Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia

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SOCIETY FOR THE PROMOTION OF CULTURE AMONG THE JEWS OF RUSSIA , a society aimed at uniting advanced groups among Russian Jewry for the purpose of practical, organized, and planned activities to promote popular education; founded in St. Petersburg in 1863 on the initiative and with the financial support of wealthy Jews active in the community the majority of whom were residents of the city.


Leon *Rosenthal, one of the founders of the society and its treasurer for a long time, stated that the motive for setting it up was the accusation, constantly leveled by government representatives and members of the Russian public in general, that the religious, social, and cultural separatism of the Jews was the chief obstacle to their being granted civic equality. These circles exerted pressure on the leaders of the Jewish community in St. Petersburg to employ their standing to influence the internal regeneration of their people in accordance with the spirit of the times. The Jewish leaders decided to respond to this demand, which seemed to them justified. To set up a countrywide association of supporters of education, they proceeded immediately to work out a set of regulations for the organization. The project encountered numerous difficulties on several sides: the Orthodox sector dissociated themselves from it for fear of adverse consequences to the Jewish religion, while the free-thinking maskilim in the capital were of the opinion that it was necessary to introduce more extreme and quicker measures. High government officials, who feared that the society might develop into a broad-based popular association, opposed the establishment of branches throughout the country.

Only after exhausting negotiations with the interested parties for almost a year was a definition of the aims agreed upon, namely, to spread and promote culture among the Jews of Russia, to support Jewish literature and authors, and to assist young students. The means to achieve this would be by teaching Russian to the Jewish masses, and by the publication of original books, translations, and periodicals in Russian and Hebrew. It was laid down that the society should operate under the auspices of the ministry of education and should accept members without distinction of sex, status, or religion.

The first members who agreed to set up the initial fund of the society were mainly representatives of the Jewish financial aristocracy in various cities, particularly St. Petersburg; only a small minority belonged to the intelligentsia. At the first general meeting (December 1863) J.Y. *Guenzburg was elected chairman of the society's committee. The committee energetically recruited new members among wealthy businessmen, well-known scholars, and authors. Special efforts were made to bring into the ranks of the society liberal Christian scholars, writers, and personalities active in public affairs. In the first year of its existence the Jewish members of the society included – in addition to a group of philanthropists – writers and scholars such as Abraham Dov *Lebensohn, A. *Mapu, S.J. *Fuenn, Joshua *Steinberg, H.S. *Slonimski, A. *Zederbaum, Y.L. *Gordon, S.J. Abramowitsch (*Mendele Mokher Seforim), J.L. *Pinsker, L. *Levanda, A.A. *Harkavy, and D. *Chwolson. The various projects of the society were financed by individual contributors headed by J.Y. Guenzburg and his son H. *Guenzburg, and L. Rosenthal. This left its mark on the character of the society and its orientation, which were determined by the personal endeavors of its chief supporters. Another serious setback to its democratic organization was the refusal of the government to permit the society to establish branches in the centers of the *Pale of Settlement; this would have enabled it to influence the masses more closely. After the establishment of a branch in Odessa in 1867, about 31 years passed before a second branch in Riga was authorized.

Ideological Differences

From the beginning differences arose within the committee as to the methods for spreading useful knowledge among the masses, especially the language to be used. The moderate wing, as represented by Rosenthal, regarded it as an association of intellectuals who aimed at building something new and not destroying the traditional, being convinced that religion and knowledge were closely linked. It was, therefore, the duty of the society to provide a "neutral" education for the masses so as not to arouse feelings of distrust, to refrain from offending accepted beliefs and opinions, and by publishing popular articles on science, geography, and general history to expand the Jewish reader's horizon and spur him to constant mental improvement. Rosenthal advocated the Hebrew language for propagating culture among Jewish youth, and proposed giving priority to the society's publication of Hebrew books and periodicals. On the society's committee there was also a group that included Chwolson and Harkavy, which emphasized promoting among the Jewish public a knowledge of the Russian language and the creation of a Russian-Jewish literature, to assist in removing the barriers between Jews and the rest of the population, and to rebut the false accusations leveled at the Jews and Judaism. A small group within the society, represented by S.A. *Schwabacher, rabbi of the Odessa community, and A. Neuman, rabbi of St. Petersburg, demanded that a special department for the education of the younger generation should be devoted to the study of German as a means of understanding fundamental works of Judaism, which had been written mainly in that language, and to becoming acquainted with general European culture. Finally the society's committee approved in February 1864 the view that spreading Russian among Jews was to be the basis for all its activities, since that alone was likely to prepare them gradually to take a direct part in the life of Russian society. The extreme "Russification" group in the society was concentrated in the Odessa branch. Among them were O. *Rabinovich, J.L. Pinsker, and E. Soloveichik.

