Jewish Study Abroad Guide Latvia Riga

Interior of the Peitav-Shul Synagogue of Riga.

Jewish Latvia: A Brief History and Guide

Published: March 25, 2024

This guide offers advice to Jewish students considering study abroad programs in Latvia. Here, you’ll read about the local Jewish history, Latvia’s active synagogues, and some of Riga’s major Jewish cultural organizations, museums, and memorials. Most importantly, we’ll get you on your way to engaging with the local Jewish community and comfortably celebrating your traditions and identity while abroad.

A Brief History of Jews in Latvia

Little is known about Jewish history in Latvia before the 16th century. Before the 13th, the region was one that traders often interacted with, but rarely settled in. While Jews may have been among these merchants, no record of this exists. There are Jewish headstones that date back to the 13th century, indicating that individual Jews were present. However, the papal state of Livonia, which ruled the area for most of the 13th-16th centuries, denied entry to Jews. Thus, any Jewish presence during those times tended to be exceptional. Few records exist documenting these individuals. For more on the general history of Latvia, see this article from our sister site, GeoHistory.

Jewish Study Abroad Guide Latvia Riga
Latvians marking the 78th anniversary of the “liquidation” of the Riga Ghetto. The memorial was held in front of Latvia’s national monument, which it calls its “Statue of Liberty.”

Latvia’s Jewish history is thus usually said to begin in 1571. At that time, the Livonian Wars had largely broken papal power. Denmark came to control what would become part of Eastern Latvia’s province of Courland. Hoping to develop the local economy, the Danish prince invited a group of well-educated, German-speaking Jewish traders and craftsmen to settle near Piltene, a small trading town on the Venta River.

More German-speaking Jews eventually followed and the community was able to spread to other urban areas and integrate well with the urban ruling classes, which, due to colonization under the Livonian state, was also well-educated and German speaking.

Yiddish-speaking Jews, primarily Ashkenazi, began arriving to Latvia in the 17th and 18th centuries. Fleeing the anti-Semitism and pogroms that devastated much of Eastern Europe, these Jews settled mostly in Riga and Daugavpils, which were then ruled by The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Polish state had long fostered good relations with Jews and had one of the largest Jewish populations in Europe at the time.

The Yiddish-speaking Jews were, overall, not as educated and much poorer than the German speaking Jews already present. Yiddish-speaking Jews did not integrate as well either. They instead formed tight communities of support focused on preserving their culture and language. These communities came to include their own schools, theaters, and newspapers.

By the 20th century, Latvia had a large, diverse, and active Jewish population of around 200,000 – probably just under 10% of the population. Unfortunately, this population would be decimated over the course of that century.

The destruction of WWI, for instance, saw the Latvian population reduced by 20%, and its Jewish population by about 50%. When independent Latvia was overtaken by the USSR just before WWII, the Soviets deported a majority of Latvia’s Jews as potential political dissidents. Many died in the horrendous conditions enroute to Central Asia or Siberia. Those that remained in Latvia were soon under Nazis rule. As few as 200 Jews remained in Latvia after Holocaust.

After WWII, Jews returning from elsewhere in the USSR brought the population back up to about 34,000. However, “waves” of Jewish emigration occurred in the 1970s, mostly to the US and Israel, and due to the economic hardship that followed the collapse of the USSR.

Today, Latvia is home to about 8,000 Jews, mostly centered in Riga, mostly Ashkenazi, and mostly Latvian speaking. There are active synagogues in Riga, Daugavpils, and Jurmala serving growing Jewish communities. Jurmala’s synagogue, in fact, is new – having opened 2019 in part to accommodate the many Jews that vacation in the resort city every summer.

 

Synagogues in Latvia

Peitav Synagogue is the only Jewish house of worship in Riga to have survived the Nazi occupation. Originally built in 1905, it was Riga’s second largest synagogue. Refurbished in 2009, it is today open daily except for Saturdays. Today it is also known as the “Riga Synagogue” or the “Peitav-Shul Synagogue.”

Jewish Study Abroad Guide Latvia Riga
Looking out at the sandy beaches of Jurmala. Most SRAS programs include a trip here – make sure to see the glorious new synagogue just built there.

Chabad Lubavitch Latvia offers weekday, Shabbat and Holiday prayers.

The Beit Israel Synagogue in Jurmala opened in 2019 as Latvia’s first new synagogue in decades. Its architecture is meant to recall the wooden architecture that was once common for many synagogues in Latvia. The interior, however, is opulent and meant to celebrate the resurgence of Jewish culture in the area.

Kaddish Synagogue of Daugavpils was built in 1850. Devastaed by the Nazis in WWII, it was restored by local authorities afterwards. It underwent additional renovations in 2003-2005. There is a museum on the second floor dedicated to local Jewish history. Although the Synagogue is active, it is requested that visitors call ahead to make appointments as there is not someone always on site.

