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Chapter 4 (cont.)

The Synagogue and the Community's Religious Life (cont.)

Model of the Wooden Synagogue of Yurburg

Model of the Wooden Synagogue of Yurburg

The model of artist Moshe Verbin, member of kibbutz Yakum, a reconstruction of the synagogue in Yurburg.
This model, made of straw, was made on the basis of two sketches, one of Andreoli dated 1872, the other of Chekarsky, dated 1903.

 

"Talmud Torah" students with their Rabbis, 1913 (Students only)

 

"Tarbut" elementary school 1920
Its founder and principal Bakin sits on the right, the teachers next to him.

 

The highest grade of the Gymnasium

The highest grade of the Gymnasium in the first year of its existence (without external students)
The teachers - from right; Kaplan (gymnastics), Lifschitz (Natural Science), Mrs. Efrat-Rosenboim (Languages),
Zentkovsky (Tenach), Dr. Efrat (Principal, Mathematics) Kosotzky (Literature); (X - x)

The students - from right: Dartwin, Kobelkovsky, Zevulun P., Hannah Feinberg (x - ? ),
Shlomowitz; below to the right - Hinda Levinberg, Clara Petrikansky

 

Eighth grade of the Hebrew Gymnasium

Eighth grade of the Hebrew Gymnasium, students and teachers

The synagogues constituted an important center in the Jewish communities of the Diaspora at all times. The synagogue was not only a place of worship and Torah study, but also the center of the community's religious and social life. It was the home of the wise Bible scholars and harbored the organizational and social institutions of the community, such as the various charity institutions, soup kitchens etc.

Jewish history teaches us that once a Jewish community was founded and settled somewhere, a synagogue was immediately erected. At first, it was a small building, enough for a minyan (quorum of ten adult male Jews), and as the community grew, so did the synagogue.

We do not have the exact dates as to when synagogues were erected in Lithuania or Yurburg, our town. No community was formed according to plan, or at a specific date. From the events of general history we know that the Jews of Germany were driven to the land of Lithuania in the twelvth and thirteenth century, following the Catholic-Christian persecutions at the time of the Crusaders. Lithuania's residents, still divided into tribes at the time, were pagans and did not oppose the German Jewish settlers' taking hold of the land, realizing that the cultural level, craftsmanship and commercial talents of the Jews would be helpful to the Lithuanian groups in their villages.

From the direction of eastern Europe too - from Russia - waves of Jews arrived in Lithuania, due to hardship and sometimes also at the invitation of the rulers (Vitautas -1399). Thus over the centuries Jews from west and east gathered in the land of Lithuania, looking different, speaking a different language, and with different customs. It is presumed that the Russian Jews arrived in Lithuania first; they spoke in Slavic dialects, Russian in particular. The Russian Jews brought along special Jewish customs and tradition. The persecuted German Jews who arrived in Lithuania also had a rich cultural-Jewish background, their own customs and tradition. The German Jews spoke Yiddish, a German dialect interspersed with Hebrew words.

Hundreds of years passed until the two divisions - the eastern (Russia) and western (Germany) found a common language and merged. In the past hundreds of years nothing is left of the Lithuanian Jews' roots and only the family names are a sign of their origin.

Names such as Greenberg, Goldman, Weinstein, Ziman etc. indicate the German origin, whereas names such as Ansky, Kobelsky, Lotzky, Ritov, Riziov etc. are evidence of their Russian roots. The merging process which affected all the Jews of Lithuania, of course also affected the fathers of our town of Yurburg. Therefore, the process of composing the Jewish communities in Lithuania was very lengthy.

When the Lithuanians became Catholic Christians, hatred of Jews increased in Lithuania. The Catholic Christians considered the Jews as their competitors in trade and crafts. Nevertheless, the Lithuanian Jews did not suffer from persecution or expulsions, except for one short expulsion, in 1495. After eight years of expulsion the Jews returned to their places of residence and their belongings were returned to them. The Jews in Lithuania also had privileges, among them the privilege to erect synagogues, on condition they were built of wood, at the same height as the buildings around them, and did not stand out. It is quite probable that in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries synagogues were already erected in the Jewish communities of Lithuania and in Yurburg too. Accurate numbers regarding Yurburg's population only exist from 1766. In that year Yurburg had 7391 inhabitants, 2833 of them Jews. At that time synagogues already existed in Yurburg, although we do not yet have any details as to the life of the Jewish community here.

