RIGA (Lettish Riga), Baltic port, capital of Latvia; under Russian rule from 1710 to 1917, capital of Livonia (Livland); 1944–1991 in the Latvian S.S.R. The first documentary evidence of Jews in Riga – the record of a sale of merchandise to a Jew named Jacob – is dated 1536. During Polish and Swedish rule in Livonia (1561–1621 and 1621–1710, respectively) restrictions were imposed on Jewish residence, but in the course of time a number of Jewish merchants arrived there. By 1645 there was a special Jewish inn in the city where visiting Jewish merchants had to stay. In 1710 the Livonia region was incorporated into Russia and, according to reports by English merchants dating to 1714, Jews and Catholics then enjoyed religious freedom. In 1725 a few privileged Jews were given the right to reside outside the Jewish inn. In that same year they were permitted to bury their dead in Riga, whereas previously they had to be taken to *Courland for burial. Despite requests from the city authorities and the provincial governor, Empress Elizabeth Petrovna's decree of 1742, ordering the expulsion of Jews from *Russia, was also applied to the Jews in Riga. It was not until 1766, under Catherine II, that Jewish merchants were allowed into Riga, although they were restricted to a visit of six weeks and to residence at the Jewish inn; a few privileged Jews were given special permission to stay elsewhere.
Permission was granted for Jews to reside at Sloka (Ger. Schlock), a nearby town, in 1785, where in 1792 they were permitted to open a prayer room. A few managed to settle in Riga, although the official ban was still in force. In 1798 there were seven Jewish families living in Riga, and by 1811, 736 Jews in the city and suburbs including over half in Sloka. As Riga was outside the *Pale of Settlement, it continued to be difficult for Jews to enter the city. However, in 1813 the Jews of Sloka were given the right to settle there. The same year a community is mentioned. In 1822 Jews were permitted to engage in crafts. The "Jewish statute" of 1835 (see *Russia) confirmed the permanent residence rights of part of the population. In 1840 Sloka Jews were allowed to open a school in Riga which became one of the few modern institutions in Russia at that time. Max *Lilienthal was invited to Riga to become principal of the school and rabbi of the "German" synagogue. After he left there, Reuben *Wunderbar became principal of the school.
In 1841 Jews were allowed to register officially as inhabitants of the city, and later were permitted to build synagogues, own real property, and engage in commerce and trade; an organized community was officially founded in 1842 and continued to function until 1893. In 1850 the community asked for permission to buy land for a synagogue, on which building commenced in 1868. The number of Jews increased from 5,254 in 1869 to 22,115 (8 percent of the population) in 1897 and 33,651 (6.5 percent) in 1913. They played an important role in commerce, the export of goods (especially grain, timber, and flax), in industry, banking, and the various crafts. Jews owned timber mills, tanneries, and engaged in clothing and shoe manufacture. Before the outbreak of World War I the majority of dentists and 20 percent of the physicians were Jews, while only a few practiced as lawyers. There were a number of synagogues and ḥasidic prayer rooms, schools, ḥadarim both of the traditional and the reformed type, a library, charitable institutions, and various clubs and societies. Zionist activities were organized at the end of the 19th century and a delegate from Riga attended the First Zionist Congress. In 1898 the third branch of the *Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews in Russia (after St. Petersburg and Odessa) was formed in Riga. Among the official rabbis (see *kazyonny ravvin) were two Hebrew authors, A.A. Pomiansky (1873–93) and J.L. *Kantor (1909–15). During the war, in 1915, Riga Jews gave refuge to the Jews from Courland, who had been driven out of their homes by the czarist authorities. During the war and the subsequent changes of regime in the area the Jewish population in Riga decreased.
After the establishment of the independent Latvian Republic, Riga became the capital of the new state; its Jewish population grew from 24,721 (13.6 percent of the total) in 1920 to 39,459 (11.68 percent) in 1925, 42,328 (11.20 percent) in 1930, and 43,672 (11.34 percent) in 1935. In 1935 Riga Jews formed approximately 47 percent of the total of Latvian Jewry. The increase was largely the result of internal migration, especially from the province of Latgale. Riga was the economic, political, cultural, and social center of Latvian Jewry.
Under the democratic regime of the country (1918–34), an autonomous Jewish school system was administered from Riga. A manifold network of Hebrew and Yiddish elementary and secondary schools was established. These included around 12 Hebrew and Yiddish schools, mainly supported by the city council; private secondary schools whose language of instruction was Russian or German; two vocational schools, one of *ORT and one of the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews in Russia; a pedagogical institute; and a Froebel institute for kindergarten teachers where a large number of students were from Lithuania who returned to teach there. There was also a "Jewish university." The yeshivah in Riga was headed by its chief rabbi Menahem Mendel Sack, who was also active in the general communal affairs of Latvian Jewry; he perished in the Holocaust.
