Town on the Don River; administrative center of the Rostov province of Russia. In 1761, the Rostov fortress and settlement were founded, and the town gained official status in 1796.
By 1811, there were 20 Jewish families living in Rostov, a number that rose successively: in 1836, there were 73 Jews (less than 1% of the population); in 1846, there were 289; and by 1853, Jews numbered approximately 500. In 1820, a Jewish cemetery was established on the left bank of the Temernik River (the site was closed in 1871, later built upon), and Jewish businesses and entrepreneurship played a leading role in the development of trade, industry, banking, and transport. (Table: Jewish Population of Rostov-on-Don)
Three main railroad lines, laid in 1867–1871 by the Poliakov brothers, turned Rostov into a major transportation center. From the mid-1800s, the Jewish population increased tenfold in less than 30 years, reaching 5,000 (about 5% of the city’s population) in 1880, and 11,838 (10%) in 1897. While 44 percent of the Jewish working population was engaged in trade and services, another 42 percent was involved in crafts and industrial production. Jewish professionals boasted a large proportion of doctors, lawyers, teachers, and mining industry experts.
By the end of the 1840s, the Jewish community had a prayer house, and from 1855 a synagogue, on whose site the Main Choral Synagogue was built in 1868. Attached to it were a public library and a school. From 1863 to 1888, the community was led by Fabian O. Gnesin, a rabbi and public figure (father of the composer Mikhail Gnesin). A Jewish hospital was founded in 1881, followed by an almshouse with a prayer house in 1894 (destroyed in the 1990s). In 1888, when Rostov was made part of the Don military region, it was detached from the Pale of Settlement and thus was closed to Jewish residence. However, Jews who had settled there prior to 19 May 1887 were allowed to remain.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, Jewish organizations maintained a children’s shelter, a day nursery, an eating hall, and other charitable institutions. Many of Rostov’s Jewish children attended general schools: in 1883–1885 Jews constituted 34 percent of pupils in the gymnasium (after 1887 within the limits of numerus clausus). In 1910, Rostov had three Talmud Torahs, a Jewish school for women, and a school attached to the main synagogue.
The Ḥoveve Tsiyon movement was popular in the 1880s, followed at the turn of the century by other Zionist organizations. Among those advocating Zionism was Moisei Aizenshtadt, a figure active in public life who served as crown rabbi of the town from 1889 to 1910. In 1907, the Tse‘ire Tsiyon group opened a library; in 1917, Zionists published the periodical Mir evreistva (World of Jewry); and in 1919 they issued Biulleten’ vremennogo merkaza sionistskoi organizatsii (Bulletin of the Provisional Center of the Zionist Organization).
On 18–20 October 1905, a pogrom raged in Rostov with the participation of Cossack units. More then 150 Jews were murdered, some 500 were wounded, and Jewish shops, stores, warehouses, and mills were damaged. A small Jewish self-defense detachment, organized by the Po‘ale Tsiyon organization, resisted the attackers. Measured by the number of victims, this pogrom was the second largest after that of Odessa in the same year.
During World War I, many Jewish refugees from the battlefront came to Rostov. In 1916, the rebbe of the Lubavitch Hasidic movement, Sholem (Shalom) Dov Ber Shneerson, settled there with his family; in 1920, his son, Yosef Yitsḥak Shneerson, moved the Tomkhe Temimim yeshiva to Rostov. The town remained a center of Lubavitch activity until 1924.
At the beginning of the civil war in 1918, the Jewish industrial and social elite supported the Whites. In 1918–1919, several Jewish organizations were founded, including the Jewish Cultural and Educational Society (which opened a private Jewish gymnasium), the Kultur-lige, the student Zionist organization He-Ḥaver, the Union of Jewish Refugees, and the Relief Society for Jewish Victims of the Civil War.
