Last summer, Vilna’s Great Synagogue was once again in the news. Built in the 1600s, partially destroyed by the Nazis during World War II, and razed to the ground by the Soviets – who built a school on the site – the synagogue’s remains were identified by a team of Israeli, American and Lithuanian archeologists using ground-penetrating radar.
Yet Vilna itself has never fallen off the Jewish people’s radar map. Although the buildings of its famous Shulhoyf (synagogue courtyard) may have been destroyed, the Torah learning that made the city famous lives on in the famed Lithuanian-style yeshivos, the Vilna Shas, and the stories about the city’s most famous resident, the Vilna Gaon.
A Mother City in Israel
When Napoleon conquered Vilna in 1812, on his way to wage war with the Russian Empire, he is reputed to have visited the Great Synagogue and surrounding Shulhoyf. Deeply impressed by what he saw, he promptly dubbed Vilna “the Jerusalem of Lithuania.” But long before the nineteenth century, Vilna was known by another name: a “Mother City in Israel.”
The precise term, ir va’em be’yisrael (“a city and mother in Israel”), is first found in Shmuel Beit 20:19. Technically the term can be used for any metropolis (“mother city” in Greek) that serves as a focal point or administrative center for the surrounding area. In Jewish lore, the term is traditionally used for those cities that were great not only in size, but also in spiritual stature thanks to their Torah leaders and communal institutions – and Vilna was certainly such a city.
Jews first came to Vilna toward the end of the fifteenth century, when they received a less than warm welcome by the local populace. The community’s first shul, a wooden structure, was burnt down during anti-Jewish riots in 1592 – along with Jewish-owned shops and homes – but the land where it stood marked the spot where later shuls would be built.
During the early 1600s, Vilna’s Jews enjoyed a period of calm and prosperity. The city became the regional hub for the surrounding Jewish communities and was responsible for matters pertaining to taxation and law. It’s estimated that one fifth of the city’s 15,000 residents were Jews. But this respite from turmoil was short-lived. During the Chmielnicki Revolt against the Polish rulers, Vilna’s Jewish Quarter was burned to the ground. Jews who didn’t flee were murdered. Even after the Polish-Lithuanian Kingdom was up and running again, life was difficult. The area continued to be the scene of bitter warfare between various European powers, while hunger and plague were rampant.
Things took a turn for the better when Poland was divided in the late 1700s and Vilna was annexed to the Russian Empire. During the years that followed, Jewish merchants and artisans accounted for 80 percent of Vilna’s commerce. But because competition was fierce, profits were low and most of the Jews remained poor.
Yet the poverty, which continued throughout the centuries that followed, didn’t stop Vilna’s Jews from creating an astounding number of communal charitable organizations, which were supervised by the Tzedakah Gedolah (Great Charity Fund). In addition to traditional charities to assist the poor, the elderly and the sick, a host of new mutual aid associations sprang into existence after World War I, such as the Association for the Jewish War Disabled and the Association for Jewish Orphans, which gave financial and vocational support to the hundreds of orphans who were living in institutions or with private families.
Perhaps one of the most famous institutions of all during those poverty-stricken days was the “Inexpensive Restaurant.” Founded in 1881, by 1935 this soup kitchen was serving some 150,000 meals a year in its dining room that could seat 700 people. About a quarter of the meals were handed out for free, while the rest were provided at a minimal charge.