Are there any active synagogues in Vilnius?
There are plenty of Jewish heritage sites in Vilnius. The city’s nickname was Jerusalem of the North. So what kind of synagogues Vilnius has to offer? There is only one functioning Choral synagogue at the moment. The enlightenment movement following the community built in the 20th century. However, there were more than a hundred Jewish houses of worship in a prewar Vilnius. Choral Synagogue survived World War II.
So where would one find a functioning synagogue in Vilna?
Must visit is the synagogue that is open to date is a Choral Synagogue on Pylimo street 39. The architect Dovydas Rozenhauzas designed and built it in 1903. Even though this synagogue wasn’t the largest or best known at that time, it’s the one that best survived the war.
It survived the war as Germans made a warehouse inside the synagogue for their army needs. Located in the old town, opposite to boundaries of a Vilna ghetto. During Soviet times the Jewish community gathered there for high holidays. Local Jews baked Matzah for Pesakh on the second floor. Ritual circles around the Torah (hakafot) were on Simchat Tora.
Nowadays, the Jewish holidays, as well as the Sabbath prayers and dinners, are held in this synagogue. Friday night, as well as Saturday services, are organized every single week. However, there are morning prayers at 08:30 and evening at 19.30 on a daily basis. Both orthodox and Hasidim are davening in this synagogue.
It is a popular visit spot for tourists. It is open for visitors, as a live museum, between 10 a.m and 2 p.m Monday to Sunday (except Saturday). Both locals and city guests are curious to see and learn how does the synagogue look from inside. There is an in-house guide who can explain it. Or you can join the Vilnius city tour, and our guides will tell you about it in colors.
Great Synagogue of Vilna.
The Choral Synagogue wasn’t the largest synagogue in Vilnius. The Jewish community of Vilna built Great Choral Synagogue in the 17th century in a Moorish style. Archival documents mention it’s the construction between 1630 and 1633. The baroque style dominated in Vilnius then, and this sacral building was also Baroque. Four large columns supported the whole building. After entering there were twelve steps down. People remember that there was an iron door to protect the community in case of danger.
According to the sources, there was enough space for 5000 people to attend the synagogue at the same time.
An interesting fact is that at that time it authorities prohibit building anything higher than a church. Therefore, architects had to be creative. They had to design a synagogue to be large enough, without breaking that law. The solution was found as they decided to build one floor underground. As a result, when the synagogue was destroyed some of the floors underground survived.
After World War II
Nazis burned, looted, and destroyed it during World War II. Then the Soviet authorities demolished the ruins in 1955. In its place, they built a kindergarten.
Finally, in summer 2018 during archaeological excavations begun. The archaeological excavations were both inside and outside the kindergarten building. Thanks to ground-penetrating radar, archaeologists found the bimah and mikvah (ritual bath) of the Great Synagogue.
The kindergarten is still there, but it’s not operating anymore. And there are plans to demolish the building in order to empty the space for the cultural memorial center.
You should definitely visit the site of excavations on a place where the synagogue once stood. It would be a good beginning as you are exploring Vilna Jewish quarter.
Around the Great Synagogue
The Great Synagogue is the very center of the Medieval Jewish Quarter. Vilna Gaon monument is located just close to it. Both are on Jewish street ( Yiddishges or Žydų gatvė). This narrow street leads us to Stikliu street, literally means glass blower street, or in Yiddish Glezergas. At the intersection of Stikliu and Zydu streets, there is a little square. A street market was held here since the 16th cent. and up until the Holocaust.
Later, during the Nazi occupation, here was a small Vilna ghetto. Eleven thousand prisoners were held in it for seven weeks only. Then it was liquidated following the Nazi order. You can find a stone map of the ghetto on the wall of one of the houses. It commemorates the terrible fate of the Vilnius Jews.
Zavel shul is being renovated at the moment
There is another Synagogue on Geliu street. The merchant who owned the building built it in the 19th century. He also extended and renovated it many times. It was operating till the year 1940 and there was again a warehouse.
After the war, the synagogue was in a state of disrepair. It was in such a state until recently. Recently, the Jewish community and Vilnius Municipality started the renovation activities. Currently, it’s renovated from outside. There is an ongoing renovation inside the building as well. But we still do not know how it will be used for when the works will be completed.
All in all, it is worth having a Jewish Vilnius city tour or spending 3 days in Vilnius and visiting the landmarks mentioned above. Looking forward to seeing you in Vilnius.
You can find other 6 reasons to visit Lithuania.