IRKUTSK, Russia — Today, this frigid city of just over half a million in eastern Siberia is best known for being a convenient starting point from which to visit Lake Baikal — a popular destination for hiking and winter sports a short 70 kilometers (43 miles) away that contains one-fifth of the world’s unfrozen fresh water.
But Irkutsk also holds the key to an unexpected piece of Jewish history spanning back over two centuries.
Irkutsk’s first Jew on record, a merchant named Israel Fershter, arrived in the city located off the silk road in 1818.
Founded in 1661 as a Cossack garrison, at the beginning of the 19th century Irkutsk was a cultural and intellectual hub for elites sent into exile for their part in the Decembrist revolt against Tsar Nicholas I. The city was also well on its way to becoming a prominent commercial center.
Officially, no Jews were allowed to reside in Siberia — or anywhere in the Russian Empire outside of the Pale of Settlement, an area established in 1791 which included parts of today’s Poland, Ukraine and Latvia, as well as Belarus, Lithuania and Moldova.
Practically though, there were exceptions. Not only did Fershster move to Irkutsk, but he also set out to put together a minyan — a quorum of 10 adult men necessary for public prayer according to traditional Judaism.
In order to do so, Fershter reached out the families of former Cantonists — Jewish children drafted into the Tsar’s army as young as 8, and forced to serve for 20 years or more. Often these children were coerced into converting to Christianity. Those able to avoid conversion suffered from a Jewish identity that was at best weakened, or at worst destroyed, by leaving their families and communities behind.
Those who clung to their identity went back to some form of Jewish life after receiving parcels of land in remote areas of Russia upon being discharged from their army service — though these areas often had no official Jewish presence, as was the case with Irkutsk.
Fershster’s endeavor succeeded: The prayer quorum was gathered, and the Jewish community of Irkutsk came to life.
Two centuries later, on October 22, 2018, hundreds gathered in the city’s Okhlopkov Drama Theatre to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Jewish life in Irkutsk.
The evening included a short documentary film produced by the Jewish community, as well as a play by Sholem Aleichem, and was attended by local authorities. Fershter’s great-great-great-great-grandson, Evgeny Fershter, also sent a video greeting from the Arctic, where he is currently on a scientific expedition.
“In 1915 the community put out a book entitled ‘The Jews of Irkutsk,’ full of information about the previous century. That’s how it was possible for us to determine exactly when the community was founded,” Chabad-Lubavitch emissary Dorit Wagner told The Times of Israel.
Save the synagogue
Originally from Israel, Wagner moved to Irkutsk 15 years ago with her husband, the city’s Chief Rabbi Aharon Wagner, to help foster Jewish life there.
Among their first efforts was the restoration of the historic synagogue, a bright yellow and turquoise two-story building that is right at home among the typical Siberian timber architecture of the surrounding houses, trapped somewhere between decline and charm.
“In 1878, the Cantonists of the city were granted permission to build a synagogue but lacked the financial means to do so,” said Wagner. “But the numerous Jewish merchants who by then lived in Irkutsk did have the money.”
“Though the two groups were usually suspicious of each other, they agreed to cooperate on this. By that point there were several congregations meeting in the city, but this one was built as a synagogue of unity,” she said.
The community, Wagner said, was very special: Jews funded numerous charities and opened schools both for Jewish and non-Jewish children.
“Being Jewish here was very challenging. Irkutsk back then was truly in the middle of nowhere. Yet they donated money to yeshivot [Jewish schools] all over the world. We found letters from institutions in Jerusalem, Vilnius, even Philadelphia, thanking the Jews of Irkutsk for their support,” Wagner said.
Indeed, in 1897, just a year before the Trans-Siberian Railway would reach the city further boosting its economy, about 10 percent of commercial activity belonged to Jewish families, who also owned some of Irkutsk’s most beautiful houses.
In spite of all their wealth, the Jews of Irkutsk were under constant threat of expulsion after a law passed in 1890 reinstated the prohibition against Jews living in Siberia.
The fortunes of both the city and its Jewish community began to decline in the aftermath of the October Revolution. Irkutsk only succumbed to the Bolshevik army in 1920, dooming its commerce.
The Jews who were able to fled the city, and by 1923 most of the Jewish organizations, charities and clubs were closed. The synagogue itself was shut down and seized by the government from 1935 to 1945, and though the government returned a portion of it, the synagogue was shuttered again in 1958.
The Jewish spark rekindled
During the decades under Communist rule and its ferocious repression, the community still tried to celebrate major holidays, but the vibrant Jewish life that once existed was gone.
“When we arrived here, those who were somehow active in the community were a few elderly people,” said Wagner.
“A few months after arriving, during our first Passover in Irkutsk, we organized a public seder in a hotel, and over 400 people showed up,” she said. “It was amazing. Since then, we have been focusing on reviving traditions, organizing shiurim [Jewish classes], celebrating the holidays, and so on.”
The day after the event in the theater, community members and local authorities gathered for the reopening of the old Jewish cemetery. In use between the end of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, the area has been restored and turned into a memorial park and museum.
“Now people can visit it, sit there, reflect. During the inauguration guests were invited to pick up a stone and place it on one of the graves. Seeing people paying their respects to graves that had been neglected for decades was very moving,” said Wagner.
The first stone was also laid for a monument in the city’s older cemetery, which used to contain sections for the different religious groups present in the city — including Jews, Muslims and Catholics, as well as Orthodox Christians — before it was turned into a park by the Communist regime.
Recently the local authorities decided to honor those buried there by inviting the different religious communities to build memorials. The design for the Jewish monument was inspired by the only known picture of a Jewish tombstone to have stood in the cemetery.
Later the same night, people gathered in the synagogue to inaugurate a new youth center “for the young to come to learn, hear lectures, play games, hang out and mingle,” said Wagner.
Due to the damage done to Jewish identity under Communist rule, it is hard — almost impossible — she added, to determine how many Jews live in Irkutsk today — maybe 5,000, maybe more. But reconnecting them to their past is seen as a crucial step in rebuilding Jewish life in the city.
“My husband and I believe that exploring the history of the community is essential because it allows people to feel part of the Jewish history as a whole,” Wagner said.
“It might not be easy for them to identify with our ancestors that left Egypt thousands of years ago. But if we talk about the local Jews who lived in Irkutsk just a few generations before them, if we talk about their grandparents and great-grandparents, they start to sense that these stories are also about them and their identity, even if they have been far away from Judaism their whole life,” said Wagner.
“This way they can reconnect to the Jewish nation at large,” she said.