The history of the Jewish community of Nizhny Novgorod is comparatively short – it counts a bit more than a century and a half. The reason is the following: all Central Russia wasn’t a region of traditional residence of Jews. Since the ending of the eighteenth century, after adding to Russia Belarusian, Ukrainian, Lithuanian and East-Poland territories with numerous Jewish population, Jewish traders of the first and the second guilds and highly-qualified craftsmen had temporarily visited Nizhegorodsky Fair and had traded there. Constant Jewish population appeared in the region in 1840s as a result of recruiting Jews for military service due to the decree by Nikolay II. As a rule, “Nikolay soldiers” stayed to live in the cities, where they had served, and became middle-class citizens or traders. They were honored to create the Jewish community of N. Novgorod (from 300 people in 1850 to 3000 in 1913г.)
The central institution of the community was a synagogue, which was governed by a managerial board: a leader (“gabbai”), a learned man (¨talmid-haham¨), a treasurer ("Naaman"). The interests of the authorities were presented by a chosen by Jews state (public) rabbi, accountable to the provincial government and the Ministry of Inner Affairs. A funeral society ("hevrah-kaddishah"), a religious college ("Talmud-Torah") and a charity society worked in the synagogue. Such a structure of enforcing of the community wasn’t influenced by the policy of state anti-Semitism, by pogrom in the year 1884 at Nizhegorodsky Fair and by almost massacre situations in 1905-1907.
The spiritual image of the community was defined by its social staff: businessmen, wealthy craftsmen, graduate specialists (doctors, engineers, pharmacists, and lawyers). That’s why, being sympathetic to anti-Monarchial liberating movement, the majority of the Jews of Nizhny Novgorod didn’t participate immediately either in revolutionist or in Zionist actions.
The First World War, the revolution and the citizen war (1914-1920) created a wave of refugees. Nizhegorodsky province accepted more than 15000 Jews from West, who changed the social staff of the community and made it more radical. The policy of the Soviet regime towards Jews was dual. On the one hand, community institutions were abolished, atheism was propagated, traditional economic relations were undermined, national-political movements became forbidden and their leaders were repressed. On the other hand, the Soviets were the only power, which accused anti-Semitism and fought against pogroms, this forced Jews to support the new power. In 1920s (“NEP” period) the Jews of Nizhny Novgorod tried to rebuild the community life, having turned back to traditional activities, but since late 1920s their position had constantly been worsening. By 1938 all the synagogues, clubs and national educative societies were abolished, Yiddish school education stopped its work.
Some growth of the amount of Jewish population in the region happened in early 1930s due to youth people coming to “build the first five-year plan” (including Gorky automobile factory). However the growth was balanced with decrease as a result of mass repressions in 1937-1938, which among other citizens Jews “from the territories of enemy states” (Poland, Baltic countries, Manchuria) were exposed to.
The Second World War caused a new flow of refugees, a part of which settled down in Volga region, but from the point of view of demographics the postwar period is characterized with a constant decrease in percentage of Jews in the population of Nizhegorodsky (1932-1990 - Gorkovsky) province. Assimilation processes weren’t compensated by small immigration of Jews from Ukraine in 1950-1970s. The victories of Israel in wars against Arabs drew attention of Jews to their historical motherland. The general number of Jewish population in the region (according to the official statistics) decreased from 20 to 12 thousand people. At this period some unofficial opportunities to keep Judaism traditions appeared (not registered “minyan”, the leaders of which weren’t persecuted any more). The period of 1980s should be regarded as the beginning of national rebirth, the result of which was “a great aliyah” and establishing of traditional forms of Jewish culture life.
Rebuilding of an organized Jewish community was started in 1989. On 2 April 1989 the first meeting of The Club of Jewish culture took place, the initiators were Zinovy Libinzon, Ilya Beyder, Mikhail Gurovich, Boris Pudalov. Later Lipa Gruzman registered a religious community. They’ve gotten an idea to succeed in getting the synagogue back. Professor Z. Libinzon and lawyer S. M. Fogel joined their efforts. Finally, on 18 May 1991 after lots of racking troubles, the building of the synagogue was given back to the community. In September 1991 Sunday Jewish school was opened, M. Rubinshtein became the director.
On 17 April 2000 the renovated praying hall of the synagogue was ceremonially opened after repair work. In spring 2000 Jewish kindergarten “Gan Menakhem” was opened, in fall Jewish secondary school “Or-Avner” started working, now its educational process unites more than 100 kids.
In general the region’s managed to set tolerant relations with representatives of different ethnic groups and confessions, especially with the authorities of Muslim and Orthodox religious communities. However some anti-Semitic actions happen from time to time in Nizhny Novgorod and the whole district. (In 1993 143 graves were broken on Jewish cemetery “Red Etna” in Nizhny Novgorod, on 20 April 1999, at night (the birthday of Hitler) 120 graves were broken there, on 5 June 2000 37 graves were damaged on the same cemetery).
According to the latest official data there’re 12000 “passport” Jews in Nizhegorodsky province, more than 10000 of them live in N. Novgorod.