Chairman of the community was Mordecai *Dubin, leader of Agudat Israel and its representative in parliament. For a short time Riga was the center of the Lubavitch Ḥasidim where their leader Joseph Isaac *Schneersohn stayed for several years after leaving the Soviet Union. Several charitable institutions, among them Jewish hospitals, were established by contributions of philanthropists. The Yiddish theater of Riga was known even outside the borders of Latvia for its high level of artistic performance. There were also several sports clubs, headed by Maccabi. Two or three Yiddish daily newspapers were published, and newspapers and various periodicals in other languages were published by Jews: the best known was Frimorgn (1925–34), edited by J.Z.W. *Latzky-Bertholdi and Jacob *Hellman. The general Russian newspaper Sevodnya,
During the first period of Soviet regime in Latvia (from June 1940 to June 1941), Communist rule was introduced: Jewish, especially Zionist, public activity ceased, and Jewish commerce and industry were nationalized. After war broke out between the U.S.S.R. and Germany, Riga was occupied on July 1, 1941, and persecution began of the 40,000 Jews there. Anti-Jewish attacks were organized by the Einsatzgruppen, aided by Latvian fascists, resulting in the death of 400 persons; mass arrests of Jews took place and the synagogues were set on fire. In the period September–October 1941 a walled ghetto was established in the Moscow quarter to which 30,000 Jews were confined. On Nov. 30, 1941 (10 Kislev, 5702), approximately 10,600 Jews were shot in a nearby forest by Einsatzgruppe A; later similar Aktionen took place on December 7–9; a total of 25,000 Jews were killed, about 80 percent of the ghetto population (one of the victims was the historian Simon *Dubnow). The first ghetto (also known as the "large ghetto") was then liquidated, and the 4,000 remaining male Jews were put into a forced labor camp (the "little ghetto"). Women were imprisoned in a separate camp.
At the end of 1941 and the beginning of 1942, Jews deported from Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia began arriving in Latvia; most of them were murdered in the forests. About 15,000 of the deportees were put into a special camp in Riga (the "German ghetto") under a special Judenrat whose authority was later imposed on the whole ghetto. Several Jewish labor camps were also established in Riga and the vicinity. On Nov. 2, 1943, an Aktion took place in the Riga ghetto, in which the old, the very young, and the sick were murdered. Afterward the ghetto was liquidated, and the surviving Jews taken to the Kaiserwald concentration camp, near Riga. Latvian and other local inhabitants collaborated with the Nazis in the persecution and murder of Jews. In the summer of 1944, as a result of the Soviet offensive in the Baltic area, the Kaiserwald concentration camp was liquidated, and the remaining Jews deported to various camps in Germany; few of them survived. After the war the survivors chose to stay in the camps for *Displaced Persons rather than return to Riga (which was occupied by the Soviet Army on Oct. 13, 1944). Eventually most of them settled in Israel, and some in the United States and other countries.
The 1959 census indicated a Jewish population of 30,267 (out of 600,000 inhabitants of Riga), 14,526 of whom designated Yiddish as their mother tongue. Unofficially the number of Jews in Riga was estimated in the late 1960s at about 38,000, most of whom were originally not Latvian Jews, but had settled there from the Soviet interior after World War II. The Riga Jewish community contained about 80 percent of the Jews in the Latvian S.S.R. Only one synagogue was left in Riga, in the old city. In the 1950s bar mitzvah ceremonies continued to be held in synagogue and religious marriage ceremonies were performed there; but the number of these considerably diminished in the 1960s. After the last rabbi died, he was not replaced. In 1960 the congregation was fined 115,000 rubles for "overcharging" the price of matzah baked under its supervision. The following year matzah baking was prohibited, and a local paper reported in 1963 that matzah were being "smuggled" in from Vilna. Later, matzah baking by the congregation was again permitted. In 1964 the Jewish cemetery was declared a "general" cemetery, and non-Jews were subsequently buried there also. A Jewish choir performing Jewish songs was formed in Riga in 1957 within the trade union of commercial employees. In 1960–63 an amateur Jewish drama circle was formed which also performed in Vilna.
As young Jews in Riga began to display increasing and almost open interest in Jewish affairs and their identification with Israel, the town was considered by the Soviet authorities as a "hotbed of Zionism." In the Rumbuli forest, near Riga, where about 130,000 Jews had been massacred during the German occupation, young Jews organized rallies from 1962, and in 1964 collected the scattered remains of the victims, buried them in a mass grave and erected a monument to them. The authorities did not interfere with this action then, but ultimately insisted that a different "official" memorial should be erected there for the "victims of fascism," without mentioning that they were Jews. Eventually, through the efforts of the young Jewish initiators, a decision was reached that the inscription should read not only in Latvian and Russian but also in Yiddish. Mass gatherings in memory of the victims continued to be held there every year. Young Jews demonstrated their pro-Israel feelings on several occasions, as when Israel sports teams visited Riga to compete with local teams, and when the popular singer from Israel, Geulah Gil, performed in Riga. On the last occasion there were clashes between Jewish youth and the police near the concert hall (1965). In 1969–70 scores of Jews and Jewish families in Riga protested against the refusal of the authorities to grant them exit permits to Israel, addressing their protests not only to the Soviet government but also to the United Nations, the Israeli government, Western Communist parties, etc. In December 1970 a group of young Jews from Riga was tried in *Leningrad, and sentenced to severe terms of imprisonment for allegedly planning to hijack a Soviet plane in order to land abroad and eventually reach Israel.
With the mass exodus of Jews of the former Soviet Union in the 1990s, the Jewish population of Riga dropped to around 8,000 in the early years of the 21st century. At the same time Jewish life revived in independent Latvia. Two Jewish day
Dubnow, Hist Russ, 3 vols. (1916–18), index; A. Bucholtz, Geschichte der Juden in Riga (1899); YE, vol. 13, pp. 478–87; L. Ovchinski, Toledot Yeshivat ha-Yehudim be-Kurland (1908); M. Schatz-Anin, Yidn in Letland (1924); idem, in: Sovetish Heymland, 11 (1971), issue 4, 164–71; Yahadut Latvia, ed. by B. Eliav et al. (1953); J. Gar, in: Algemeyne Entsiklopedye, Yidn, 6 (1963), 330–74; M. Bobe, Perakim be-Toledot Yahadut Latvia (1965); M. Kaufmann, Vernichtung der Juden Lettlands (1947); G. Movshovich, 25 Yor Yidishe Prese in Letland (1933), 60–66. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: D. Levin (ed.), Pinkas ha-Kehillot–Latvia and Estonia (1988).
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.