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
literature to reach the masses.
In 1881, Czar Alexander II was assassinated. Once this happened, Alexander III
took over the throne. That year in April, Anti-Jewish riots or pogroms broke out, it
involved looting, property damage, and personal injury. In 1882, under the May Laws,
Jews could no longer settle in rural villages. If they left their towns, they were not
allowed to come back in. They were forbidden to trade on Sundays and Christians
holidays, did not have access to universities, and they could not work in all professions.
The Jews were constantly harassed by the police and were forced to get out of their
homes. The czarist government made it clear that the Jews had no true home in Russia.
The pressure increased in each passing year. The expulsion of Moscow's 35,000 Jews
began in 1891. This situation caused many young Russians to go to other countries for a
higher education. They developed their own Revolutionary ideas, it was called Zionism.
Jews who did not want to fight for the Czar and wanted to escape the pogroms
started to immigrate out of Russia. Each year between 1881 and 1899 nearly 23,000
Jews left Russia. Some came to the U.S, some remained in Europe, and some made the
journey to Palestine.
The economic condition in Russia under the Czar was very bad. At times, food
and money were scarce. Mobs would be invading ghettos and shtetls often, looting and
burning leaving the Jews with nothing. When one house caught on fire, it was not
unusual for the whole street to burn down since all of the homes were made of wood and
their houses were built very close together. This left the whole community without
shelter, food, or anymore clothing than they had on them at the time. They would have to
go to the forest and start to chop all new wood so they could rebuild their homes and start
all over again. When doing this, they were limited to whatever tools they had, which was
not much because they could not afford to buy a lot of tools. Meanwhile, There were
some basic economical and social changes in Europe, which forever changed the life of
all men. The Industrial Resolution started to take shape. Industry moved out of the
home and into the factories. Small towns grew in population to become big cities and
brought comforts and luxuries to the common man. Most of all, production increased
and the whole world became the manufacturer's market. many people were eager to
invest their savings, including the Jews, in factories, mines, workshops, railroads, and
steamships. Thousands of daring investors became rich and they gained enormous
economic power. In this period, Jews found remarkable opportunities to improve their
lives. All factories and industries which needed investors and workers, did not check for
religion or a social background of those who could supply them with what they needed.
They did not stop to examine the racial background of those who were willing hands and
who could be of service. To them, profits were the most important thing. These
economic changes helped to bring equality to the Jews. Some Jewish families became
very powerful like the Rothchilds family. Usually when Jews obtain financial strength,
they turned to help other Jews who were not as fortunate. By 1875, Jewish political
equality had been won in most of Europe. All of these changes, however, in reality, did
not stop Anti-Semitism. In the early 20th century, Russia was still Anti-Jewish as they
were during the middle ages. At this period, the Zionist movement had been founded.
Many Jews decided to leave Russia while they could, seek a better life, and better