In 1872, when J.L. Gordon became secretary of the society, he reformulated its operative principles which he had published as a manifesto in the Hebrew press. The innovations in this document were an appeal to those devoted to education in the Pale of Settlement to assist the development of vocational training institutions for young people, which would assure them an honorable and suitable livelihood; a declaration of the society's readiness to help Jewish artisans to settle throughout the Russian Empire; a firm demand to introduce changes in the existing administration of the Jewish communities; and, above all, the credo of Jewish maskilim which identified them with the government stand – that the Jews would be deserving of emancipation after their spiritual and moral "improvement" had been achieved. The rights already given to certain classes of Jews in Russia were, in the society's opinion, a forerunner and pledge of general civic equality in the not too distant future if the Jews carried out their duty to themselves and their country by acquiring an education.

Publishing Activities

To help Jews acquire a knowledge of Russian it was resolved to publish primers with suitable exercises and Jewish history in Russian. To encourage Jewish authors in this language they were allotted grants, and it was planned to issue scholarly and literary annuals in which their works would be published. These projects also had the apologetic aim of presenting the Russian reader with authentic information on the history and culture of the Jewish people. The project for publishing the annuals ran into numerous difficulties through lack of sufficient literary talent, censorship restrictions, and internal inhibitions, i.e., apprehension about publishing criticism of the Jewish religion or way of life. After the appearance of the first collection, which had taken about four years to prepare, the society decided to abandon its plans in this area. The heads of the society were interested in issuing a periodical in Russian on Jewish affairs, but did not dare to carry out this aim themselves, contenting themselves with support of the weeklies Den (1869–71); Vestnik Russkikh Yevreyev (1871–73), issued by A. Zederbaum, and a Russian supplement to the weekly *Ha-Karmel, edited by S.J. Fuenn (1865, 1866, and 1868).

The most successful literary undertaking of the society in this period was a collection on the views of the Talmud sages, initiated by D. Chwolson. The Hebrew text by Ẓevi Hirsch *Katzenellenbogen and S.J. Fuenn was completed in 1871. The Russian translation, edited by L. Levanda with the comments by J.L. Gordon, was published in three volumes in 1874 and 1876. The publication of the book was aimed both to serve as a textbook for rabbis to prepare their sermons in the language of the country, and to explain to the non-Jewish public the foundations of the Talmud which had determined the national character of the Jews. The latter, apologetic intention, apparently predominated in the 1870s when antisemitism increased in Russia under the influence of J. *Brafman's Kniga Kagala ("Book of the Kahal").

The society devoted much effort to a new undertaking to which it ascribed a decisive importance in bringing the Jews of Russia closer to Haskalah – the translation of the Bible into Russian. This approach was naturally based on the revolutionary results achieved in Jewish life of a similar project in German on the initiative and with the participation of Moses *Mendelssohn. In 1873 the society brought out a new translation of the Torah by J. Gerstein ("The Learned Jew"), adviser on Jewish matters to the governor-general of Vilna, and J.L. Gordon, which achieved a wide circulation. The society also allocated large sums as a subvention for translation into Russian of the siddur and the maḥzorim for the festivals, and for composition of a series of textbooks in Russian to publishers of periodicals, such as the Yevreyskaya Biblioteka edited by A. *Landau, and to Jewish scholars undertaking research into Jewish history, such as I. *Orshanski and others. The society allotted grants to the authors of Hebrew books on mathematics, physics, astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, etc., including the writers H.S. Slonimski, Z.H. *Rabinowitz, S.J. Abramowitsch, and J. *Syrkin. It supported the periodicals *Ha-Ẓefirah and *Ha-Meliẓ, which devoted special sections to the natural sciences, and distributed popular Hebrew books on general and Jewish history and biography; in 1866–70 the society published four parts of the history by Georg Weber translated by K. *Schulman, who added chapters on Jewish history in different periods. At the invitation of the society Schulman also wrote a book on Russian geography which appeared in 1870 to serve as a reader for adults to further their acquaintance with their native country. A similar patriotic need was to be met by S. *Mandelkern's Russian history printed in 1895, which incorporated chapters on Jewish history.

Both wings of the society's committee – the protagonists of Hebrew and of Russian – were united in their negative attitude toward Yiddish, which they regarded as an anachronism, symbolizing an obsolete order. Despite this, it expressed readiness to support the Yiddish weekly *Kol Mevasser for disseminating basic facts among the mass of Jews. The committee allocated modest sums for publishing Yiddish books on Jewish and Russian history. However, in view of severe criticism in the general Russian press and Russian-Jewish press, it later desisted from taking such steps.

Educational Activities

The largest item of expenditure in the society's budget was assistance to Jewish students in Russian institutions of higher education, especially in St. Petersburg, whom the maskilim regarded as ideal candidates for leading the nation. At the end of the 1870s the society decided to send several graduates of rabbinical institutes to Breslau for further education in the *Juedisch-Theologisches Seminar and the local university, on the assumption that on their return they would serve as examples of rabbis on the German pattern. However, in eight years not more than three candidates were found suitable. In December 1879 the government banned the grant of scholarships to Jewish students from Russia who were studying at foreign universities, since this was opposed to the regulations of the society.

