General information on Belarus Jewish organizations
According to the census of 2009, the Jewish population of the republic is approximately 13 thousand, which is obviously less than the real number. Just the charitable organization Chesed serves over 18 thousand elderly Jews. On this basis, even considering the age disproportions typical to the modern demographic situation, the roughest calculation should show no less than 50-60 thousand Jews in the state. The largest Jewish population is settled in the capital, Minsk. The other large communities are operating in Brest, Vitebsk, Gomel, Mogilev, Hrodna, Babruysk, Polotsk, Mazyr, Baranovichi, and Pinsk.
The most representative Jewish organization currently functioning in the state is the Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Associations and Communities (SBEOOO), headed by Honored Architect of the Republic of Belarus, Lenin Prize winner Leonid Levin. The SBEOOO is a member of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, cooperates actively with the European Jewish Congress, and other international Jewish organizations. It comprises about 100 organizations from 20 Belarusian cities. The Union’s main tasks are to revive the Belarusian Jews as an ethnic and cultural entity, and to aid the study of the ethnic, spiritual, and cultural values of the Jewish people.
Next to the SBEOOO, there is 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 mitnagdim congregations, and the Association of Progressive Judaism is in charge of the Reform Jews. There is also the Belarusian Association of Concentration Camps and Ghetto Survivors, the Belarusian Jewish Union of War Veterans, Partisans, and Underground Fighters, the public charitable Jewish organization Chesed Rachamim (General Committee chairman L. Levin), the Republican Holocaust Center public union,and the Maccabi republican sport society.
All the umbrella organizations are supported by the governmental institutions of the Republic of Belarus, the Joint and the Sochnut.
The law on Freedom of Religion and Religious Organizations, passed in 2002, listed Judaism among the traditional confessions. There are 39 Jewish religious communities currently active in the state. However, restitution of communal property is moving extremely slowly, partly because there is no state restitution law. According to IROB data, only 9 out of the 92 buildings on the territory of Belarus formerly belonging to Jewish communities have been returned to their owners.
The chief rabbi of the OIROB is R. Shneur Deitch. At the same time, the chief rabbi of IRO is R. Avraham Benenson and the chief rabbi of the congregations of Progressive Judaism is R. Grigory Abramovitch. The issue of congregation strength and of the real number of communities participating in each organization is disputable. The IROB claims it controls 14 communities, the OIROB mentions 13. The rest belong to the Association of Progressive Judaism.
As of April 2010 five Belarusian enterprises have obtained Kosher certification for some of their products.
Charity is mostly performed through the Chesed system, which began working under the Jewish community since 1995 and has had the support of the JDC and other sponsors. There are now 16 Cheseds in different cities of the state. Virtually all elderly members of the community are engaged by the Chesed system. Extensive social work is conducted with broken and needy families, as well as families with disabled members.
The SBEOOO and the OIROB each have their own educational programs. The first Jewish Sunday school opened over 10 years ago by the community, later securing the support of the Israeli Ministry of Education. In the mid-2000 there were 19 Sunday schools, today this number has decreased.
There are 6 comprehensive Jewish schools in the state: the Jewish classes in the Minsk #132 Secondary School (working with the support of Israel’s Ministry of Education since 1993), the Lauder Shneor College (works with the support of the Ronald Lauder Foundation), the Jewish Bi-L gymnasium and the Or Avner school in Minsk (opened in September 2005), the Beys Aharon boarding school in Pinsk (working since 2000, since 2007 named after the Nobel Prize winner Simon Kuznetz), and Or Avner schools in Mogilev and Babruysk. There are 5 Jewish kindergartens in Minsk, Gomel, Hrodna, Mogilev, and Vitebsk. There is a system of summer camps for children and youth. The Hillel youth organization has been functioning in Minsk since 1997.
After the Marc Chagall International Institute for Humanities was closed in 2004, the Jewish Studies department was transferred to the Department of International Relations, and later – to the Department of Humanities of Belarus State University. Since 2007 Jewish students have been awarded scholarships from Barry and Merle Ginsburg Family (United Kingdom). Thirty three people were awarded a scholarship over three years.
International academic conferences on Jews in the Changing World were held in 1997 and 1999. In 2000, on the 140th anniversary of S. M. Dubnov, Dubnov Readings were organized. 6 issues of an academic collection on issues of Belarusian Jewish history and culture have been published since 1996. The historical-journalistic magazine Mishpokha is being published since 1995; it first appeared as the historical-journalistic almanac of the Vitebsk municipal Jewish community. In 2005, the editors of the Mishpokha magazine and the Mishpokha Jewish Cultural Center launched a series of books called Shtetls of Belarus (3 issues published by September 2010). Later, a series called Memory reborn. Shtetl and Family Stories (5 issues published by September 2010).
The Union of Belarusian Jewish Public Associations and Communities began publishing a book series about outstanding Jews of Belarus; two volumes have already been published – Soviet Jewish Writers in Belarus. Memories, and Belarusian Jews in Big-Time Sports. In November 2007, an album of photographs and postcards of the late 19th-early 20th centuries, Synagogues was published in Minsk as part of the project “Searching for the Lost”. A Yiddish-Belarusian dictionary was published in 2008 (compiled by Alexander Astraukh).
Stalinism and the Jews: Belarus, the 1920s, by Yakov Basin, was published in August 2008. The Jewish History and Culture Museum was opened in Minsk in April 2002. The 500th anniversary of Jewish presence in the
Belarusian Polesye was celebrated in 2006. Festivities were organized in Babruysk on June 26-29, 2008, in honour of the 500th anniversary of the city’s Jewish community and the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel. Many provincial museums hold expositions on the history of the Jewish population of Belarus. A museum dedicated to the artist Chaim Soutine was opened in Smilovichi (Minsk district) in March 2007. A guide for tours through Jewish shtetls was published in Mogilev in June 2009, Forgotten Shtetls of the Mogilev District.
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.
On each trip, the participants tidy, restore, and describe monuments of Jewish history and culture. The Jewish cemetery in Grozov was restored and described in July 2009; the cemeteries of Volozhin and Mir – in July and August 2010.
The “Jewish Education” project of the Jewish community of Borisov entails trips to the Jewish sites of the Mogilev district.
A memorial sign in honor of the notable Jews interred in Belarus was erected in November 2009 at the old Jewish cemetery of Kobrin (Brest district), owing to efforts by rabbis from Jerusalem.
The third international children’s open air, “The Rebirth of the Jewish Shtetl”, was held in October 2009.
Alexander Matafonov has created a series of programmes called The Labyrinths of Belarusian Jewish History, broadcast over Brest television since December 2009. In August 2010 the same channel showed Soutine. An Essay About the Artist, a film dedicated to Chaim Soutine by the French director Valerie Firla.
The wooden synagogue of Lyuban was included in the list of historical and cultural monuments of Belarus in January 2010, joined in March 2010 by the mid-19th century synagogue in Luzhki, Sharkovschinsky district, Vitebsk oblast. In September 2010, it was decided to preserve as architectural treasures several houses built especially for Jews in Brest in 1925-1928.
Holocaust studies merit special attention. The Lessons of the Holocaust program has been working in all the communities of the state since 1999. 30,000 victims’ names were determined since 2007 within the project of documenting and immortalizing the names of the Jews who died in the Holocaust in Belarus. The contest of essays for schoolchildren, students, and teachers, “Holocaust. History. Tolerance Lessons” has been held since 2007, organized by the Belarusian Holocaust Foundation (chair Inna Gerasimova). International Holocaust studies seminars for comprehensive school teachers are held in Belarus with the participation of scholars and historians from different countries. Twice a year since 1999, a Memory Week is organized in Hrodna by the local Jewish community, dedicated to the memory of Holocaust victims in Belarus. Three dissertations on the Holocaust were defended at the Belarus University in 2008-2009.
A range of books on the war and the Holocaust were published in 2009-2010 in honor of the 65th anniversary of the end of the Great Patriotic War: document collections, memoirs, and Righteous Among the Nations: Living Testimonies of Belarus, a selection of papers from the eponymous conference. “The Holocaust: a look back after 65 years”, a photo exhibition, was organized in Vitebsk, Minsk, and Polotsk by the Vitebsk Jewish cultural center Mishpokha in 2010. In several cities of Belarus (Gomel, Brest, Vitebsk, and Minsk) another exhibition was displayed, prepared by Israeli diplomats, called “A visa to life. Diplomats who saved Jews”.
