The Latvian Jewish Courier Vol. 34, Issue 3:
In the most difficult period of the coronavirus epidemic, the spring of 2020, when everyone and everywhere, including inhabitants of Riga, had to observe self-isolation, Arkady Suharenko, chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities of Latvia, addressed all members of the society remotely from his home with a story about the organization’s activities and its future plans.
“According to the latest population census, the Jewish community of Latvia currently consists of 8,153 people. It is the largest community in the Baltic Sea region; the other largest one exists only in Sweden, where there are slightly more Jews than in Latvia. Where do Jews live in Latvia? Riga has over 7000, Jurmala: 600, Daugavpils: 150, Liepaja: 150, Rezekne: 50, Jekabpils: 30, Jelgava: 20, Ludza: 15, Ventspils: 15.
I would like to tell you about what has been done in recent years, what we think of today and what are our goals and objectives for the development of the community. When in 2002 I was elected as the Head of the Jewish community I saw several tasks for myself. The first task was to unite the community, to make it friendly, and to achieve a situation where we really help each other within the community.
The second task I call “Memory.” This was very important for me personally and for all members of the Council. I am the grandson and son of World War II participants. It was very important for me to perpetuate the memory of the Jews who perished in Latvia. Tremendous work was done in a process of identification of almost all places of mass executions of Jews. There are 210 locations throughout Latvia, and in each of these places has a commemorative plaque (if there is no monument installed there) with the names of those who were killed there. In addition, large-scale memorials were created, two in Riga, one in Rumbula and another in Bikernieki, as well as a magnificent complex near Liepaja, in Shkede. There is also a memorial in Daugavpils, erected long ago, in the 1990s, back in Soviet times.
This work was crowned with the construction of a monument to those who risked not only their own lives, but the lives of their loved ones, the saved Jews in Latvia. The monument to the rescuers (among them the most famous was Zhanis Lipke) was erected next to the skeleton of the burnt synagogue on Gogol Street in Riga. In addition, there is a museum dedicated to Zhanis Lipke himself, which is located on the island of Kipsala, where he lived and hid rescued Jews.
For three years in a row, a new tradition has emerged. On July 4, when Latvia celebrates Holocaust Remembrance Day, flowers are laid at the Freedom Monument in the center of Riga. On November 30th, on the anniversary of the first extermination action in Rumbula Latvian, citizens gather at the Freedom Monument and light candles to commemorate Jews killed by Nazi and local collaborates in 1941. Also, a solemn meeting is held at the site of the burnt synagogue on Gogol Street, and every year there are more and more participants at this event.
The task of taking care of the “Jewish places” in Latvia is also related to this. I mean, first of all, the historical synagogue on Peitavas street, in Old Riga. The Riga Jewish religious community was lucky, as the synagogue did not function only during the Holocaust, and already in 1945, the authorities allowed to worship there. However, since the completion of construction in 1905, there has been no major overhaul or restoration, and the synagogue looked deplorable. In 2009 the synagogue was restored to the excellent condition as it looks today. The renovation of the synagogue in Daugavpils was completed, with the descendants of the world-famous artist Mark Rothko, a native of this city, taking part. The building where the synagogue was restored now also houses the Cultural Center, which is located in the city of Kuldiga. The Green Synagogue in Rezekne was restored, and now there is a museum with a historical exposition. After restoration, the synagogue in Ludza now houses a branch of the local museum with expositions about the history of the Jews of Ludza; a separate exposition is dedicated to their countrymen: world famous documentary filmmaker Hertz Frank and his father, the photographer Wolf Frank.
Here are some numbers and facts. The structure of the Riga Jewish community is as follows: it is the Hesed Social Center under leadership by Inna Aizensharf; the Jewish Community Center headed by Inna Lapidus-Kimber; the Jews in Latvia museum, which is headed by Ilya Lensky; and the kindergarten named Motek.
The Riga Jewish Community is the largest non-governmental organization in Latvia as an employer. In total, we employ about 300 people. They are the leaders of the community and ready and able to support its activities.
Now what are our major concerns as of today? Helping and supporting the elderly and sick people is our main task, and our Social Center is taking care of this. Today it has 1,744 clients in 20 cities of Latvia, with 603 of them being Holocaust survivors. In addition, there are 35 children with special needs, whom we also help.
