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Image: Children's dance group 2020
Small Communities

Visiting Brest

In 2015, we visited Brest, a medium-sized city on the border with Poland. Roughly 300,000 people live in Brest, including approximately 1,500 Jews. Active Jewish life began in the 1990s, and today there are three Jewish communities: Orthodox, Conservative, and Liberal.

We visited the Liberal congregation, which was founded in 1991. It counts 117 registered members, most of whom also belong to one of the religious congregations. To join the Liberal community, one needs a Jewish parent.


Since 2012, Regina Simjonowitsch has presided over the Liberal Congregation. The Liberal Community's premises are located in a simple basement. While the condition of the place was disastrous, they started renting and renovated with great effort and simple means. Photos of Menachem Begin, born in Brest, hang in the entrance area.


Community activities include 'Limud (learning)' groups, 'Mazal Tov' groups that hold craft activities, dance and theater performances for children on Jewish holidays, youth employment, a women's association, discussion groups, and social assistance programs. The community also documents the life stories of older members.


As a border town with Poland, Brest was the first town in Belarus to be attacked by German troops during World War II. Popular resistance was unprecedented and lasted for two months. Soldiers and families had withdrawn to a fortified area of the city and fought from there. Today, this area has been designed as a large park with monuments reminiscent of that time. Attendance is compulsory for all fifth-graders.


Ancient gravestones («matzevot» in Yiddish/Hebrew) are stored in sections of the fortress. In the post-WWII period, these gravestones were used to build roads and houses due to a lack of alternative building materials. In the 1950s, the city initiated a major project in which student volunteers removed all Jewish gravestones from public and private buildings. Sadly, when we visited the site where these old gravestones went, we literally saw them dumped into a pile of Jewish rubble.


We also visited what remains of the old synagogue in Brest. Only the foundation wall of this once-sacred building stands, and it is located in the basement of a modern cinema complex.

The discussions we had with members of the community and the guided visits gave us the feeling of a well-organized and active, albeit small, community.

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