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[Page 151]

Chapter Seven:

The Reconstruction
of the Old Community Institutions


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ב    B

The Shtotshul or the Synagogue

Translated by Gloria Berkenstat Freund


The Old Shtotshul

The old Shtotshul [community synagogue] was built in the years 5531–5532 (1771–1772), when, according to the statistics of 1765, the Bialystok Jewish population consisted of about 765 souls. It cannot be compared to the Jewish population of 61,550 – 80 times as many in 1913; true, during this course of time more than 30 permanent houses of prayer were erected in addition to many minyonim [groups of 10 men required for organized prayer], mostly in the quarters outside the old synagogue courtyard. The majority of minyonim and most of the Bialystok Jews prayed and studied in the houses of prayer. There was the khorshul [Choir Synagogue] for the intelligentsia and, 30 years later, the second Choir Synagogue of Adas Yeshurun [Congregation of Israel – Yeshurun is a poetic name for Israel], but the old synagogue was devoted only to the common people. The khazan [cantor], Moshe BAS, and his group of musicians prayed in it for many, many years. The income for the khazan from his poor worshippers was small. The ordinary group that needed a synagogue also grew moderately and required a larger synagogue.

In addition, according to the Czarist law, the synagogue was the representative of all kehile [organized Jewish community; kehilus is the plural] institutions to the regime. The cemetery and the old age home belonged to it. When the governor would come from Grodno to Bialystok, he paid respect to the Jewish kehile by visiting the synagogue, and the local regime also would visit the synagogue on the holidays, during the festive days. It was an embarrassment for the congregation to have such a neglected, small synagogue.

The Shtotshul also was venerated by all the Jewish kehilus and was an object of legends among the masses. Because of all of this, the idea to erect a new synagogue awoke among the synagogue worshippers, synagogue gabaim [sextons] and the notables in the town. And during khol hamoed [intervening days] of Passover 5665 (1905) a resolution was adopted to raze the small, old synagogue and to erect in its place a new, large synagogue at the same location.

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They Begin to Build

The decision began to be carried out the same year, on Lag B'Omer [a holiday traditionally celebrating the end of a 2nd century plague – 23rd May 1905]. The old synagogue was torn down during the course of several weeks' work[6]. and a cornerstone for the new synagogue immediately was lain on the same spot. However, the 7,000 rubles that the building committee had for the purpose was only sufficient to erect the walls of the synagogue up to about one and half arshin [Russian measurement equaling about 28 inches] in height and the work ceased. The gabbaim [sextons] also decided to take no further part in the work.

There were pogroms in Bialystok during this year and the next year, 5666 [1906]. The soldiers made use of the site of the torn–down synagogue as a position from which to shoot at the Jewish multitudes. This is how it lasted until the summer of 1907. The simple public even believed all of the troubles had come to Bialystok along with the murderers and pogroms as a punishment for tearing down the old synagogue before a new one had been erected.

At the beginning of the summer, 1907, a commission was created to find the monetary means to complete the synagogue. Then, a certain city mediator proposed that he [would] undertake the completion of the synagogue if he were chosen as gabbai and the necessary money from the communal tax would be received as a result of his intercession with the governor with whom he had influence. Yankl JANOWICZ was then chosen as gabbai, Zalman RAPORORT – as legal scholar and Noakh ZABLUDOWSKI as trustee. The mediator mentioned did receive the communal tax of up to 23,000 rubles and the building was completed up to covering the roof. Then the work stopped because of a lack of money. The walls were not completed; the windows and the doors were nailed shut with boards. However, the common people began to pray in it beginning in 1910.

None of the gabbaim and town notables wanted to participate with their contributions in the building of the [synagogue]. The gabbaim were angry with the “common people” from the time of the workers' movement. They argued that such common people did not need a synagogue; they could fulfill their religious obligations with the old synagogue. They also argued that Bialystok had enough houses of prayer in the synagogue courtyard, of which several stood empty. The intelligentsia

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had another objection: a synagogue particularly did not need to be erected in the dirty synagogue courtyard; the small Choir Synagogue that was located on the narrow, dirty side street needed to be closed and in its place a large, modern synagogue should be erected in the center of the city. Meanwhile, the synagogue remained unfinished.


The New Synagogue is Completed

In 1912, at the close of Shabbos during Menakhem Av [name of the month equivalent to July–August], there was a large meeting to discuss the completion of the synagogue. A new council and a new gabbai were chosen. The mediator, with whom there had been money conflicts according to the account of Noakh ZABLUDOWSKI, resigned as gabbai and one of the most respected men in Bialystok, Khona–Hersh NOWIK, the co–owner of then large Jewish factory firm, C. NOWIK and sons, was chosen in his place.

The new council that itself had given contributions for the synagogue issued an appeal to the entire city to help complete the synagogue. The appeal brought results; large contributions of money and materials were given because it was then a good time for manufacturing and trade in Bialystok. There was no lack of money in the city at that time. There only had to be trust in the leaders and this was accomplished, particularly for the new gabbai, who was above suspicion, and he actually collected large contributions in the city, even from the non–Jewish banks. The construction went at a quick and intensive pace.

The building cost from 75 to 80 thousand rubles. There were 600 seats for men and 500 for women. In addition, there were two small kehile prayer houses on both sides of an anteroom.

