(No. 3/2008 – October 2008)


This article is about the history of the "Great" Kobrin Synagogue and the Kobrin Jewish Community, written by Maxim Mill, Researcher for Jewish Heritage Research Group (JHRG) in Belarus.

© This article is copyrighted by Maxim Mill


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History of the Kobrin Synagogue

by Maxim Mill


The first mention of the town of Kobrin begins in the year 1287. According to archival sources, Jews established their residences in Kobrin in the 15th century. Faybush Ben Yosef was one of the first Jews mentioned in the archival information. The documents state that Faybush rented a brewery in the city of Kobrin on August 7th, 1560. Based on the Kobrin residential real estate inventory of 1563, there were 22 houses that belonged to Jews, about 12% of the total number of Kobrin homeowners. The majority of homes owned by Jews were located on Pinskaya Street. This is the same street where the "Great" Kobrin synagogue was located.

The main source of income for Jews was trade, brewing, and growing fruit in orchards. In 1589, Jewish tradesmen were granted the same rights as non-Jews. As some of the archival sources confirm, most of the members of the Kobrin Jewish community were struggling to make ends meet. In 1705, the Kobrin Jewish community had only contributed 315 zlotych (Polish money) to the treasury. It was the smallest amount of taxes paid of the 26 Jewish communities in the Brest district. In search of ways out of poverty, the Kobrin Kagal (community board) made an agreement with a local Jew, Mikhel Itzkovitch, to loan them 1,000 zlotych for 8 years. In exchange, Itzkovitch asked for a tax break for himself and his descendants. He also got the exclusive rights to sell alcohol in Kobrin.

In 1766, the Kobrin Jewish community had 924 taxpayers, and the main source of income was trade. More established traders sold salt, timber, and grains.

The first Rabbi of Kobrin, according to the existing archival records, was Rabbi Betzalel, son of Solomon Darshan. Rabbi Betzalel founded a yeshiva, which became an alma mater for more than 400 students before he died in 1678. The records also indicate that Rabbi Yakov Shapiro was head of the Rabbinical Court of Kobrin.

In 1847, the Kobrin Jewish population was 4,184 residents, a little less than half the total Kobrin population of 8,840 people.

In 1863, there was a huge fire in Kobrin that destroyed most of the town's wooden buildings, including the wooden synagogue on Pinskaya Street which was built in the middle of the 15th century. The first mention of this synagogue was found in archival records from 1473. After the fire, the Kobrin Jewish community began to raise money to construct a new brick synagogue to replace the old one, which had completely burned down. The construction of the new synagogue took almost 5 years. The largest donation from the Kobrin community came from the richest resident, merchant Gersh, son of Nathan Soloveichik, who was in the grains trade. Some of the bricks were donated by brick manufacturing owners: merchants Leizer Volavelskiy and brothers Mordukh and Aron Mintz. The other source of money came from a newly imposed tax for salt, yeast, candles, and kosher meat, which was mandatory for local Jews only. It was to be a temporary action until the fundraising goal was reached.

The synagogue building was on a large parcel of land of 535 square meters (5,756 square feet). It was a 3-story building, with the third floor technically being an attic with windows. The building faced west, which complied with the traditional way of building synagogues, as well as the city's requirement to build strictly along the streets. On the west side of the building there were residential houses; on the east side - the Mikvah and city bath houses, which belonged to Hershel and Frida Kamenetzky; on the south - the Kobrin River; and on the north - Pinskaya Street.