*

The great synagogue in Yurburg was built in 1790. It was a large and magnificent building. In 1870 the synagogue was expanded and renovated. On its upper level the women's section was installed and downstairs the prayer room. On the attic a room was set aside for welcoming distinguished guests.

From the eighteenth century there were already famous Jewish craftsmen in Poland and Lithuania, builders, such as Simcha-Haim Ben Habanai, Shlomo Malotzak, David Friedlander from Lodmior and Benjamin Malasak. These builders specialized in wood building and they also built a number of famous synagogues in Lithuania. The price of building wood in Lithuania was cheap, for there were plenty of forests around the Jewish communities.

From the research carried out by engineer David Kotliar, published in the Lithuanian Jewry's Book of Remembrance, we learn that the builders, mentioned above, were those who built the great synagogue in Yurburg.

The Yurburg synagogue was one of the most beautiful buildings from the architectural point of view, and all those who saw it were impressed. It was erected at the end of a broad square and looked very special. Its roof was composed of three slopes, slanting onto each other, creating an interesting architectural combination. Upon entering the synagogue, one could see the traditional petitioning dome over the pulpit which brings to mind the "east" and the land of our fathers. The Holy Ark was particularly impressive - its magnificent wood carvings were carved in a splendid ornamental style and considered popular art creations. The prayer pillar and Elyahu's chair were also tastefully installed.

The picturesque building of the synagogue drew the attention of artists and painters from Lithuania as well as from abroad. In 1850 the famous painter Andreoli came from Italy and painted the Yurburg synagogue. He was enchanted by its special architectural structure and the composition of the wood carvings inside. The picturesque motives and the colors of the plants interwoven with animals - deer and lions - and the figures and symbols that have been holy to our people for generations, such as the Tables of the Testimony, the Candelabrum, Star of David etc. were also most impressive. Anyone entering the synagogue stood in awe of the splendor and magnificence he beheld. The Jews of Yurburg were very proud of their synagogue.

Zusiya Efron, the researcher of Jewish art, writes the following in the album "Wooden Synagogues in Poland and Lithuania": "Until World War I there were 350 wooden synagogues, and in the period between the two world wars about 100 wooden synagogues were still standing, some of them outstanding architectural creations. Among these synagogues the synagogue of Yurburg, Wolfa and Narobala were particularly splendid. In the Holocaust the Nazis and their helpers destroyed the last remaining synagogues and nothing is left of them at present."

*

In the spring, summer and fall, the synagogue abounded with worshippers who loved the building and its special atmosphere. Only in the cold winter days, when there was ice and snow, the synagogue was totally empty. When it was very cold, the worshippers huddled together in the warm house of prayer and the three small synagogues, the "kloisim" of craftsmen and small traders. The "kloisim" also served as "hedarim" (religious elementary school) of the schoolchildren. About twenty children studied in our time in these "hedarim" with Rabbis, according to the old version.

About two hundred children studied at the "Tarbut" school which was a nationalist-Zionist school in spirit. At this school general subjects were taught - Hebrew in Hebrew.

The former name of the elementary school was "Talmud Torah", here mainly Jewish subjects were taught. This was a sort of "upgraded heder". Between the two world wars "Talmud Torah" became a modern elementary school, according to the State Laws, and at the wish of the parents, and it was called "Tarbut". Two Rabbis, Bible scholars, taught the Jewish subjects, they are fondly remembered - Arie Leib (Leibzig) Gut and Rabbi Haim-Nathan Yoziper. The other teachers and principals were graduates of Teachers' Colleges, in accordance with the Law, and they taught all the study subjects in a nationalist-Zionist spirit. We remember Israel Bakin (the first Principal), Hillel Zaks, David Gorschein, Israel Dimantman, Haim Siger, Israel Chahnovsky and others.

In addition to the Hebrew school, there was another small elementary school, where all the subjects were taught in Yiddish. The Yiddish school did not stress the nationalist-Zionist idea as an ideological principle.

It must be mentioned that the Jewish children of Yurburg did not study at the "gentile" schools where studies were in Lithuanian, the official language. Lithuanian was only taught at elementary school as a compulsory official subject. The Jews usually spoke Yiddish among themselves. Many of the older generation knew Hebrew, corresponded and even calculated in Hebrew already in the eighteenth and nineteenth century.