After the reform in the government educational network for Jews which led to the closure of many schools, and under pressure of appeals for the establishment of improved schools, the society decided to form a special fund to meet the most urgent needs in regard to secondary and elementary schools. Its policy in this field of activity was to refrain from setting up schools, and to support private initiative, without intervening in the internal affairs of these institutions. It also proposed to introduce reading and writing in Russian as a compulsory subject, to set up a special department of Hebrew subjects, to extend aid to the organizers of handicrafts classes attached to the schools, to help establish general teaching institutes in the Pale of Settlement, and to admit several pupils without charge with an allocation from the society. The rabbis of the communities and the authorized representatives of the society would frequently engage in establishing libraries for the use of the public at large.


The membership of the society numbered 175 in 1864; 287 in 1873, and 740 in 1888. In the first decade of the society's existence, its total income, mainly derived from contributions by the barons Guenzburg and L. Rosenthal, was 120,000 rubles. In its first 25 years it distributed 268,000 rubles to Jewish students in general schools, particularly of higher education; 31,000 rubles in cash, and 25,000 in form of grants of books to private schools; 32,000 rubles for supporting literature; and 24,000 rubles in aid to the needy.

From the 1890s

A new spirit invaded the society from the early 1890s. Educated youths who sought ways to serve their people joined the society and were influential in introducing new methods. In 1891 the society founded a "historical committee" for research in the history of the Jews of Russia. The committee published collections of documents dealing with Jewish history in Russia, and in 1908 became the Jewish Historical and Ethnographic Society. In 1894 a committee for Popular Education was established and in its framework the younger intelligentsia was active (L. *Bramson, J. *Brutzkus, A. *Kahnstam, etc.). The committee made a survey of Jewish schools, and advocated the support of old and new institutions, especially schools including Hebrew studies, in their curricula. The society sent delegates to visit educational institutions. Hebrew teachers were organized, a teachers' convention being held in Orsha (Belorussia) in 1903, and young teachers trained. The "Grodno courses" opened in 1907, and under A. Kahnstam's guidance a new generation of teachers with pedagogical training came into being. The new trends found expression in the society's revised statutes of 1901, which fixed the membership fee at 5 rubles (outside St. Petersburg). Branches were opened in Moscow (1894), Riga (1898), and Kiev (1908), each of which developed independent local activity. From 1902 the society organized councils where delegates of the branches met, as well as Jewish educationalists and cultural workers. In 1900 membership reached 3,010. In 1908 the society's statutes were changed again. It was entitled to open schools, libraries, courses for training teachers, and to give lectures. The membership fee was fixed at 3 rubles annually. Branches were to be opened wherever the number of members reached 25. In 1912 there were 30 branches throughout Russia with 7,000 members. The Moscow branch was particularly active, also being responsible for activity in the districts of Mogilev and Vitebsk. The Kiev branch became a center of activities in the southwestern area of the Pale of Settlement. In 1910 the society maintained ten schools, and partially supported 98 schools, as well as libraries in various Jewish communities. Its yearly budget in 1911 was 378,000 rubles. In 1910 the society began to publish its organ Vestnik ope (later named Vestnik yevreyskogo Prosveshcheniya) dealing with education, culture, and libraries. In 1912 a committee was established to find ways to reform and improve the existing traditional ḥeder. This problem was debated by the society's council in 1912.

Since the society was the only legal body for educational and cultural activities in Russia, it was joined in the early 20th century by national and Zionist leaders, such as Aḥad *ha-Am, Ḥ.N. *Bialik, S. *Dubnow, etc., and after the failure of the 1905 revolution also by members of the Jewish socialist parties. A struggle evolved in the society's councils between three trends: the initial trend of the assimilationists who advocated closer ties with Russian culture, the Hebrew-Zionist trend, and the Yiddishist *Bund trend. During World War i the society opened 215 schools with 30,000 pupils for Jewish refugee children from the battle zones. The struggle between the trends became even more accentuated. After the Russian February Revolution the Zionists established their own federation for education and culture, *Tarbut, and the Yiddishists established their society, Kultur-Lige (in Kiev). The Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 put an end to this development. The society's branches in the provincial towns were liquidated, the schools were closed, and all educational activities were prohibited. The center in Petrograd remained in existence, maintained its library, and published three literary-scientific collections. The society was finally disbanded by the authorities in 1930. The library, which contained 50,000 books and about 1,000 manuscripts, was given to the Institute for Proletarian Jewish Culture in Kiev.


Y.L. Rosenthal, Toledot Ḥevrat Marbei Haskalah be-Yisrael be-Ereẓ Rusyah, 2 vols. (1885–90); I.M. Tcherikower, Istoriya obshchestva dlya rasprostraneniya prosveshcheniya mezhdy yevreyami v Rossii, 1 (1913); Kritikus (S. Dubnow), in: Voskhod, 11:10 (1891), 41–45; Z. Scharfstein, Toledot ha-Ḥinnukh be-Yisrael, 1 (1948), 313–23, 389–96.

[Yehuda Slutsky]

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Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia

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Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia