The Jews of Irkutsk



The earliest mention of Jews in Siberia is in the 1720’s.  Although Siberia was excluded from the “Pale of Settlement” which was established in 1794, Jews nevertheless managed to trickle in to areas beyond the Ural Mountains as convicts and exilees. They settled down mainly in Eastern Siberia, which includes the Irkutsk region.


Tsar Nicholas 1 officially stopped the migration of  Jews to Siberia. During his reign, Siberia was one of  the "forbidden" areas for Jews. Jews who were under 40 years of age and were sentenced by the courts to exile to Siberia had their sentence replaced by other penalties. Only convicted Jews over 40 were unofficially allowed to be sent to distant areas, one of which was the Irkutsk province. However, in practice, no legal restrictions could stop the inflow of  Jews into Siberia.


In the following years, the flow of Jews into Siberia became more frequent, mainly because of political prisoners being exiled, whose numbers increased due to the development of the revolutionary movement.


From the middle of the 18th century, the Jewish population in  Irkutsk continued to grow due to the inflow of Jews from the colonies of Zima, Kutulik, Kuitun and Telma. At the same time, Jews also lived in Oyok (Оёкская волость) district, where there was even a Jewish cemetery.

The founder of the Irkutsk community was a Jew by the name of Fershter, who arrived in Irkutsk with his family in 1818. After his arrival more Jews came, and they established the first unofficial Community. A "Minyan" was still difficult to organize, and  Jews from the local military Battalion were invited to make up the Minyan.


Somewhere around the 1860s, Irkutsk became the religious center for Jews who lived in all the surrounding villages and towns. Soon afterwards the city welcomed the Jews who had completed their military service, namely, the Jewish-cantonists as well as other exiled Jews. Many of them continued to establish strong and large Jewish families.

In the early 1870s the Irkutsk authorities permitted the organization of the Jewish community, The construction of the synagogue began at that time. The founder and leader of the community in the 60 - 70s was a merchant and an expert on Torah and Talmud by the name of Y.S. Dombrowski.


In 1859 he bought a house to serve as a synagogue. He had studied in Yeshivot and had a strong Jewish religious education, and it was up to him to teach the Jewish children. It must be said that illiteracy among the Jews in Irkutsk was a mass phenomenon. And it was one of the causes of the division between the former soldiers and the merchants. Unintentionally the local authorities contributed to the Jews uniting by allowing in April of 1878 the building of the synagogue by former soldiers, but not the merchants.  The former soldiers did not have enough finances for this construction whereas the merchants did, and thus the cooperation between the soldiers and the merchants led to the construction of the synagogue.


In the 1880s the size of the Jewish community in Irkutsk was more than a thousand people. In fact 84 merchants owned 128 buildings. The most wealthy and respectable families included  the Feinberg, Leibowitz, Yutsisov,and Tsukasovyh.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the Jews made up 10% of the population of Irkutsk. The Jewish community was the second largest religious and ethnic group of the city. The Jews that had permission to live in these areas of the Russian Empire were – successful merchants, masters, craftsmen, and Jews that had higher education and degrees. Thus, the backbone of the Jewish community of Irkutsk consisted of the educated people, entrepreneurs,,free thinkers.and professionals in their fields. We can say that the cream of Jewish society of the then Russia was heading to Siberia, and in particular, to Irkutsk.


The Irkutsk Jews became an integral and significant part of the local community, playing an important role in the social, economic, political and cultural life of the city and the region. The community had a number of interesting features which gave it a certain unique image. Many Irkutsk Jewish citizens were aware of their "uniqueness" - "We are not Russian Jews, we are Jewish-Siberians."

The Jewish Siberians differed from the rest of the Jews in the Russian Empire in their attitude towards their traditions, dress, self-image and their loyalty to the government. Jewish Siberians had very strong families, where there were usually four or five children. Mixed marriages were hardly ever observed. The Jewish women were not only housewives but also took an active part in their husband’s work, sometimes even replacing them in business. Such lucky merchants as O.N. Koppe and A.M. Markevich left their marks in the history of Irkutsk Jewry.


After his election to the “First Commercial Council” in 1895, the representative from the petty-bourgeois democrats, Dr. G.L. Yudalevich, formed the strategic goal of balancing the interests of different social groups in the community. It was the beginning of a new era. The community fought for the legalization and the survival of the Jewish school - "Talmud Torah" and charitable work. After 25 years of constant refusals, a network of Jewish schools began to flourish.