 

Jewish Organizations in Riga

The Jewish Community of Riga is a vibrant organization that serves as the heart of Jewish life in the city. It offers a range of religious, educational, charity, employment, and cultural services, supporting the continuity and revival of Jewish traditions and their integration into modern society.

Chabad Lubavitch Latvia offers a number of community services including a youth club and a student lounge.

The Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Latvia is an academic institution dedicated to the study and research of Jewish history, culture, and religion. It plays a crucial role in promoting Jewish scholarship and fostering intercultural dialogue within the academic community and beyond.

 

Sites of Interest in Riga

Jewish Study Abroad Guide Latvia Riga
Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum.

Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum seeks to tell the story of Latvia’s Jews. The museum itself is located on the edge of what was onece the Riga Ghetto.

The Jewish Museum of Riga provides an insightful exploration into the rich Jewish history and culture of Latvia. Through its exhibitions, it showcases the community’s contributions to Latvian society, the tragic events of the Holocaust, and the Jewish experience in the Soviet era, fostering understanding and remembrance.

The Monument to the Great Choral Synagogue, is essentially the preserved remains of the monumental building that was once Riga’s largest and most prized synagogue. Destroyed by fire by the Nazis during World War II, the site now serves as a poignant reminder and memorial to the devastating impact of the Holocaust on Latvia’s Jewish community.

The Jewish Cemetery of Riga, with its historic graves and monuments, serves as a testament to the long-standing Jewish presence in the city. It offers a somber reflection on the past, honoring prominent Jewish figures and the many lives that shaped the community over centuries.

The Rumbula Memorial stands at the site where more than 25,000 Jews were killed in the Rumbula Forest on the outskirts of Riga.

The Bikernieki Memorial honors the more than 20,000 Jews and other minorities who were killed in the Bikernieki Forest on the outskirts of Riga.

The Old Synagogue Kar Schul of Riga is a former synagogue that structurally survived being set on fire by the Nazis. After the war, the Soviets turned it into an apartment building. It remains so today, but is also a site of pilgrimage for Jewish history buffs.

The State Historic Archives of Latvia houses an extensive collection of documents related to the history of Jews in Latvia. These archives provide a vital resource for historians, genealogists, and anyone interested in exploring the multifaceted aspects of Jewish life and history in the region.

 

Staying Kosher in Riga

Jewish Study Abroad Guide Latvia Riga
A matsa masterclass held at Kafe 7:40. Photo from the cafe’s social media pages.

Chabad Lubavitch Latvia hosts a store with kosher products, a list on their website with kosher products that can be found in most grocery stores in Riga, and they offer Shabbat meals following prayers. If you are interested in joining Shabbat, please register by the preceding Thursday on their site.

Cafe Lechaim is a kosher meat restaurant serving Ashkenazi dishes. It is associated with Chabad, although at a different location.

Kafe 7:40 is a kosher meat restaurant associated with and based at the Jewish Community Center.

 

Antisemitism and Acceptance

Latvia is safe for Jewish travel and hosts hundreds of Jewish tourists every year. Thanks to a rapidly improving environment for Jews, the Jewish population has grown by about 25% since 2011, mostly from Latvian Jews returning from emmigration and from Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe emigrating to Latvia. There is no need to hide your identity here and openly wearing Jewish symbols and clothing is accepted. That said, antisemitism and far right movements do exist here. Just take the same general safety precautions that anyone would need to take when visiting a major city. While you are just as likely to see passing evidence of antisemitism in Latvia as you are anywhere else, students who have visited Latvia have reported an overwhelmingly positive experience.

 

Before Your Trip

Before you go, here are a few tips from previous Jewish students who have stayed in Latvia:

  • If you plan on visiting the Riga Chabad, send an email or text to the Rabbi before arrival to ask any questions and clarify details for your visit.
  • Communicate with SRAS, your instructors, and guides to discuss accommodations for Shabbat, meals, and any other concerns.
  • Attend all SRAS briefings and always research the history and peruse news sources about any destination you travel to. This will help you learn more about Latvia and keep yourself safe.

Safe travels, and enjoy your time in Latvia!

 

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About the author

Josh Wilson

Josh Wilson

Josh lived in Moscow from 2003, when he first arrived to study Russian with SRAS, until 2022. He holds an M.A. in Theatre and a B.A. in History from Idaho State University, where his masters thesis was written on the political economy of Soviet-era censorship organs affecting the stage. At SRAS, Josh assists in program development and leads our Internship Programs. He is also the editor-in-chief for the SRAS newsletter, the SRAS Family of Sites, and Vestnik. He has previously served as Communications Director to Bellerage Alinga and has served as a consultant or translator to several businesses and organizations with interests in Russia.

Program attended: SRAS Staff Member

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