On the west side of the building there were 3 doors, which led to the main hall. The main hall and sanctuary were connected through a wide double door of dark brown color. Above the doors, the following saying was written: "This is G-d's gateway. Righteous men step through it". Here is the description of the synagogue from the Kobrin Yizkor book:

In the circle on the ceiling were 12 painted pictures of the Zodiac in a traditional way. On the long wall of the Women's Gallery, which took the entire width of the synagogue, were various drawings to demonstrate the verse: "Light as an Eagle, Fast as a Deer, and Strong as a Lion to do the Will of Your Father who is in Heaven." In the drawing, the eagle is in its flight, light and quiet; the deer is in its quick running, a run in which the ground is not touched; and the lion has a head of one who is very sharp and knowledgeable, with two intelligent, contemplative eyes, standing on the grass, a stance which has confidence in its might. On the same wall on the right side was also a demonstration of the verse in Song of Songs: "My Dove in the Crevasses of the Rock." The innocent understood the meaning of the verse the same way that the Rabbi explained it to his students on Friday during the study of "Song of Songs": A rock filled with holes, and from one of those holes comes a dove, and when she comes up, there in front of her is a venomous snake curled around the rock and waiting for its victim, and above the dove a hawk ready to devour her, and the dove is terrified to death seeing the great danger.

When we see this, our eyes would express pain and suffering, and the Rabbi would explain the meaning of the fable: The dove is the People of Israel, and the snake and the hawk are the nations of the world who are threatening to destroy us…

A very special part in our life was the ark in the Great Temple in its splendor. It had very interesting artistic designs, and it was thought to be one of the most exceptional in all of Russia and Poland. The top of the ark reached to the ceiling. It was divided into three parts:

1. The crown of the Torah,
2. The crown of the Priesthood, and
3. The crown of the King.

The crown of the Torah was made of the "Ten Commandments", and above them was a golden crown. The "Crown of the Priesthood" had two very beautifully carved hands raised in the priestly blessing and covered with a Tallit (prayer shawl) with blue and white embroidery, and above it, the golden crown.
[Page 149]

The King's crown was a great eagle with two heads as the emblem of Czarist Russia. As usual, the eagle held in one claw, a ball, above it, a cross, and in the other claw, the scepter of the King. Our artist succeeded in finding a Jewish motif: The eagle held in its talons, a Lulav and Etrog, and above them, the crown.

The Holy Ark was covered with a thin, silver layer. On that layer of silver could be seen various imaginary birds, fish and animals, which were themselves covered with gold that had a light green tinge. To the right of the Holy Ark was the column, also covered with delicate cloth, which was embroidered with silver and gold. Steps about half a story high led to the Holy Ark and were covered by an expensive silk curtain, upon which was embroidered the name of the women who donated that curtain.

During the Sabbath and holidays there would be hung on the Holy Ark magnificent curtains, and upon which were embroidered verses such as "In Honor of the Sabbath and Holiday", etc.
Once a year, on Hosha'na Rabbah (seventh day of the Feast of Tabernacles), all the walls of the synagogues would be covered with tens of curtains, and by them would be lit hundreds of candles. The lighting and the decorations were done by Berl, the caretaker. After some time, when Berl became too weak, Kopel, the sexton, took charge of that work.
Among the citizens of Kobrin was the legend that the artist who created the Holy Ark also created a bear made out of wood, and it was equipped with a special mechanism, which would make a frightening sound when someone opened the ark.

Once there was a guest from afar who was praying in the synagogue, and they honored him by inviting him to open the ark. When he opened the doors of the ark, the bear made this noise, and the guest fell on the floor, fainting with fear. That prompted the assembly to put the bear in the attic.
We, the kids of the Cheder (school), knew the story about the "Bear in the Attic", and it really piqued our imaginations. To reach the little door in the attic was possible only through those wooden stairs, and not one kid would dare go up there by himself. On the Sabbath when ten to fifteen kids would assemble, we would stand in line one after the other, the braver among us at the head of the line, and then we would start to march to the attic. When the first ones at the head of the line would come to the little door at the attic, the ones at the end of the line would let out a great scream, "The bear! The bear!", and with beating hearts, we would turn around and retreat. This "journey" to the bear we would postpone for the next Sabbath.
[Page 150]

The capacity of the building was 1,000 people. For Shabbat and holiday occasions there was a male choir to accompany services.

