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Small Communities

Visit to Vitebsk (Vitebsk)

In 2018, our visit was dedicated to connecting with the community of Vitebsk (Vitebsk), where Marc Chagall was born. We spent a whole weekend there and got fantastic insights into their community life.

Rav Malkiel, the Rabbi of the Orthodox Community, told us that around 4,000 Jews live in the city of approximately 350,000. From a halachic point of view, there are almost 1,000 Jews. Last Lag Ba'Omer, at the new Ohel David synagogue, a Jewish wedding was celebrated for the first time in many generations. The synagogue's construction, financed by the chairman Leonid Tomchin, was completed a year ago. The impressive structure was built with an open, bright, modern space with fine furnishings. Opposite the Torah Ark hangs reproductions of Chagall's famous windows depicting the Twelve Tribes of Israel. A minyan (quorum of 10 Jewish men) takes place on Friday evenings, with several women and youths also present. About a hundred people came to the synagogue at the Chagim (Jewish Holidays). Brit Mila (Jewish ritual circumcision) and a Bar Mitzvah (Jewish coming-of-age celebration) can also be celebrated here in the synagogue. We attended prayer services on Friday evenings and Shabbat mornings.


In addition to the Orthodox Community, the broader Jewish Community operates with Nahum Zacherowitsch as Chairman. It offers welfare, social work, children and youth meeting places, and cultural events. This congregation works in the premises of the Old Synagogue and in a neighboring house, where the employees of Joint and Chesed-Rachamim also have their offices. The boundaries and collaboration between all institutions seem to be fluid, and it was difficult for us to identify exactly who is responsible for what. We have the impression that everyone helps everyone and supports each other.


Interesting developments bring young students from Israel who live in the city to study. Nahum Zacherowitsch's young grandson accompanied us through the city, and reported on the community's activities and Jewish life there. On Shabbat, we are often invited to dinner and are able to speak with the members in English, German, and Hebrew. The often difficult living circumstances that the people describe going through are very moving. The community operates without a budget with very modest, scarce resources. Nonetheless, it still offers its members an impressive variety of activities:


Friday evenings, a warm Shabbat meal is served. Normally, up to 30 people attend. Sometimes, people also bring their non-Jewish acquaintances who are interested in Jewish culture.


The 'Mazal Tov' playgroup is available for preschool children. Three to six-year-old children are cared for in the program every Sunday between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m.

Marionettes are made according to Jewish themes for the holidays in the community art studio. Through these crafts, participants learn the stories of Hanukkah, Megilat Esther, and other Jewish holidays.


The community library offers Jewish literature and a newspaper on Jewish topics with reports from Israel. The journal, «Mischpacha,» is published twice a year by Arkady Shulmann. Arkady is a journalist and author of several books on the subject of the Holocaust in Belarus. He is an inexhaustible source of information on the city's Jewish history and accompanies us on city tours.


There is also 'Chesed David's (the local name of Chesed-Rachamim) in Vitebsk) with a kitchen on the premises of the municipality. There, non-Orthodox members can prepare and eat Shabbat meals together. There is a multi-purpose room for all community events, which is currently being renovated. The computer club also uses the staff lounge.


The youth have their own space and meeting place for their 'Rimon Klub (Pomegranate Club). Natascha, a very committed employee of the Joint (JDC), was at our side at every opportunity. She talked about competitions specially tailored to young people and how she encourages them to participate. While at the beginning of her activities, she had to contact individual families by phone and repeatedly ask them to come to the community, today she can hardly handle the increasing number of interested young people due to the scarce resources. As a farewell to us, representatives of the youth club gave us a mug and a key ring with their pomegranate logo.

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