Now, due to COVID-19 restriction, we communicate with most of our clients remotely by helping people who are isolated in their homes. The gigantic work we have done remotely in the period of the coronavirus can be considered exemplary, and we have received many kind words from the communities of other countries.
All of us and I personally are very much concerned about Jewish education in Latvia provided by Riga Jewish school named after Shimon Dubnov and by our kindergarten. We are very grateful for the fact that the leadership of the Riga City Council provided us with a beautiful building on Miera Street and allocated additional funds to renovate this building. And today we have a beautiful modern school there. On September 386 pupils began their studies at the school, 48 of whom are first graders. In one of the classes the entire educational process will be conducted 100% in Latvian language. This is a great merit of the director of the Riga Jewish School, K. Brikmane. In the future, to support the development of Jewish education in Latvia, we would like to be able to pay scholarships to the Dubnov School graduates, who decided to continue their study in prestigious universities.
Activities of religious communities are in the center of our constant attention and support. We are in permanent and close contact with the Riga’s religious community, and with its head – David Kagan, who is my deputy for the Council of Jewish Communities. All of us have an understanding of the importance of this cooperation, communication, and mutual support.
Another very important area of our activity is the restitution of Jewish properties. As a result of our efforts, we received 5 buildings in 2016. However, this cannot be considered as the final solution to the problem. Let’s move on. I believe that the issue of restitution will be resolved sooner or later.
Perhaps not everyone knows that we have already created the Jewish Property Restitution Fund. The Council of this Fund, which will resolve all financial issues, will include 11 people: 6 representatives of the Latvian Jewish community and 5 representatives of the largest international Jewish organizations with which we have a long and successful cooperation. The Latvian Jewish community has strong relationships with other Jewish organizations around the world. We are members of the World and European Jewish Congresses; we also have signed a cooperation agreement with the American Jewish Committee.
We are in close contact with the Association of Latvian and Estonian Jews in Israel and I am very grateful for the cooperation with its president Eli Valk, with whom we often communicate. I also treasure our good relations and mutual contacts with the Organization of Jewish Survivors of Latvia in the USA and personally with its leadership: David Zilberman, Ivar Brod and my dear friend, deeply respected professor George Schwab.
I would like to mention that we have serious concern about our financial issues. The budget of the Jewish community in Latvia amounted to 6 million dollars last year; this is a very large amount, but we have to acknowledge that this money mostly comes from international organizations. The contribution of local sponsors last year was about $200,000, which, as you can imagine, is not comparable to the total budget.
The major contributor to the budget is undoubtedly the Claims Conference, and the money is used to directly help the victims of the Holocaust. As we all understand, over time, less and less money will come. Of course, we should be prepared for such a development in the future. Therefore, I see two major areas of our activity.
First area: We are now preparing documents for the establishing and registration of the Future Generations Fund. Today, $450,000 has been accumulated for this fund. I want this amount to grow, and hopefully over time, the fund could receive income from the careful management of this capital. The income obtained in this way would go to the Board of the community, elected by its members.
Second area: There are properties that were returned to the community. Not all of them are in good condition. We are already in the process of getting community-owned properties cleaned up and rented out to conscientious tenants. The income received from the rent would replenish our budget. But as of today our priority is a renovation of our kindergarten. There will be a need to spend at least 120,000 euros.
I would like to mention that for me and for all members of the Council, every area of our Jewish life is important: the synagogue, the Chabad community, and the museum. If we resolve all restitution issues, we will be able to financially support those institutions.
As a community leader, I am aware that all directions need to be supported, including the museum of Zhanis Lipke, which does not belong to our community. As well as all of the places associated with Jewish history, which include memorial sites throughout Latvia. All of them need our help and continuous support.
We foresee a future situation when all applications for the necessary expenses will go to the Fund for the Restitution of Jewish Property, which will fairly distribute the funds received from restitution.”
By Arkady Suharenko, Chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities of Latvia
(Article prepared for print by Semyon Gizunterman)
Courtesy of The Latvian Jewish Courier, Jewish Survivors of Latvia, INC.