With the establishment of Soviet authority, the local Evsektsiia in the 1920s promoted the closure of Jewish institutions; it also persecuted Zionist and religious leaders, above all, Yosef Yitsḥak Shneerson. The Tomkhe Temimim yeshiva, initially closed in 1921, survived clandestinely until May 1924, when Yosef Yitsḥak was compelled to move to Leningrad. In the 1920s, nonetheless, a Jewish Third International Club sponsored political education circles and a theater studio; a club with amateur Yiddish agitprop theater was supported by the artisans’ savings and loan society; and there were classes in Yiddish at the school for working youth. Eight synagogues and prayer houses were operating in 1929, but in 1936 only the former Artisans’ synagogue remained (it was blown up in 1942). In the 1930s, however, all Jewish social, cultural, and educational institutions were closed.
In 1939, there were 27,039 Jews living in Rostov (totaling 5.4% of the population). In the summer and fall of 1941 the town was inundated with refugees; about 20,000 Jews were able to evacuate. The German army occupied the town twice, in November 1941 and from July 1942 to February 1943. The Nazis murdered 13,000 Jews on 11 August 1942. A few days later, another 2,000–5,000 Jews in the town and its vicinity were shot to death in the Jewish cemetery (in 1975, a memorial was placed in the Zmievka ravine at the site of the shootings, but the monument failed to mention that the victims were Jews).
After Rostov’s liberation from the Germans, the Jewish community was given use of the building of the former Soldiers’ Synagogue. Shaia-Meier Aronovich served as rabbi from 1944 to 1960. During those years, the Anticosmopolitan Campaign targeted the city’s most prominent Jewish scientific and cultural figures, and approximately one dozen prominent Jewish medical workers were arrested in connection with the Doctors’ Plot.
In 1959, there were 16,341 Jews living in Rostov (2.7% of the population). These numbers fell each decade: in 1970, there were 14,397 (1.8%); in 1979, 12,165 (1.3%); in 1989, 8,272 (0.8%), and in 2002 fewer than 5,000. In the late 1980s, Jewish cultural and religious life began to revive, although it did so against a background of mass emigration that peaked in 1996, when 782 Jews departed. In 1990, the Rostov Association to Aid Jewish Culture (RASEA) was created. In 1991, a secular Sunday school and a religious school, Or Menaḥem, with a kindergarten, were opened; by 1999, it had an enrollment of more than 100 pupils.
In 1993, the community received full ownership of both the former Soldiers’ Synagogue building and the former home of the Shneerson family, where a yeshiva was subsequently opened. In 1997, burials were renewed at the “New” Jewish cemetery (the third in number; it had functioned from 1922 to 1971). The Lubavitch movement established a cultural center. In 1996 the Holocaust Scientific and Educational Center was created. The Joint Distribution Committee, apart from extensive charitable projects, also promoted cultural and educational activities.
Jewish publications have been renewed as well. In 1995–1996, RASEA, supported by the Jewish Agency, issued the Rostovskaia evreiskaia gazeta (five issues), supplemented in 1995 with the information bulletin Rega (three issues). In December 1996 a newspaper, Iakhad (6–7 issues per year), began to appear, and in 1998 the Rostov Jewish Religious Community began publishing the monthly newspaper, Shema‘.
Oleg V. Budnitskii, “The Jews in Rostov-on-Don in 1918–1919,” in Jews and Jewish Topics in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe 19 (1992): 16–29; Evgenii Movshovich, “Evrei Rostova-na-Donu,” Shma-Slushai: Gazeta Rostovskoi religioznoi obschiny 12 (30 September 1999): 1, 4; 13 (30 October 1999): 3; Evgenii Malakhovskii and Evgenii Movshovich, “Iudeiskie molitvennye doma i sinagogi Rostova-na-Donu,” Donskoi vremennik: God 1999-i (1998): 102–104; Evgenii Movshovich, “Evrei na Donu,” Iakhad: Gazeta Evreiskogo agenstva Iuga-Rossii 11 (September 1998): 4; 13 (November 1998): 4; 15 (February 1999): 4; 17 (April 1999): 4; 18 (May 1999): 4; 19 (June 1999): 4; 20 (August 1999): 4; Evgenii Movshovich, “Khasidy na Donu,” Donskoi vremennik: God 2000-i (1999): 122–125.
Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson