Russian Shul

Nieuwe Kerkstraat 149

Russian ShulWidespread pogroms in eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century forced huge numbers of Jews to flee westwards. They trekked towards Amsterdam, en route for America. Some never got any further, but settled in the Netherlands. They were a mixed bunch, some Orthodox religious, some socialist, some Zionist.

Many left-wing Jews from the east became members of a group set up in 1921 called the 'Workers Cultural Circle' (Arbeiders Cultuurkring Sch. Anski), which encouraged the Yiddish language and culture. In 1884 Russian Orthodox Jews founded the society Nidchei Yisrael Yechaneis (He will unite the exiles of Israel, Psalm 147:2) and in 1889 they opened their shul at number 149 Nieuwe Kerkstraat.

The famous Dutch lawyer, writer and Zionist Abel Herzberg (1893-1989) provides a delightful description of the Russian shul in his book Letters to my grandson (1964):

   'They didn't have trained voices - indeed, the quality of their singing left much to be desired. The ancient melodies did not receive their due But they sang with heart and soul. What was missing in precision and sheer beauty was compensated for by enthusiasm. It was thoroughly genuine and honestly meant. In western synagogues great store is set on orderliness and decorum, but here that was almost completely lacking. All that mattered was the spontaneous outpouring of the heart … especially … in the Kerkstraat Shul, where religious fervour cascaded unhindered, sometimes showering and surging with unbridled abandon.'

After World War II the Russian shul stood empty for many years. Then in 1987 the society Nidchei Yisrael Yechaneis undertook a major restoration of the building. Reopened, it attracts many Russian Jews who now come to settle in Amsterdam in increasing numbers since the collapse of the Communist regime in the Soviet Union.

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