Famous journalist Alexander Stupnikov made in 2008 a documentary called Outcasts about the Jewish partisan movement in Europe. A method of teaching Holocaust at schools has been developed and is applied in a number of districts; regional conferences for schoolchildren are held. In 2003, the leaders of the main Jewish organizations founded a committee to perpetuate the memory of the victims of the Holocaust in the Republic of Belarus, whose work is funded by the Simon Mark Lazarus Charitable Fund (Great Britain) and other sponsors. Over the eight years the committee has been working, 45 memorial signs to victims of the Holocaust have been erected in different sites
in Belarus. In 2010, memorials have been placed in Bystritsa village (Hrodna oblast), Vysokoye (Brest oblast), Nesvizh, and Kopyl (Minsk oblast); a memorial was built to the Austrian Jews who perished in the Minsk ghetto and Maly Trostenets concentration camp; a memorial was put up in Mazyr (unfortunately, the authorities insisted that the word “Jews” be replaced on the memorial by the old expression “civilians”); a memorial complex was built in Vitebsk. However, there are many places remaining unmarked (over 300 according to data from the end of 2007). A number of communities are publishing Memorial Books.
Festivals of Jewish culture are organized since 1996 as part of the Ethnic Cultures Festival. An annual communal Jewish Book Festival has been taking place since 1997. Since 1998, Bobruisk has been holding the “Bobruyskiye Zhiznelyuby” (Life-Lovers of Babruysk) festival of Jewish books.
The SBEOOO hosts the Izya Kharik Minsk Public Association of Jewish Culture (MOEK). A new Yiddish studies program was opened in June 2010 at the Shmues club at the public Jewish charitable organization Chesed-Rakhamim in Minsk.
Chagall Days and Chagall Readings are held annually since 1991. Chagall Yearbooks are published since 2003. The Vitebsk Purimspiel Festival is organized since 1994. The Shalom Jewish Theatre has been working in Mogilev since 1998. Klezmer bands are performing in Minsk and Lida (Minsker Kapelye, Minsk Klezmer Band, and Shalom).
An international cantorial festival has taken place in Minsk annually since 2005. The Emunah society has been holding the republican children’s contest Drawing Chanukah since 2006. December 2007 saw the first “Miracle. Art!” Practical Festival for the handicapped at the Minsk Jewish Community House (MEOD). The Jewish shadow theatre of the “Rainbow” program with actors from among persons with psychophysical development problems (Minsk Jewish community house) won the 6th International Theatre Festival for Special Theatres “Neprataptany shlyakh” (“Unbeaten path”) in May 2010.
Since 1992, the SBEOOO has been publishing the Aviv newspaper; the IROB publishes the Berega; and the community of Pinsk has been publishing their Carlin newspaper since 2002. The SBEOOO has had its website, www.beljews.org, since 2003. The website http://www.jewishbelarus.org was launched by the IROB in June 2005. The first issue of the children’s literary and artistic almanac Sevivon (Spinning Top) was published by the Union of Belarusian Jewish Associations and Communities, and the Jewish Cultural Society “Emunah” in Minsk in January 2007.
A. G. Lukashenko always emphasizes that “Jews will never again be outcasts in this land.” He is the only official figure to have mentioned the role of the Jewish partisan units in the years of World War II. The opening on July 10, 2001 of the “Minsk Ghetto” memorial to victims of the Holocaust, attended by the President and parliament members, was a great event for the Jewish community and the state in general. Ceremonial events were held at the “Yama” common grave to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the liquidation of the Minsk Ghetto in 2003 and 2008 (President Lukashenko participated in 2008).
Several memorials to Holocaust victims were funded fully or in part by local authorities. There is a Jerusalem Street in the Belarusian capital; the Minsk municipal deputy council decided to rename the Mebelnyi lane after Mikhail Gebelev, one of the underground leaders of the Minsk ghetto, installing a memorial plaque in his honor.
Events honoring the Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day were held in April 2009 at the Great Patriotic War Museum in Minsk. In July 2009, a memorial plaque was unveiled, commemorating for the first time in many years the name of Masha Bruskina, an underground fighter executed by the Nazis in 1941.
On December 16, 2009, President A. Lukashenko sent a greeting to the participants of the international “Lessons of WWII and the Holocaust” conference in Berlin.
On July 8, 2010, a memorial plaque was unveiled in Minsk in honor of the anti-fascist underground of the Minsk ghetto.
The National Archive of the Republic of Belarus supported the publication of four document collections containing the names of Jews who perished on the territory of Belarus.
