It is reasonable to assert that the first Jews appeared in Gomel as early as in the days of Kievan Rus, and that a new group came around the time of the Vytautas rule.
It is more likely that Jews first appeared in Gomel in the first half of the 16th century. There exists a document attesting to the fact that in 1637, the Jewish community of Belitsa (near Gomel) was listed among the Jewish communities of the GDL who owed taxes. In the 1640's, the town had about 2000 Jews.
During the Bogdan Khmelnytsky (Chmielniecki) uprising in 1648, a large number of refugees from the Ukraine were concentrated in Gomel. In 1648, the Golovatskii Cossack detachment of Hetman Bogdan Khmelnytsky's army seized Gomel and slaughtered all the Jews. An official dispatch reported that in the city, "more than 2000 Jews, with their wives and children, were killed." According to other sources, 1500 persons of both sexes were killed, and many of the survivors were forcibly baptized. According to local legends, only one woman, out of the entire Jewish community, survived - an ancestor of the Babushkin family. Upon restoration of Polish authority 17 years later, in 1665, the Jewish community was revived, and forcibly baptized Jews were allowed to return to Judaism.
By the 1770's, the Jewish community had grown markedly. At that time, it consisted of about 70 households (from other sources - 60 courtyards and 56 huts “without courtyards”), and the number of members amounted to 596 persons, which was about 32% of the population of the city proper, or about 24% of the population of greater Gomel. Documents of those years mention Tsolka Zalmenovich ("who had left for Poland to trade"), the widow of Movshov from Lvov, Nausevich, Leibovich, Abramovich and others. Among the Jews of Gomel were merchants engaged in big business (who employed other workers) as well as smaller merchants, artisans, people of small means, the very poor, and the clergy.
In accordance with the laws of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Jews who lived in Belarusian cities formed not only a separate caste or religion, but at the same time a recognized group whose rights were protected and who formed a Kagal (kehila). A Kagal was a community, a unit of social organization of Jewry, which had developed a particular culture, with the Yiddish language as a means of communication and Hebrew as the language of education, office work, and the Jewish religion. The Kagal collected taxes and decided all social and religious issues for the Jews. In the 1770's the spiritual head of the Gomel Kagal was one Rabbi Davidovich - the highest religious authority and the judge of matters of faith and family life of Jews.
In the beginning of the 19th century Gomel became one of the centers of development of Chabad Hasidism. A favorite pupil of the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Lyad, and the most famous of his followers in Gomel was Isaac Ben-Yitzhak Mordechai Epstein (ca. 1780 - 1857), the author of various works on the Kabbalah and sermons.
From the memoirs of Hasid Avraham Dovber from Bobruysk: "When I was six years old in 5592 (1832), before my father sent me in cheder, he took me to Lubavitch for the holiday of Shavuot. After Pesach (approximately 40 days before the trip), I learned that my father was going to take me to Lyubavich that year. Preparations for this trip began after Lag B'Omer (for two and a half weeks) . For Lag B'Omer, a big meal was arranged in one of the major synagogues in the city of Gomel and the gaon ( "Genius" - the title of the great jurist), r. Isaac of Gomel, the rabbi of the city, gave a Hasidic sermon. And because it was impossible to simultaneously find room for all the Hasidim and townsfolk, the celebration continued for three or four or even five or six days."
In 1891 Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer bar Reuven Dov Dessler was born in Gomel . He was an outstanding thinker and educator and one of spiritual leaders of Mussar, a Jewish ethical movement. Rav Dessler became a sage of his generation who revived Jewish life in England. He saw his principal mission in reviving spiritual life of Jewish people destroyed by the Holocaust.
About a thousand of his articles and lessons recorded by his disciples were compiled in the book Michtav me-Eliyahu (Letter from Eliyahu), which was first published in 5715 (1955), a year after his death. That selection of his works was reprinted many times, and today it is one of the most frequently studied books in Mussar Movement.
The first large industrial enterprises in Gomel were owned by Jews. Shkolnikov’s tallow-candle factory was started in 1840 followed by Lyubin’s grain-husking factory (1853), Lovyanov’s animal bone processing factory (1864), Shenderov’s milling factory in Belitsa (1874), Sheynkman’s honey processing factory (1877), two yeast factories owned by Gamburg and Itonova (1879).