In 1915 the Jewish community and the Society for the Promotion of Enlightenment among Jews in Russia published the book “The Jews in Irkutsk”. Many activists took part in the publication of the book, by collecting materials and surveys of many longtime residents. The main authors were V.S. Voitinskii and A.Y. Gornshteyn


By that time many members of the local diaspora had a high level of literacy, more than 49% of Irkutsk Jews were literate. Literacy insured the Jew a high social status.

The free Irkutsk Jewish school which was opened by the community in 1897, boasted having the students study subjects such as, Hebrew language, Jewish history and religious studies. They were also taught general subjects in accordance with the program of the Ministry of Education. These included the Russian language, Arithmetic, Geography, Russian history and  Nature Study.

One of the major expenses for  the community was maintenance of  the Jewish school. The students studied there for four years, and although the school was expensive,  the community was proud of it. The education received there was one of the best in Siberia thanks to Y.L. Pomus, I.G.Goldberg and others.


The network of cultural institutions included the library founded by I.L. Neumann in the mid 1890’s at the synagogue (there were 4200 books in 1915), the Irkutsk Department of Education among the Jews of Russia (OPE) which was  headed by the well-known gold-mine owner and philanthropist J. D.Frizerom and the  Department of Hebrew Literature Society (est. 1911).

Charitable activity was  illegal until 1909, but  in 1914 a charitable society  which included 210 members was formed.  This society funded almshouses, the Aid Society for exiled Jews, and educational institutions in the community. During  World War II this society helped  Jews who arrived in the city as refugees and deportees. A number of wealthy merchants including I.M. Feinberg, J. D. Freezer and others actively supported the community. I.M. Feinberg donated a large capital and a few stone houses to the community.


The appearance of Irkutsk Jewry did not differ greatly from the appearance of other citizens.

The Jews owned up to 15%  of the urban real estate. Observers unanimously noted the prosperity of the Siberian Jews. Over the years, Jews made up the backbone of Irkutsk merchants.

Jewish merchants owned many of the shops and mansions  that Irkutsk is so proud of. A few of those are: the house of the famous merchant D.M. Kuznets, who was a philanthropist, patron of the arts and  a perfectly educated man; the house of Feinberg; commercial shops on the “Big”  (now Karl Marx) Street that belonged to a well-known philanthropist and benefactor S. Kalmeeru.


In addition to trading, the Jews played a prominent role in the industry of the Irkutsk province. They owned almost all the soap manufacturing in the city, the yeast plant, the production of mineral water and most of the paint-mills. There were many Jewish craftsmen: tailors, shoemakers, locksmiths, jewelers, watchmakers, and with the advent of photography, most of Irkutsk’s photographers were Jewish.

Although, Russian became more frequently used among Jews, most members of the diaspora could speak Yiddish.

Many of the Jews remained faithful to the religion of their ancestors. Judaism was still an important aspect of their lives. The synagogue was the community’s center around which other Jewish institution were placed.


The history of the Irkutsk Synagogue - "House of the Jewish community" began in 1879, the year of its opening. Currently, the synagogue building is a monument to the history and culture of the late 19th century. Permission to build was given in April 1878. The construction was completed quickly and a year later the first service was held. According to the  “Irkutsk chronicle" of N.S. Romanov on the 5th of April 1879, there was "a solemn service and prayer for the Emperor, which was attended by the Governor General with his retinue, and other administrative entity at the invitation of the Jewish City Society. "

In the late 19th century the Rabbi of the synagogue was Yitzchak Mashevitskii. In the early 20th century and up to 1931 – Rabbi Nathan-Noteh Olevsky was the official Rabbi.. For the next 15 years, the official Rabbi was Rabbi S.H. Beilin, who was unanimously elected, he was also a folklorist and an author of the book: "The proverbs of Siberian Jews," 1913.

Along with the community there was the "Charitable society for helping the exiled Jewish element", the "Charitable Society for the benefit of the poor Jews, and" "The society of literacy among the Jews" .


