Shul reopens in Marc Chagall’s Belarus homeland

Jewish community in city of Vitebsk open synagogue in painter's childhood home


The city where Marc Chagall grew up has seen the opening of its first synagogue in more than a century.

Vitebsk, the childhood home of the internationally acclaimed painter, had a strong Jewish presence prior to the Second World War, when more than half of its population was of the faith. But, as with most of eastern Europe, the majority of Jews in Belarus were wiped out in the Holocaust.

Last month Malkiel Gorgodze, rabbi of Vitebsk, fixed a mezuzah to the doorframe of the new Ohel David synagogue, close to the city’s Chagall museum.

Several hundred people, including city officials and community leaders from both the Christian Orthodox and Catholic churches, attended a special ceremony in Vitebsk, 155 miles northeast of Belarus’ capital Minsk.

Welcoming them at the shul, the community’s chairman Leonid Tomchin said: “Vitebsk is a historically Jewish city.”

He told the assembled crowd that there had been 64 synagogues in Vitebsk before Hitler rose to power, according to the JTA. “Today there is only one, unfortunately, but even this synagogue can and will be a centre of Jewish life,” he said.

Though he spent much of his life in France and the USA, Chagall was born in Vitebsk in 1887. He lived on Pokrovskaya Street, where one can visit his home today.

The city’s landscapes feature frequently in his work and the artist once wrote: "Not a single picture I have, where you cannot see a fragment of my Pokrovskaya Street."

Today the community has a few dozen members who were until now worshipping in a cramped apartment-sized space, according to Mr Tomchin.

The new synagogue is built of the red bricks for which Vitebsk is famed.

Boasting a capacity of several hundred worshippers, the synagogue’s unusual design has one of its corners towering above the other three and a white streak accentuating the outline of its roof.

Both facets making up the elevated corner have a single large and round window with a Star of David suspended in its frame.

Separately, the Jewish community of the city of Simferopol in Crimea celebrated the inauguration of its first chief rabbi since its annexation by Russia in 2014. The new rabbi is Yehezkel Lazar, who is a son of Berel Lazar, a chief rabbi of Russia.

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