In 1864 there were 9730 Jews in Gomel and the Gomel Uyezd. Several of them participated in local administration. In the early 1860s, Shevel Aryevich Ainbinder and Tzalya Leybovich Gezentzvey became elected officials of Gomel city government. Movsha Aronovich Utevskiy was a member of the City Council. The following people occupied public senior positions of different levels: Leyba Girshevich Brovenman, Boruch Davidovich Bobruyskiy, Abram Perlin, and Kiva Fridkin. City resident Yankel Shmayevich Itenberg was a member of the Housing Commission, while Mark Solomonovich Katzenellenbogen was a private physician and healer.
According to the list of Mogilev Gubernia officials (1871), Merchant Tzodik Leybovich Nechamkin was a member of Gomel City Council, and Michel Yevseyevich Zakharin represented Jewish residents of the city in the Housing Commission.
The following people were Rabbis of Gomel: Abram Chaimovich Elyashov (from 1862), Zelik Zak (from 1880s), Menachem Leyb Levin and Rafael-Mordechai Barishanskiy (from 1893).
There were 9 synagogues in Gomel in 1863, and 26 synagogues in 1897.
Before 1890s Gomel was a small uyezd seat. Jews constituted a significant part of its population. In 1893, 7,164 Jewish men and 7,308 Jewish women lived in Gomel (the corresponding numbers for Orthodox Christian men and women were 6,996 and 7,295).
According to the All-Russia Population Census of 1897, there were 20.385 Jews in Gomel, 55% of the whole city population, 26 synagogues, 25 houses of prayer, a Jewish school of the first rank (200 students), Ratner’s Gymnasium for Jewish men (27 teachers and 255 students, Lev Vygotsky was among its graduates), Progymnazium for women (first four classes of Gymnasium - high school - with 90 students), Jewish Elementary School (197 students) Syrkina’s four-class school for women (403 students), Golomshtok’s Talmud Torah (152 boys), 45 Cheders (662 students), and a number of charitable institutions.
The number of Jewish residents in Gomel increased significantly after the expulsion of Jews from Moscow in 1897, when they left the center of Russia and started to settle in the “Pale of Settlement”. Many of the Jews settled in Gomel, where they quickly built up trade. Gomel began to grow up rapidly. Fashion stores with high turnovers were started. In trade development Gomel was almost competing with Kiev. Trading timber, flax, and hemp fiber played an important role in the economic life of Gomel. Annual trade turnover between 1870 and early 1890s was 2 million rubles, while in early 1890s it was 5.5 million rubles.
The wave of pogroms in Imperial Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century did not bypass Gomel. From August 29 - September 1, 1903, there was a pogrom in Gomel, during which ten Jews were killed, many were wounded and much Jewish property was looted. A Jewish self-defense was able to rebuff the pogrom, the first time in the history of the Russian Empire. After the pogrom there was a famous trial in Gomel (October 1904 - January 1905, November 1906), where not just the perpetrators of the pogrom were tried but also the 36 members of the Jewish self-defense. Despite the negative atmosphere that prevailed in court, the testimony of about a thousand witnesses determined the perpetrators of the pogrom and the role of the Czar's authorities, who patronized them. Some of the members of Jewish self-defense were acquitted, while others were sentenced to imprisonment for several months. The process had a huge public response in Russia and abroad.
In the spring of 1909, an armed organization of Jewish self-defense "Hashomer" ( "Guard") was created in Gomel. Its head was Israel Shochat, from Gomel. Historian Howard Sachar wrote that he "was moving from place to place, trying to persuade the settlers to take over the land that they cultivated ... If the Jews are able to cultivate the land, then shouldn't they be able to defend it?" “Hashomer” became the nucleus from which later evolved the Haganah - the Jewish paramilitary organization in then British Mandate of Palestine, while men from Gomel became its first soldiers.<img src="/images/news_thumbs/hist/7.jpg" />
During World War I thousands of refugees fled from the approaching frontline to Gomel, Several yeshivas of Poland and Lithuania also were resettled in Gomel.
A Yeshiva, which was opened in Navogrudok in 1896 by Rabbi Yosef Yoysl Horowitz (later he received a nickname “Saba (grandfather) from Novogrudok”), passed through all stages of these misfortunes.
In 1915, when the front line during World War I began to move eastward, Yosef Yoysl moved his yeshiva to Gomel. They did not have a synagogue of their own, so the students slept on the benches in the city synagogues, lived from hand to mouth and went around in worn-out clothes. But they professed the teachings of the Mussar, which in those years was popular among mitnagdim (Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox). It was the Novogrudok yeshiva that was the ideological center of this doctrine, and the ideas of asceticism were particularly attractive to them. Deprivations suffered by the whole nation at this time, led many followers to Yosef Yoysl.
