orthodox chassidic synagogues remain in the country, while many others are modern Orthodox or Conservative. The Jewish population is growing, and the numbers of older Jews are on the rise.
The political crisis that is now gripping the country, following the election of a new government, is causing a lot of anxiety for Jewish communities in particular. The protests that have engulfed the city of Raisky, for example, have created fears among older people and their families. They are afraid that their children might get arrested or be subjected to violence by police, and they fear for the safety of their elderly relatives as a result of the strikes and economic crisis.
But despite the protests, life is still going on for most of the population. And for some, it may even be getting better.
A number of community centers and day schools in Minsk Vitebsk and Gomel, where some of the country’s oldest Jewish residents are based, provide services to people in their golden years. They offer everything from language classes and chess clubs to yoga and pottery.
Some chassidic communities have also started offering COVID-19 hotlines for older clients, one of the first such programs in the world. They’ve set up phone calls between elderly people and trained volunteers, who check up on them regularly and send them packages of groceries or food.
Older people are also more vulnerable to the pandemic, as they may have weaker immune systems and be less able to fight off infection. Often, they are not aware of the symptoms of the virus and have no access to health care or information about how to prevent it.
This makes them more susceptible to catching the virus and exposing themselves or others to it. So, they need to be extra careful and follow CDC guidelines when they are not sick.
For many of the older people in the Jewish communities in Belarus, preventing Covid-19 is more important than ever. But as the political crisis continues and the economy worsens, they are also at risk of being left alone to deal with the disease.