Until WW2 Vilnius was known as ‘Jerusalem of Lithuania’. At least one third of the people living in Vilnius were Litvaks – Lithuanian Jews. There were more than 100 synagogues and Jewish prayer houses in the city. In Judaism a synagogue is not necessarily something big, it actually may be just a room in someone’s apartment. The word synagogue comes from Greek (synagōgē) and means gathering. If at least 10 adult men (this required minimum number is called minyan in Hebrew) gather, they can run the public prayer. The city of Vilnius before the WW2 was full of this kind of prayer houses. Unfortunately most of them were destroyed. It is still possible to find Jewish synagogues in Vilnius today, but sometimes even the locals are a little confused about them.
If you try to find out more about the Jewish houses of worship in Vilnius today, the first thing you will probably find is the Greater synagogue of Vilnius – a building that could fit around 800 people inside. The Greater synagogue was built at the beginning of 17th century and had been the heart of the religious Jewish life until the WW2. Unfortunately, it was damaged during the war and was demolished by the Soviets in 1957. What you can find now is only this grey-brick school, which was built on the top of the same place where the synagogue used to be. There is an information stand reminding about the Greater synagogue of Vilnius in front of the grey-brick building. In the ruins of the synagogue, some parts of the interior were found. You can observe those parts in the Tolerance Centre of Vilna Gaon Jewish History Museum on Naugarduko street 11. Archeological research takes place every summer at the site of the Greater Synagogue of Vilnius.
The place where the Greater synagogue used to be (address is Vokiečių str 13A or it may be easier to find it from the Jewish street)
After people find out the sad story of the Greater synagogue of Vilnius, they sometimes misunderstand and do not get to know that there is still an active synagogue (called Vilnius Choral synagogue) which serves for the needs of the local Jewish community today. It is a building from 1903 which is unique not only because of its’ exotic interior but also it surprisingly survived the WW2! Nowadays it is the only active synagogue in Vilnius which helps to learn more about both - the history of the Jews in Vilnius, and how the Jewish community lives today. The synagogue is normally opened every day from 10 am till 2 pm (except Shabbat – Saturday & other Jewish religious holidays). The entrance to Vilnius Choral Synagogue costs 1 EUR. You just need to press the bell button on the blue gate and you will buy the ticket inside. Do not forget to visit the second floor of the synagogue as well if possible. The entrance is actually different. If you want to go inside the main hall of the synagogue, you take the door on the right. However the door to the balcony is on the left. So if you visit the main hall first, you have to go outside to go to the second floor. You will be able to see the main hall from the top as well as some pictures of the buildings of wooden synagogues that were more popular in shtetls all over Lithuania. Most of them are not used as synagogues anymore.
NB! Vilnius Choral Synagogue is temporarily closed due to COVD-19.
The Choral synagogue in Vilnius (address Pylimo str 39)
There are actually a few more buildings in Vilnius that were used as synagogues or Jewish house of prayers before WWII. Unfortunately most of them are not used as synagogues or houses of prayer anymore. Instead, majority of buildings are used as apartments today. You can only take a look at the exteriors of some of those buildings and try to imagine what was going on inside before WWII. In Lithuania, Jewish prayer houses established by a private initiatives were called kloyz in Yiddish.
Former synagogues or houses of prayers in Vilnius you can easily observe today:
An important kloyz was established on Geliu street 6 by Zavel Peisakhovich Germaize. It was very close to the main train station so sometimes people would refer to it as travellers’ synagogue. There were 192 regular worshippers in 1923. After WWII, the building was used as the warehouse and some apartments. However, since 1990 the building was abandoned and only in 2015 the reconstruction started. The exterior is already finished. You can easily observe it from Geliu street. The purpose of the building is not determined yet, but it will serve the needs of local Jewish community.
In the inner courtyard of Aguonu sreet 5 you can find the building of Khurgin’s prayer house. It was established in the courtyard of Gurevich Yiddish gymnasium. Today the building serves as the headquarters of veterans of Afghanistan war.
The former kloyz of the Jewish alms house was founded in the courtyard of Pamenkalnio street 11. Today the former building of alms house is used as Vilnius Vocational Training Centre of Technologies and the building of kloyz was converted into sports facility. However you can still see the exterior of the former house of prayer from the courtyard.
Former synagogues or houses of prayers in Vilnius quite complicated to get to:
Kloyz of Mordechai Epstein was established in 1915 in the building on Geliu street 3 – Sv. Stepono street 4. Unfortunately it is quite complicated to see the part of the building which reminds us it used to be Jewish prayer house as it is inside the courtyard which is locked most of the time. Today it is used as the apartment.
One more building of kloyz can be found in the courtyard of Zemaitijos street 9 in Vilnius Old Town. It was reconstructed by a merchant of kosher meat Aharon Pundik in 1882. This prayer house was in the territory of Big Vilna Ghetto and it was converted into a living space at that time. Today it is an apartment building, but you can still find the date 1882 above the window where they prayer house once was active. It is also quite complicated to go inside this courtyard as the gate was locked recently.
The buildings of former synagogues or houses of worship that were rebuilt:
Next to Neris river on Zygimantu street 13, you can find a building which used to be known as Beit Midrash at the Green Bridge. It was founded by the merchant Sheinuk so sometimes it is reffered as Sheinuk's kloyz. The building was heavily reconstructed. Today it is used by public institurions.
There is one more building connected to Jewish history of synagogues and houses of prayers in Vilnius on Uzupio street 36. Uzupis was mainly lived by Jews until WWII and 1841 a synagogue was establish for 80 families residing in areas around by Israel Gintsburg. After WWII the prayer house was converted into apartment building.
If you wander around the Old Jewish quarter, you can find a plaque on the building of Romanian embassy at Gaono street 6 saying there was a synagogue once in that building. It belonged to fish mongers. Indeed there were quite a few Jewish prayer houses in that area, however the buildings were completely rebuild and only historical sources remind about what was going on around that area.
The information about the synagogues and houses of prayers in Vilnius was collected from Synagogues in Lithuania. A Catalogue N - Ž (Aliza Coen-Mushlin, Sergey Kravtsov, Vladimir Levin, Giedrė Mickūnaitė, Jurgita Šiaučiūnaitė-Verbickienė) and Darius Pocevičius book in Lithuanian: 100 istorinių Vilniaus reilktų (100 historical relics of Vilnius).
We hope after reading this article about synagogues and houses of worship in Vilnius you will not be confused about synagogues in Vilnius. If you want to learn more about the synagogues in Vilnius or the Jewish history in general, you are welcome to join the Vilnius Jewish tour with one of our guides We are meeting at the Town hall and the ticket costs 12 EUR/person if you book online.