The number of yeshiva students reached several hundred. They were actively moving through the territory of Russia, not paying any attention to the "color" of power - "white", "red", "green". In many cities there were new yeshivas professing Mussar, and the number of followers reached two thousand.
In 1919, the activity of Rabbi Yosef Yoysl's yeshiva began to seriously worry the Gomel authorities, and so he moved to Kiev with all 300 students. But centers of Mussar remained in Belarus - in Mogilev, Bobruisk, Rechitsa. Moreover, when believers from Kharkov, Rostov, Nizhny Novgorod came fleeing from repression they represented a considerable power. The Central Branch of yeshiva remained in Gomel. It was headed by Rabbi Yosef Yoysl’s son-in-law, Rabbi Abraham Yafen.
Rav Yosef-Yoysl died of typhus in Kiev in 1920 , and his son-in-law led the entire system of yeshivas bearing the name "Novogrudok”. In 1921 he was arrested and, together with a group of his students, was imprisoned in investigative prison of Chrezvychaynaya Komissiya (ЧК - чрезвыча́йная коми́ссия, (Russian) – a predecessor of the KGB)
After being freed, Abraham Yafen decided to emigrate. Leaving Gomel, about six hundred men in small groups crossed the border (with the help of smugglers) in the area of Baranovichi. Once in Poland, they founded the yeshiva in Bialystok. (After World War II, Abraham Yafen recreated yeshiva "Navogrudok” in Brooklyn, one of the boroughs of New York.)
At the same time, there lived and worked in Gomel the most authoritative expert on the Chabalah in the Lithuanian area - Baal Aleshem - Rabbi Shlomo Bar Haim Eliashiv. He was visited by many spiritual leaders of the generation, among whom were Rabbi Israel-Meir Akoen (Hafets Haim) and Rabbi Itskhak Blazer (Rabbi Itsele Peterburger), who had been one of the founders of the Musar ethical movemen.
“In this world one should use every opportunity to be near him,” – said Hafets Haim, - “since who knows whether in the world of Truth we will be able to even get near the level of the Heaven where his soul will dwell”. Hafets Haim explained, “All of us are acting in the lower world hoping to influence the higher worlds. But he (Rabbi Elyashiv) is acting directly in the higher worlds, with the footpaths to which he is very familiar”. (“Gdolej adorot”)..
Elyashiv’s grandson, Rabbi Josif Shalom Elyashiv (born in 1909) is a major halachic authority of Ashkenazi Jewry and one of the spiritual leaders of the party Degel ha-Torah. He has published some of his grandfather's works.
Shortly after the 1917 October Revolution, all Chederim were closed in Gomel. Synagogues and houses of worship were gradually transformed into clubs and movie theatres.
In 1926, Jews (37,475) accounted for about 44% of the population of Gomel. Most of them were employed in the cooperative handicraft industry. There was a significant increase in the number of Jews in government offices and educational institutions. Factories and plants founded in 1928-39 employed many Jews, who worked as foremen, engineers and production managers. In 1920-29 there was a Jewish teacher training school, an evening Jewish school and a Jewish party school. Up until World War II, there were public schools where teaching was conducted in Yiddish. Religious life was barely surviving only in private prayer meetings (so-called secret minyans).
In 1939 the Jewish population of Gomel was 37,100 people.
On August 19, 1941, using their military superiority, the German troops forced their way into Gomel. The Nazis set up a brutal occupation regime in the city. Having first done away with the Soviet and party officials and their families, the fascists and their henchmen moved to conduct total extermination of the Jewish population of the city. According to the order issued by the city’s first military commandant, ober-lieutenant Swerch, all Jews were forced to wear humiliating yellow patches. Next, all contacts and meetings between Jewish and non-Jewish (Byelorussian, Russian, Ukrainian) residents of Gomel were prohibited. Under the pain of death, Jews were forbidden from appearing in the streets of the city. A little later, the Nazis set up four ghettos in different parts of Gomel: 1) on Novo-Liubensk Street, 2) on Bykhovsk Street, 3) in the Village of Monastyrka, and 4) in Novo-Belits. More than 4 thousand Jewish civilians – old people, women, and children – were forced into these ghettos at gunpoint.
Intolerable living conditions were created in all of the Gomel ghettos due to starvation, overcrowding, lack of basic sanitary and hygienic amenities; foodstuffs were not delivered.