It is difficult to discuss the real level of anti-Semitism and xenophobia in the republic, because there is no adequate sociological poll data; the assessments of independent experts differ. There are radical right-wing organizations and a skinhead movement in Belarus. Certain groups of Belarusian nationalist orientation from the opposition give their dues to anti-Semitism as well. There are regular reports of desecration of cemeteries, memorials, and synagogues; scandals break out because of demolished synagogue buildings, construction attempts at Jewish cemetery sites, etc. The latest such events were the demolition in 2009 of the wooden synagogue in Luban and excavation works laying out heating mains in the Jewish cemeteries of Pinsk, Mazyr, and Volkovysk.
Swastika and anti-Semitic graffiti were painted on the building of the Jewish community in Slutsk in the fall of 2009. The police initiated a hooliganism case. There are cases of suppression of Jewish history in official publications on the history of certain regions of Belarus.
As for the refusals to satisfy the Jewish communities’ demands of restitution, opening schools, etc., this is rather a display of the state policy of protection over the Russian Orthodox Church, which takes a special position when church shops deal in openly anti-Semitic literature. The way the Jewish organizations oppose anti-Semitism is usually by filing complaints with the authorities and applying to foreign organizations, as well as court appeals.
Notably, the latter seems to be the most effective. Over the recent years the Jewish organizations of the state have won several trials against radical nationalists. The individual who had desecrated graves in Borisov in July 2007 was sentenced in April 2008, this being the first such case. On December 19, 2008, Judge Eduard Yakubovsky of the Soviet district court satisfied the appeal of the Prosecutor General’s Office, declaring 13 books published in Belarus and Russia and distributed by the Orthodox Bookstore (Christian Initiative Ltd.) extremist, kindling national and religious strife, and promoting violence. The Panel of Judges of the Minsk municipal court confirmed this ruling on March 3, 2009.
In January 2010, a law was passed, according to which the distribution of Nazi symbols in Belarus will be punished either by a fine of up to 200 base units (approximately $2,400) or by administrative arrest.
Diplomatic relations with Israel were established in 1992 (ambassador since 2009 – Eduard Shapira). The Israeli-Belarusian League of Inter-Parliamentary Friendship is headed by member of Belarus’ National Assembly O. Velitchko and Knesset member Faina Kirschenbaum. An All-Israeli Union of Belarusian Expatriates exists in Israel, presided over by Mikhail Alshansky.
Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs visited Belarus in June 2009. Agreements were signed on cultural, educational, and scientific cooperation in 2009-2012. In July 2009, an agreement on cooperation in the field of tourism was signed (at least 500 Israelis stayed at health resorts in Belarus over the summer of 2010).
The “Roots” program holds thematic tours for Israelis of Belarusian descent to the places where their ancestors used to live. Air transfer between Minsk and Tel Aviv is offered by the El Al – Sandor and Belavia companies.
A delegation from the Sochnut Jewish Agency paid a working visit to Belarus on September 7-8, 2009. An intergovernmental agreement was signed between Belarus and Israel on cooperation in standardization, metrology, and conformance evaluation. When Minister for Sports and Tourism of the Republic of Belarus Oleg Kachan visited Israel in April 2010, a Protocol of intended cooperation in physical culture and sports was signed between the Belarusian Ministry of Sports and Tourism and the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sports. Events honoring the 100th anniversary of Tel Aviv were held in Minsk and Mogilev in September 2009.
An exhibition of works by the Israeli photo-artist Alex Livak called “Our Country” was held in Brest and Minsk in October 2009.
Israel took an active part in the work of the 17th International Exhibition and Fair in Minsk, “Books of Belarus 2010”, held on February 11-17, 2010.
An exhibition by the Israeli artist Malka Tsentsiper called “Spring Melodies” (giclée on canvas) was held at the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus in May-June 2010.
An Israeli cinema festival took place in Minsk in September 2010. An ulpan is open by the Israeli cultural and informational center (IKC) in Minsk. The IKC has organized seminars “Small-scale business in Israel” (December 2009) and “Private enterprise in Israel” (June 2010) to great interest from members of the Belarus business community.
Children from communities in Belarus have traditionally been participating in the International inter-ethnic “Sources of Tolerance” children’s camp in the Carpathian Yasinya village, organized by the EAJC.
An international academic conference called “Christian-Judaic dialogue: religious values as the basis of mutual respect in a society during the global economic crisis” was held in Minsk on November 9-11, 2009. Chairman of the EAJC General Council Josef Zissels spoke at the conference on November 9.