On the south side of the building an addition was built where the synagogue's cantor used to live. He was paid a monthly salary by the local community. During different times, the most respected cantors were Rabbis Aron-Leib Vladovskiy and Meir Tebenbaum.

There was a dynasty of Kobrin Chassidic tzadiks, who were very influential in the Kobrin Jewish Community for a long time: Moshe son of Israel (died in 1858), Noach son of Naftoli (died 1889), David son of Shlomo (died in 1918), Moshe son of Aharon (died in 1942), Barukh son of Iosif (died in 1949). Special memories were recorded after the death of Chief Rabbis of the Kobrin synagogue - Meir Shafit (died in 1873) and Eliya Lider. At that time, the Chief Rabbi of Kobrin was the most respected Rabbi of Eastern Europe - Rabbi Chaim Berlin.

In 1897, the total population of Kobrin was 10,408; among them were 6,738 Jews. In 1915, many Jewish refugees began to arrive in Kobrin, escaping from German troops. At that time, there were more than 300 people living on the grounds of the synagogue. On August 2, 1915, German airplanes dropped a few bombs in the area of the synagogue, and the southwest corner of the building received serious damage. It was restored 3 years later in 1918.

Between 1895 and 1921, more than 900 Jews emigrated from Kobrin abroad. According to the 1923 census, the Jewish population of Kobrin was 5,431 people, 66% of total Kobrin residents. At that time, the following Jewish educational institutions existed there: Talmud-Torah - a yeshiva, a Jewish school for boys in Hebrew (4-year education), and an artisan school teaching in Yiddish.

The Russian Army entered Kobrin on September 20, 1939. Shortly after that, in the middle of 1940, the Army was ordered to close all synagogues, yeshivas, and Talmud-Torah. Germans occupied Kobrin on July 24, 1941, and on that day, they and their allies gathered 170 male Jews and executed them on the grounds of the synagogue. There were more than 8,000 Jews in the Kobrin Ghetto. Almost all of them were killed by the spring of 1943.

After World War II, the synagogue building was used for grain storage.


Kobrin Synagogue 1949

In 1954, local authorities added water and sewer to the building, as well as a new addition. In 1955 the synagogue building housed a Kobrin brewery. In 1996, the building was given to the local historical museum. Due to lack of funds, the administration of the museum wasn't able to make the much-needed renovations of the building. In 2004, it was decided to return the building to its rightful owner - the Kobrin Jewish Community, which consisted of 60 members.

The planning for the synagogue's upcoming restoration includes a building that can be used simultaneously for two purposes:

  • A place where local Jews can gather together to pray, study, and celebrate Shabbat and Jewish holidays
  • Create a Holocaust and Jewish history museum of Kobrin and surrounds, which can be visited by tourists, local residents, and students, as a part of school curriculums.

Given the lack of any active synagogues in the area, it is envisioned that the synagogue will draw from an area that includes the towns of: Antopol, Brest, Bereza, Chomsk, Chernyany, Chernyavchitzy, Divin, Domachevo, Drogichin, Gorodetz, Ivanovo (Yanovo), Kamenetz, Kobrin, Logishin, Malech, Motol, Pinsk, Pruzhany, Seletz, Shereshevo, Telehany, Tomashevka, Volchin, Vysokoe and Zhabinka.

Kobrin Synagogue 2008


References used for the article:

1. The book of Kobrin: The Scroll of Life and Destruction, ed. Betzalel Shwartz, Israel Chaim Biletzki, Published in Tel-Aviv, 1951, photocopy in English, translated by Avidan and Perry, 1992

2. Encyclopedia Judaica: Thompson Gale/Macmillan, 2nd Edition, 1992

3. Documents in the Grodno Historical Archive

4. Documents in the Byelorussian Archive/Museum of Literature and Art.

For more information, please, refer to the website - Kobrin Synagogue

For questions regarding the article, please contact Maxim Mill


Copyright © 2008 Belarus SIG and Maxim Mill

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