Armenia’s Vanishing Jewish Community

Author: Suren Stepanyan

Every day, Rabbi Gershon Burstein, 56, opens the door of Armenia’s only synagogue and waits for the faithful to enter. They very rarely do so.

Though believed to date back centuries, Armenia’s Jewish community – roughly estimated to number anywhere from 500 to 2,000 people – can be easily overlooked. Amidst economic collapse and war with Azerbaijan, an indeterminate number of Jews emigrated to Israel during the early 1990s, and many of those who remain do not observe Jewish religious practices, community members say.  

Indeed, so few Jewish Armenians now attend the country’s sole synagogue, located on a lane in downtown Yerevan, the Armenian capital, that worship services occur only a couple of times a year. If at least 10 Jewish males over the age of 13 are not present in the three-storey building on off Nar-Dos Street, a service cannot occur.

Armenia’s only synagogue, Mordechai Navi, was named for a Yerevan synagogue destroyed in the 1930s during the Soviet Union’s anti-religion campaign. Its Star of David has been slightly modified to resemble Mount Ararat, a symbol of Armenian national identity.

As a result, worship services occur mostly in summer, when Jewish tourists from Israel come to the Mordechai Navi (Prophet Mordechai) synagogue to pray, says Burstein. Rather than dues from synagogue members, international assistance mostly keeps the facility running.

Armenia’s Vanishing Jewish Community

That poses a challenge for the future of this tiny community.

“[A] Jew stays a Jew due to the traditions on which our identity is based,” Burstein stresses. “Attending a synagogue regularly, praying and paying the tithe and following kashrut [Jewish dietary rules] are the primary rules in a Jewish lifestyle. These, however, have gradually been abandoned in daily life.”

Rabbi Burstein presides over a worship service for a group of Jewish tourists from Israel. In keeping with traditional practice, women sit apart from men.

Those Jewish Armenians who do attend the synagogue are mostly men over 50, he estimates.

To try and reverse this trend, the rabbi organizes monthly meetings of believers, celebrations of Jewish holidays and offers Hebrew language lessons, but all of this has not had the effect he’d like.

Only about 10 children now attend the synagogue’s Hebrew classes; a precipitous drop from the 300 or so who, he claims, attended until the mid-1990s.

“There are many [Jews] who approach me and say that they would like to learn Hebrew and study the Torah [five books written by the prophet Moses that contain laws for everyday Jewish life]. I accept them with my arms wide open, but, after one or two classes, they stop attending.”

Volumes of the Torah, five books (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) by the prophet Moses which regulate different aspects of Jewish life, line a bookshelf in Yerevan’s Mordechai Navi synagogue.

The Mordechai Navi synagogue’s lectern from which Rabbi Burstein reads prayers, is covered with a velvet cloth that reads in Russian “Joint,” a name for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Commitee, a non-profit relief group.

The possible reasons for that vary.

One young man of mixed Jewish-Armenian heritage maintains that Orthodox Jewish practices may not always suit individuals’ harried modern schedules. That does not, however, make them less Jewish, he says.

"I don't think that one must attend a synagogue to be considered a Jew and to follow all the mitzvoth [613 commandments from the Torah], rest on Saturdays and eat only kosher,” comments 28-year-old Georgi Avagimyan, an employee at an agricultural-equipment dealer. “The world is developing and it's difficult to keep following all the Jewish law . . .”

“I tell everyone that it’s not easy to be a Jew,” says Rabbi Gersh Burstein. Rules about diet and not working on Saturday must be observed to preserve that identity, he maintains. Jewish family roots alone are insufficient, he claims.

That observation might sound familiar to the head of the non-profit Jewish Community of Armenia, Rima Varzhapetyan-Feller.

Over time, Varzhapetyan-Feller says, “family problems and work have made a lot of people less interested” in the activities offered by her 27-year-old organization, which runs various educational and cultural projects and provides Hebrew and Jewish history lessons.  

“We introduce them to Jewish tradition and we gather several times during the year to celebrate the [Jewish] holidays,” she recounts. “But even then, not everybody comes. In the best case-scenario, the number of attendees reaches 30.”

Rima Varzhapetyan-Feller is married to an ethnic Armenian who is a Christian, but stresses that that difference “didn’t hinder me from living as a Jew.” Here, she takes a look at an issue of the Jewish Community of Armenia’s monthly newspaper, Magen David (The Star of David).

It supposedly all used to be quite different.

In Soviet times, “Armenia was a wonderful asylum for Jews from all over the Soviet Union,” recounts Burstein, whose family first moved to Armenia from Ukraine in the 1940s to escape anti-Semitism.  

The free, Russian-language monthly newspaper published by the Jewish Community, Magen David (The Star of David), used to run out after “several days,” recollects Adelina Livhitz, 62, the publication’s editor-in-chief and staff of one. Now, its role is “secondary” to that of the internet.

Varzhapetyan-Feller denies that living in a predominantly mono-ethnic society that overwhelmingly self-identifies as Christian has had any impact on the low level of current involvement in Jewish community life.

“The fact that my husband is Christian didn’t hinder me to live as a Jew,” she underlines. “I don’t think that a wife or a husband can prohibit a Jew to have a community life, learn the language and preserve traditions.”

A Hebrew-language gravestone in the village of Yeghegis in Armenia’s southeastern Vayots Dzor region is one of dozens in a Jewish cemetery there. Inscriptions on some of the gravestones indicate that they date from the 13th century.

A front-page story in Magen David The Star of David) describes a June 2018 meeting of the World Jewish Congress in Israel.

Magen David Editor-in-Chief Adelina Livshitz scans Israeli newspapers’ websites for information that might be of interest for Jewish readers in Armenia.

Both Rabbi Burstein and Varzhapetyan-Feller deny that Armenia has -- or ever did have -- problems with anti-Semitism.

Varzhapetyan-Feller has disputed the accuracy of a 2014 index by the Anti-Defamation League, an American non-profit dedicated to combating anti-Semitism and bigotry, that ranked Armenia as the most anti-Semitic country among 11 former Soviet republics surveyed.

She herself combined her Jewish maiden name and husband’s Armenian last name to show that the two ethnic groups can live side by side despite their religious differences, she says.

But what such measures can do to preserve Armenia’s Jewish community over the long run appears, for now, uncertain.

August, 2018 Religious Beliefs


Religious Beliefs


Chai-khana Survay