The celebration of the inauguration began on the 26th of Elul 5673 ([28 September] 1913). The Rabbi, Doctor Josef MOLHIWER opened the synagogue and gave the opening speech. The evening of the next day was set for carrying all of the Torah scrolls into the synagogue. They were carried in under 14 canopies with a [parade of] torches and music, accompanied by a joyful crowd

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of a thousand people. There was a large banquet at Khona–Hersh NOVAK's on the third evening.[7]

In the Bialystoker Togenblat [Bialystok Daily Newspaper], number 63, of the 14th of March, 1914, was printed from the synagogue representatives, Gabbai Kh. H. NOWIK, authority Zalman RAPOPORT, treasuser Noakh ZABLUDOWSKI: “The gabbaim of the Great Synagogue hereby express their most cordial thank you to the building committee of the Great Synagogue, which consisted of the following members:

“Feywl KHOHAN, Yitzhak POGORELSKI, Shabtai LEBENHAFT, Meir ROZENTAL, Mendl KRECZMER, Asher TOPOKSI, Leib KAPLAN, Shmuel PRILUKER, Shmuel PINES, Borukh GOTLIB, Efroim AVENT, Avraham DOLIDSKI, Leib RAPOPORT, Yisroel TIKOCKI, Shimeon RUBIN, Nekhemia HERC, Shaul KANTOR, Leib MOZOWER, Meir Yitzhak ABELIOW, who in the course of a year and a half, worked to bring about the completion of the synagogue building with great effort and devotion, and such a great success was achieved thanks to their energetic cooperation, and the synagogue is a beautiful and magnificent building. We express our thanks to them and to all of those who worked on behalf of the synagogue building for our nation and our country.”


In the Days of Awe and At Ceremonial Occasions

However, the new, great, magnificent Bialystok Synagogue – and a true temple – did not receive the right recognition as a place of prayer and learning because it remained only a synagogue for the common Jew as before. In addition, as no khazan and choir prayed in it, no group was drawn by song; only a small, insignificant group came here. If there was prayer with a khazan and choir, it gave the impression of a concert hall. The crowd gave an ovation to a successful song from the khazan. There was a lack of the earnest praying and intent of the praying in a house of prayer.

However, the synagogue was packed with worshippers during the Days of Awe, mainly those who did not worship during the rest of the year, who did not have seats in the houses of prayer and in the Choral Synagogue, mainly the young and the nationalistically inclined intelligentsia. The appearance of the brightly lit thousand heads of the synagogue worshippers at Kol Nidre [opening prayer on the eve of Yom Kippur], during Yom Kippur was captivating.

The synagogue made an imposing impression at all gala celebrations with the presence of all government officials, because the Rabiner [non–orthodox rabbi], the Rabbi, Dr. Rabe

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Gedalihu ROZENMAN gave impressive, content–rich, religious (and sometimes also political) speeches in the national language (Polish). All commemorations by the Jewish schools of every category were celebrated in it.

All large religious and national celebrations also were arranged in the synagogue. On the 27th of Adar 5683 ([15 March] 1923), honor was given here to the late Nukhem SOKOLOW, because he had been in Bialystok representing the interests of Keren Hayesod [The Foundation Fund]. The synagogue was fully packed as well as all of the surrounding alleys. Great orations were made at his arrival. The representatives of the synagogue presented him with the gift of a Torah scroll. He gave a speech of thanks. He also wrote an entire article in the synagogue Pinkes [book of records] in which he described the great honor that he was given in Bialystok and in its synagogue with the gift of the Torah scroll, as a symbol of the unity of Torah, the people, religion and life; the Torah scroll that was given to him was a symbol that the Torah would be a guide for him in all his deeds. He equated the present welcome that he received here with the welcome that he and [Chaim] WEIZMAN received in London from the London kehile [organized Jewish community] when he returned from San Remo on the 3rd of Sivan 5679 ([1 June] 1919) and ([the London] rabbis also presented a Torah scroll).

The Torah scroll was sent to him later with two synagogue delegates to the 14th Zionist conference in Vienna, 5686 (1925) and it was given to him with a great parade on the morning after the closing of the congress in the presence of hundreds of invited guests.[8]

Thus, the new, large Shtotshul in Bialystok acquired a great religious–national symbolic significance inwardly and outwardly. It was a central religious gathering place and a place of prayer during the Days of Awe as well as for those who did not pray during the rest of the year, whose numbers grew larger from year to year.


The Budget of the Synagogue

From 5694 (1934) on, the synagogue was incorporated into the institutions of the Vaad haKehile [council of the organized religious community] that gave contributions for its expenses of 4,000 gildn yearly.

Its expenditures in 5694 were – 14,950.11 gildn; in 5965 (1935) – 14,521.96. Its income was 4,000 gildn from the Vaad haKehile; the remaining income was from renting seats, mainly during the Days of Awe, and from aliyus [being called up to the Torah during services].

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The expenses were: for a khazan [cantor] 4,000 gildn a year, 5,000 gildn for the choir. The remainder was for the shamosim [sextons] and other requirements.

Translator's Footnotes

  1. When the Talmud says (2”2, 10”3, 70”2): A synagogue should not be demolished until another synagogue is built, this is because there would not be a place to pray during the time of construction. However, there were many houses of prayer in Bialystok then. In addition, it is permitted by Reb Chaim HERC in Questions and Responses, a book of manuscripts, question 17. Return
  2. I took the dates from the Pinkes [book of records] of the synagogue. Return
  3. See Bedrekh [On the Way], number 25 (Sivan 5696 [1936]). Return

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