VITEBSK, capital of Vitebsk district, Belarus. The first Jewish settlement appears to have been established in Vitebsk at the end of the 16th century. The charter given to the residents of Vitebsk in 1597 by Sigismund iii Vasa forbids Jews "in accordance with long-held practice" to dwell within the city. Still, it appears that some Jews did live there, under the protection of the local nobility, both before and after 1597. The Jewish community developed, though not without conflict with the Christian population of the city over Jewish rights and privileges. In 1627 the local ruler S. Sangushko granted permission for the construction of a synagogue in the city. A document from the 17th century takes note of "the Jew's gate."
During the war between Poland and the government of Moscow in 1654, Jews fought in the defense of the city. When it fell to the Russians, their property was confiscated and they were taken captive, not being released until peace was achieved with Poland (1667). Upon the Jews' return they had to enter into litigation with their neighbors who had appropriated their property. In 1679 King John iii Sobieski granted a charter to the Jews, restoring their former privileges and promising them freedom of religion and commercial rights. This charter was renewed and confirmed by the kings of Poland in 1729 and 1759. In 1708, during the war with Sweden, the Jewish quarter of Vitebsk was destroyed by fire. The local residents then occupied the plot where the synagogue had been and built a church upon it. The Lithuanian supreme court ordered them to return the land to the Jews and pay damages of 13,500 gold pieces. The Jewish community of Vitebsk was part of the Council of the *Lands. It was under the jurisdiction of the *Brest-Litovsk community and through it was subject to the Lithuanian Council. The Vitebsk Jewish community kept a *pinkas (minute-book) from 1706.
With the first partition of Poland in 1772 Vitebsk was annexed to Russia. At that time the community numbered 1,227 persons, or about a quarter of the town's population. Most of Vitebsk's trade in flax and tobacco was conducted with Riga by way of the Dvina River. With the completion of the Orel-Vitebsk-Dvinsk railroad during the 1860s the commerce of Vitebsk with regional towns and villages increased and the Jewish community grew accordingly. After their expulsion from Moscow in 1891 some of the Jews transferred their businesses to Vitebsk. In 1897 the city had 34,420 Jews (52.4% of the total population).
Vitebsk was a stronghold of Orthodox Judaism, containing elements of Lithuanian Jewish scholarship, and even stronger ḥasidic influences. At the end of the 18th century the founders of Lithuanian Ḥasidism, Menahem *Mendel of Vitebsk and Shneur Zalman of Lyady, were active in the city. Strong *Ḥabad ḥasidic influences were present. The rabbi of the city from 1803 to 1860 was Yiẓḥak Isaac Behard, who was both kazyonny *ravvin (government-appointed rabbi) and the choice of the admor. Jekuthiel Zalman Landau succeeded him in the rabbinate serving also as head of the yeshivah of Vitebsk. After Landau moved to St. Petersburg the community did not select a new chief rabbi, as a result of a dispute between the Ḥasidim and *Mitnaggedim. During the last years of the 19th century 72% of the school-age children studied in the ḥeder and talmud torah schools of Vitebsk.
The settlement of Jews in Vitebsk who had been expelled from Moscow strengthened the *Haskalah elements in the city. The Ḥibbat *Zion movement began to develop, as did the Socialist movement at a later date. Vitebsk was one of the first centers of the *Bund. In 1901 the Zionist leader Grigori (Ẓevi Hirsch) *Bruck was selected as kazyonny ravvin of Vitebsk. He had great influence upon the life of the community, even after he was deposed by the authorities. This occurred as a result of his position as a delegate to the *Duma, in which he signed the Wyborg Proclamation. The Zionist and *Po'alei Zion movements flourished, causing the talmud torah to be converted into a Hebrew school. After 1905 several private gymnasia opened in the city, most of the students being Jewish. The artist Y. Pen opened an art school which trained hundreds of young people, including Marc *Chagall and S. Yudovin. S. *An-Ski and C. *Zhitlovsky were both from Vitebsk. During World War i Vitebsk served as a way station for tens of thousands of Jews who had been expelled from Lithuania. Several thousands of them settled there permanently.
With the advent of Soviet rule the Vitebsk Jewish community began to decline. Thousands of residents who had come from Lithuania and Latvia used their rights of relocation and emigrated from the Soviet Union. The *Yevsektsiya established one of its centers in Belorussia in Vitebsk, publishing the paper Der Royter Shtern ("The Red Star") until 1923. In 1921 a public trial "over the ḥeder" was conducted in Vitebsk and several synagogues in the city were confiscated. The Vitebsk *He-Ḥalutz movement was harassed and came to an end during the middle of the 1920s. Vitebsk had a semi-legal Ḥabad yeshivah until 1930. In 1923 there were 39,714 Jews (43.7% of the total population). In 1926 there were 37,013 (37.5%).
With the Nazi conquest of the city in July 1941 part of the Jewish population fled into the interior of Russia. The city was destroyed in a fire started by the retreating Red Army. The 16,000 Jews who remained behind were imprisoned in a ghetto. On October 8, 1941, their systematic liquidation began. After the liberation of the city from the Germans Jews began to return. In the later 1960s the Jewish population was estimated at about 20,000 but there was no synagogue. Most left during the large-scale emigration of the 1990s.
Vitebsk Amol (Yid. 1956); Sefer Vitebsk (Heb. 1957).