Later on, during the investigation, one of the henchmen and accomplices of the German criminals – Potapenko E.V. – reported the following: “In the camps on Novo-Liubenskaya and Bykhovskaya Streets and in the Village of Monastyrka, about 4 thousand detained civilians were imprisoned. Every one of them had yellow squares on the chest and on the back, and they were forbidden to leave the camp territory under the threat of execution. No food was delivered to the camp during the detainees’ stay there. Entire groups of detainees died of starvation. Some male detainees were used to clean streets, and they were treated in the most brutal way. They were beaten up for no reason. The detainees of the Gomel ghettos were brutalized by the Germans and the policemen who were guarding those death camps. Frequently, German soldiers (alone or in groups) broke into the ghetto and robbed its residents. At the same time, the Germans and policemen organized a pogrom of all city apartments belonging to Jews. All Jewish property was plundered.
November 3 – 4, 1941 were the last days in the lives of the prisoners of the Gomel ghettos. Defenseless women, old people, and children were shot by Nazi executioners in an anti-tank trench near the tractor repair shop (MTM) in the woods near the Village of Leshchinets, and at the 9th kilometer of the Gomel – Chernigov highway. In total, about 4 thousand people were shot.<img src="/images/news_thumbs/hist/11.jpg" />
After the war, Yiddish schools were not restored. In 1945, a petition from the former congregants requesting a return of the synagogue building to them was rejected by the authorities. In 1947, religious Jews bought a private house for a synagogue with the funds they had collected, but authorities confiscated the building and banned prayer meetings. In 1963, police attacked a private prayer meeting, dispersed the praying people and seized two Torah scrolls and other religious artifacts.
In 1959 about 25,000 Jews lived in Gomel. In 1979 there were 26,416 Jews. In 1989, there were 22,574 Jews. In the late 1980's - early 2000's, most of the Jews who lived in Gomel emigrated to Israel, U.S., Germany and other countries. Thus, during the period from 1980 to 1991 alone, 13,370 Jews left Gomel for Israel. According to the 1999 census in Belarus, there were 4,029 Jews in Gomel. According to the 1979 census, out of the 38,433 Jewish residents of the Gomel Region, only 4,286 indicated Yiddish as their native language. Near the town a monument to the victims of Nazism was erected but their ethnicity was not mentioned.
Since the late 1980's, a restoration of Jewish life in Gomel has begun. The Jewish community of "Beit Yaakov" has been restored
In 2005, Yosef Zholudev was elected chairman of the community. Reb Zholudev was born and raised in Gomel. After graduating from University and getting a higher education in economics, he became a successful businessman. He works as chairman of the "Beit Yaakov" community as a volunteer. His ebullient energy and enthusiasm inspire many people. He invests an enormous amount of physical, moral and financial efforts in the life of the community.
Under his leadership, during a relatively short period of time, the community became stronger, more close-knit, and greatly increased in numbers. There are now regular prayers on weekdays, Saturdays, and holidays. It now regularly has a minyan. Young people are attracted to the community. A Sunday school has begun to function; it is now attended by about 20 children. There are regular online sessions with Jerusalem for young activists. Clubs for women, students, and youth have been opened. The STARS educational program, where about 40 young Jews study history and traditions of their people, is active and successful.
“Two years ago I was very far from all things Jewish and could not even imagine that my attitude would radically change – that I would dress like a Jewish girl, light Shabbat candles, and think about a real Jewish family”, says Masha Volovikova, one of the participants of the STARS Program.
Several young men have started to study the laws of shechita professionally with the city rabbi, Aleksandr Goldengersh, and have decided to devote their lives to following the commandments and to make a living as Jewish shochets. So, God willing, in a year or year-and-a-half the community will have its own shochet.
At this time, the head of the community is conducting negotiations with various sponsors about the start of the “Jewish vocational school” project, where 6-10 young Jewish men will be able to combine spiritual education with mastering professional skills which will enable them to make a living. The boys will learn a profession that will enable them to make a decent living in practically any country in the world, does not require language proficiency, and is considered a “Jewish” profession since time immemorial. During the first half of the day, the boys will be learning Jewish subjects, while during the second half of the day they will learn the skill of a jeweler or a diamond cutter.
The motto of the project is “Do not give a man a fish every day. It is much better to give him a fishing rod and teach him how to use it." The initial group of 6 people is ready to start the course. We need only to solve the issue of financial security.