The pupils of the Gymnasium spoke Hebrew in the framework of the Gymnasium. The slogan was: "Jew: Speak Hebrew!" At the pioneer youth movements activities -mainly talks- were held in Hebrew.

The Jewish community in Yurburg was composed of various groups. There were religious people who observed the religious duties and there were Liberals. The non-religious also respected religion and tradition. The character of the Jewish community in Yurburg may be defined as traditional in its lifestyle, customs and Jewish atmosphere. There were no mixed marriages in Yurburg and no assimilation.

The members of the Yurbug community respected the religious leaders and especially the Rabbi, Rabbi Avraham Diamant, who was the Chief Rabbi between the two world wars and almost up to the bitter end of the Jews of Yurburg.

Rabbi Diamant was a handsome man, a man of learning, who knew how to mix the biblical with Derech Eretz (respect). He was realistic and sensitive to the spirit of the time. He had a charming, pleasant personality, and was very much liked. Rabbi Diamant was respected in Yurburg, and although he was not in the habit of going down to the people, they came to him to consult him. When the Rabbi of the town spoke his inspiring words of substance, the Jews of Yurburg listened and admired him. The Rabbinical Chair in Yurburg was held in great esteem in Lithuania.

Of the Rabbis of Yurburg the best known are Rabbi Yacov-Yosef Harif, Rabbi Yehezkel Lifshitz and last but not least - Rabbi Avraham Diamant.

Rabbi Haim-Reuven Rubinstein, a wise and scholarly man, served as the Dayan (Judge) of the community in the last years. However, Rabbi Dayan Rubinstein was not as striking a personality as his colleague Rabbi Diamant. On matters of Bible Law Rabbi Rubinstein would be consulted. He had a large biblical library in his home which also contained holy books in German. Rabbi Rubinstein devoted days and nights to research on Jewish subjects and he published a number of books at his own expense. He used to give most of his books away in order to spread the word of the Torah among the people. One of his books is called " The words of Reuven". About a year before the Holocaust he served as the community Rabbi instead of Rabbi Diamant.

Cantor Alperowitz was very popular both among the religious and in general. He was a scholar and also served as the chief "Shochet" (religious slaughterer) of the community. The cantor will also be fondly remembered for the choir he cultivated and of which he was the conductor. He composed melodies to prayer chapters. In the last year his voice grew weaker, but he made an effort in spite of his hoarseness to fulfill his task. The Yurburg choir made his job easier and pleased the worshippers.

The "Shochet" (religious slaughterer) Rabbi Aharon Shlomowitz was a Bible scholar and popular. His daughter studied at the Hebrew Gymnasium and was in the first class that graduated.

Rabbi Bishko was an interesting and colorful person among the religious circles. He did not belong to the "holy vessels" of the community, for he was a small- scale industrialist. He had a candy factory at his home, and earned his bread this way. However, Rabbi Bishko, who was a "Talmid-Hacham" (learned man) was not satisfied with his physical work, but also spent a lot of time spreading Judaism among the younger generation.

He was one of the founders of the "Tiferet Bachurim" (Splendid Boys) company and a small yeshiva where he taught the Torah to youngsters, at nightfall. Although somewhat peculiar, Rabbi Bishko was a simple, nice man, and with all his devotion to spreading the Torah among the masses, he was quite close to this world. He sent his children to the Hebrew Gymnasium. It is said that his eldest son, Aharon Bishko, was saved from the Holocaust and is living somewhere in Europe. Aharon also visited Israel.

The Jewish community in Yurburg was composed of many different social groups - Jews with different outlooks lived together in a calm and peaceful atmosphere - each to his own belief. Most of the youngsters lived according to the new life style and wanted to be educated. The graduates of the Hebrew Gymnasium in the town went to study at the state university in Kovna or the Hebrew Teachers College. Some of them also learned technological professions. Many of them made preparations to go to Eretz Israel.

As Yurburg was close to the German border, humanistic ideas and ideals were introduced. However, the Jews also went to the House of Prayer and studied the Torah, as was the custom in those days. There was a large biblical library at the House of Prayer and the scholars perused its holy books. No one made light of the other's belief.

Yurburg's Jewish character was carefully maintained, for it was a town with national and traditional nationalistic-religious values.

Notwithstanding the difficulties of the Diaspora, and the economic woes of the community of Israel in Lithuania, Yurburg among them, there was hope for a better future. As always, Jews believed with all their heart that "the eternal glory of Israel shall not fail . . "

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