One of the social movements that emerged at the time among the Jewish population in Russia, was Zionism. Zionism made an immediate appeal to the Siberian Jews. In Irkutsk several Zionist societies were founded. In 1920-1921, after the restoration of Soviet power in the cities of Siberia, including Irkutsk, Jewish workers' clubs, schools and libraries were opened; different meetings, lectures and debates were organized. The Irkutsk community of that period mostly kept its old traditions. The social basis of it was craftsmen, petty and medium merchants.

Irkutsk Synagogue, like before, was the spiritual center. Irkutsk community under the leadership of Rabbi Nathan Olevskyy was one of the most prestigious communities in the former Soviet Union. There was a Jewish college at the synagogue where students studied Yiddish among other subjects. There was a choir of 15 boys, led by a conductor. As before, a Jewish school accepted mostly poor children, boys were taught to be shoemakers, and girls were taught to sew. There was a garden close to this college where the students grew vegetables. The harvest was usually sold and the money was donated to the schoolchildren. There were about 30 people in the almshouse that lived on charitable contributions. Every occupant of the almshouse was invited to a family to celebrate the holidays.


Unfortunately in 1923, many of these establishments were closed. The synagogue was expropriated in 1935. The members of the Irkutsk community fought for the return of the Synagogue and the cemetery. They baked matzah when they could, celebrated the holidays, and burials according to Jewish law.  The duties of Rabbi were performed by L.H. Resnick. In 1945 part of the synagogue was returned, and then in 1958 once again the synagogue was closed. It was reopened partially in the 1970’s. For a long time the synagogue has been the center of Jewish life, not only In Irkutsk, but in the whole region. There were always prayer services in the synagogue, holidays were celebrated and Matzah was baked for Passover and was sent to different regions of the country.


The synagogue was completely returned to the Irkutsk community in 1990.


The Jerusalem cemetery, was closed at the end of 19th century and transformed into a park.

The Lisichinskoy Jewish cemetery, which was previously called “Amurskoy”, was opened in 1900, with funding from Irkutsk citizen L.I. Gerson. In 1907 I.M. Feinberg in memory of his deceased son put the stone wall around the cemetery which still stands today. The first burial dates back to 1900, the last one in 1964.

Lisichinskoy cemetery is under the control of one of the city council departments. The cemetery is old, and every year it is decaying further. Recently however, because of the efforts of the Jewish community, it has been cleaned frequently and given more attention.

In 1963, a Jewish cemetery  in Novo-Lenino District, was given to the Jewish Community.


In July 2004, the Synagogue suffered a severe fire. It occurred on a day of national mourning of the Jewish people - the 9th of Av.  As a result of that fire the building was badly damaged and all of the interior of the synagogue was completely destroyed.

Shortly before the fire, the Chief Rabbi of Irkutsk and the Irkutsk Region, Rabbi Aharon Wagner, who was appointed by the Chief Rabbi of Russia, Rabbi Berel Lazar came to work in Irkutsk.  It was Rabbi Wagner who began the restoration work of the synagogue, with the support of the Federation of Jewish Communities of Russia (FJCR).

Beginning in 2005, while the synagogue was under construction, the community operated in a rented office space, where prayers were held.  Clubs such as the "golden age club", the Women’s Choir "Esther", a chess club, a family club, Sunday School, and "Kosher cooking club” were also held there.

On the 24th of March, 2009 the reconstruction was complete and the synagogue opened its doors once again. The community had regained its true spiritual home!


Today, prayer services are held on all Jewish holidays: Rosh Ashona, Hanukkah, Purim, Passover, Sukkot, Simchat Torah and Yom Kippur. Several secular holidays are also celebrated. On holidays there is a large number of parishioners and visitors to the community. The synagogue also hosts Jewish concerts, with singers and musicians not only from Irkutsk, but also guests from around the world.

The synagogue has a mikvah – a ritual bath, and it is located in the same place where it was originally built. The synagogue has a kosher kitchen that caters to the community’s needs.


The clubs continue their work. The synagouge, also known as the Jewish community center has programs for the elderly, Sunday school for the youth, computer rooms, billiard rooms, sport programs for the elderly and much more.


The community has its own Jewish kindergarten, and is led by professional educators and teachers. Children learn and experience their heritage. The children have concerts or programs for all the Jewish secular holidays.

"The House of the Jewish community” is supported by donations.

The Irkutsk Synagogue is the oldest synagogue of all the active synagogues in the Russian federation.