A regular dialogue is maintained with the authorities and the local population. Real Jewish life is starting to revive in the city.
The Community regularly holds holiday activities for the Jewish population of the city. Everyone can participate and get the information they need and answers to their questions, moral support and attention. There are seminars, tours, trips to Israel and visits to Jewish sites in Europe. There are numerous activities for children and young people - and this is not even a complete list of our activities. The Community “Beit Yackov” is a full-fledged center of Jewish life in the city. We are always available both in times of sorrow and joy.
Our patriarch Joseph Zholudev has established links with all the leading Jewish organizations in the city. Because of this we are involved in almost all joint projects: the extended day for children, holiday activities for the entire Jewish population of the city and much more.
Over the past few years, the Community has been striving for financial independence. We work very closely with various foundations and organizations. Local and foreign sponsors are involved, and we can already see the results of this work. With its own funds and raised money, the Community was able to buy a Torah scroll, order decent furniture and hire a rabbi.
On November 1, 2009, with the support of the L.A. Pincus Foundation for Jewish Education in the Diaspora (Israel), the International foundation”Ner Leelef” and local sponsors, the city began a global educational project, "Local and Regional Community Leaders and Coordinators". The main objective of this project is to prepare a skilled staff to work in Jewish organizations and associations of Belarus, the City of Gomel and the Gomel Region.
With the support of the Norwegian foundation and the community leadership development program, "Nahshonim,” the community has started the project “Jewish traveler.” The project participants will be able to witness the Jewish history of our ancestors and experience the events of Jewish life, which was so vibrant before the Holocaust in Gomel and the Gomel Region.
About 200 Jews consider themselves members of the community, and over 1000 residents have participated in our events. More than 40 Jewish men from ages 1 1/2 to 74 years old did the Brit Mila. In February 2008, we had a Jewish wedding. The Chupa was set up for the first time in many years. In November, 2008, a boy was circumcised on the 8th day, as Hashem taught us. On October 18, 2009 all the Jews of the city celebrated the ceremony of ushering the Torah scroll into the synagogue.
About 400 Jews took part in the holiday procession devoted to ushering the Torah scroll into the Gomel synagogue. The Torah scroll, surrounded by ten young men with torches, was carried along Victory Square by the guests of honor, who were singing and dancing. Then it was solemnly taken by a carriage from the regional library named after Lenin to the synagogue to the sounds of the band and accompanied by horsemen. This event is of great importance for the Jewish population of Gomel and the Gomel Region because the Torah is the basis of the life of the community and every Jew.
The Torah scroll – a handwritten parchment with the text of the five books of Moses used for public reading in a synagogue - is the most sacred object for the Jews. Just as a man cannot live without water, a Jew cannot live without the Torah.
The scroll that is now in the Gomel Jewish community “Beit Yakov” is over 120 years old. It was written in one of the Jewish shtetls on the border between Belarus and Ukraine. Before the war, it was saved from destruction and taken to the USA, and recently it was acquired by the Gomel community thanks to the support of local and foreign sponsors.
According to tradition, a scroll (on special parchment) can only be written by a special scribe –a sofer. The last time a Torah entered a Gomel synagogue with such ceremony was before the October Revolution. Afterward, during the Soviet period, during the fight against religion, Jewish religious life was glimmering only in underground synagogues. But today, thanks to the development and prosperity of the community, democratic changes in the country and society, as well as the remarkable attitude of the local authorities, the Jews of Gomel have the opportunity to usher the Torah scroll into the synagogue openly and in accordance with the Jewish customs. Also, as of this moment, a positive dialogue is taking place about providing the Jewish community with its own building in the center of the city to house a synagogue.
The ceremony of ushering in the Torah scroll was attended by Gennadiy Polishchuk, the First Secretary of the Embassy of the State of Israel in the Republic of Belarus; Olga Polishchuk, the Director of the Israeli Cultural and Information Center at the Israeli Embassy, Prusov A.K., Vice President of the Russian Jewish Congress, Head of the Department of Religious and Ethnic Affairs of the Gomel Oblast Executive Committee, rabbis and Torah teachers from the Commonwealth of Independent States, Israel, and the USA. The community has created its own site in the Internet, where all those interested can read about its past, present, and future and participate (within their ability) in the community development.
We would like to wish the “Beit Yakov” community and its head, Rabbi Joseph Zholudev, and all the Jews of Gomel to grow and prosper in the spirit of the Torah. Mazel Tov!!