To Russian Jews, the synagogue was the center of religion and religion was the
most important thing in their lives. The rabbi was their leader, they came to him with
every problem they had. Jews were poor, but they all gave tzedakah. It was said that
even the poorest Jews could find someone poorer to help and give money to. According
to the Jewish religion, tzedakah is one of the most important mitzvahs you can do. The
same could be said about the Jewish holidays. They were observed very strictly, but
Shabbat was the most welcomed. In order to teach the importance of Jewish law, they
started their own schools, their own courts of law, and their own burial societies. even
though there were pogroms, religious persecution forced the Jews to create stronger
communities and made them more united.
In the beginning of the 1800s, Alexander I ruled Russia. He promised the Jews
that they could become farmers, could live in two districts, and could buy unoccupied
land. Although Alexander was kind and helped the Jews, the tax they were forced to pay,
stayed. before he died in 1825, the Jewish situation became hard for them to bare. They
lived in poverty in small and crowded places and were oppressed.
For hundreds of years, Jews lived these ways in two communities - the ghetto and the
shtetl. To keep out thieves and rioters from coming in, they built walls around their
section of town. When they did this, the government and churches got an idea, they
would use the walls that the Jews built, to lock them in.
These walls were located near a foundry that made cannons, so they named it
“ghetto” which means “foundry”. They would close the gates every night and the Jews
would be locked in until daybreak. The word of the ghettos quickly spread, soon there
were ghettos all over Europe. The Jews were all treated the same in every ghetto that was
in Europe, according the government and churches, the Jews had no rights. They were
no allowed to own land, join crafts guilds, or do any kind of work that Christians got to
do. In some ghettos, they were even forced to wear badges so anyone who saw them
would know they were Jewish. The badge was usually a Star of David. For many years,
the government took copies of the Talmud, and burnt them. Also the government forced
the Jews to listen to long Christian sermons. Even though all these terrible things took
place and the government was not good to the Jews, the ghettos seemed to be a better
place for most Jews than the outside. The rich helped the poor and even the poorest Jew
was treated with respect because of what the Jewish law said. Though their living
conditions were not the best, the Jews all worked, studied, celebrated, and prayed
together. They also tried to make life as worthwhile as possible.
During the period that ghettos were spreading and becoming more well-known,
shtetls, which mean “little towns”, were beginning to take shape. Many of the Jews
settled outside the main cities, this is where they formed their shtetls. Unlike ghettos, the
shtetls were protected by the government because the Jews served the nobles as bankers,
tax collectors, and farm managers. Also, there were no walls surrounding it to keep out
thieves and rioters. In the center of the shtetl stood the synagogue, and at the center of
life of the synagogue, was the rabbi. Jews thought being rich was nice but being a good
student was better. Each shtetl contained a population of between 1,000 to 20,000 Jews.
The Jewish community in Russia extends back about ten centuries in history. Until the
middle of the 18th century, Russia did not have any Jews in it. At that time, the Jews
were granted a permission to their own council of four lands: Great Poland, Little Poland,
“Russia”, and Volhynia. They excised religious, economic, and political control over the
Jews. In1812, Napoleon invaded Russia and in 1827, the Czar said that the Jews had to
serve in the army for a term of 25 years. He hoped that in that period many of them
would change their religion. Very often, the poor were forced to starve while the rich
managed not to.
Around the middle of the 1800s, the Haskalah movement formed in Russia, it was
different from the enlightenment movement in the rest of Europe. It promoted
intellectual and social awareness of Russian Jewry. They used Hebrew and Yiddish