The synagogue in Oni, a town in the Republic of Georgia’s northern region of Racha, is a handsome building with arching windows and a rounded architectural dome of a silver color. The inner ceiling is shaped like a giant pop-over, inlaid with a myriad of small skylights. A mural of colorful mountains beneath an impressionistic, purple-streaked horizon decorates the ceiling panel above the Torah Reader’s platform. Prayer books are stacked high along the polished wooden benches. The synagogue seems to have everything it needs.
Except a congregation.
“In 1972, we had 3,150 people,” said Gershon Chachashvili, a man in his late sixties and one of Oni’s de facto Jewish community leaders. “Now we have just 25. We have no rabbi.”
Refurbished in the last few years, the 114 year-old temple now symbolizes the dispersion of Georgia’s once-thriving Jewish community. In spite of close relations with their Christian neighbors and a degree of religious and cultural acceptance uncommon within the former Soviet Union, Georgia’s Jews have relocated to Israel en masse, with splinter communities settling in the United States.
Oni Synagogue in Georgia’s Racha region
Ethnographically Mizrachi, the first Jews arrived in Georgia some 2,600 years ago, and their origins are said to snake back along the centuries to the time of the Babylonian exile in 586 BCE. Further waves entered by way of the Byzantine Empire. The royal house of Georgia’s Golden Age (10-12th century)—the Bagrationi dynasty—proudly claimed Hebraic descent, tracing their ancestry back to the Biblical forebears David and Solomon. After the authority of the Bagrationi dynasty waned, and Mongol and Persian conquerors arrived, life grew tough for Georgian Jews. Small clusters climbed deeper and higher into the Western mountain lands. Many eventually became serfs, migrating to the cities when possible in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. With Russian czarist rule, the first Ashkenazi Jews appeared in the Southern Caucasus. Accusations of blood libel broke out, a by-product of czarist influence. Since then, a host of historical factors—including Stalinist anti-Semitism and the civil warfare of the post-Soviet era—has contributed to the ongoing Jewish exodus, but perhaps none so much as Zionism, which boasted an influential leader from Oni.
In the early 20th century, the Zionist David Baazov served as Rabbi of Oni. Educated by Ashkenazi rabbinical teachers in Tskhinvali and abroad, Baazov established a Talmud Torah here in 1905, spreading Hebraic teaching and Enlightenment thought. Though his students adored him, Baazov became a controversial figure among the more conservative Jews in the nearby city of Kutaisi. In August 1901, the 18-year-old Baazov popped up the first Congress of Caucasian Zionists, making a deep impression on the distinguished leader. During subsequent Congresses, Baazov was always ready to deliver a rousing lecture in Hebrew. For his troubles, he was passionately denounced within Chabad-influenced Georgian circles as a “missionary and Christianizer, heretic and renegade.” The Lubavicher Rebbe of Kutaisi joined with other critics to discredit Baazov who, in spite of the calumny, went on to create the first Zionist newspaper in Georgia.
David Baazov’s educational mission in Oni ended abruptly in 1917, when the Talmudic Academy he founded ran out of funds. That wasn’t the only threat to Oni’s community looming on the horizon. “In 1917, the Communists tried to destroy the synagogue, but the people came and would not let the officials touch it,” said Chachashvili. “‘You will have to destroy us first,’ they said, and it was saved.” Though the Bolshevik victory of 1921 eliminated the commercial structures of trade and private enterprise that provided a livelihood for Georgian Jewry, the bans on religious practice were neither as strictly enforced in Georgian Communist circles, nor as effective, as they were in Russia itself. Many Georgian Jews resisted the pressure to join collective farms, some becoming adept at smuggling and black-marketeering. “The stereotype,” Chachashvili said, “is that Oni’s Jews were traders and merchants. Some were peasants, but many were professionals. Jewish people have lived here since the 15th century.”
Gershon Chachashvili, left, seated with two companions, outside Oni synagogue
Baazov’s Zionist passion persists in Georgia to this day. In 1969, a group of 18 families from Soviet Georgia astonished the Soviet authorities by petitioning the United Nations Human Rights Commission, requesting help in securing for the right to emigrate to Israel. The Six Day War had left a psychic imprint. They wished to make aliyah. Their bid for emigration was well publicized in the West. Prime Minister Golda Meir, Israel’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union, took up the cause, reading from the text of their protest letter in the Knesset. Sit-down demonstrations of Georgian Jewish students in Moscow’s Central Post office followed in 1970. Under pressure, the Soviet authorities decided to grant exit visas to the troublesome Georgian Jews, dispatching a thousand visas to Israel—and in the process opening up an avenue of egress for rural Jews like those in Oni.
Over the next two decades, the trend of immigration continued. As Georgian youth in the capital city struggled against Russian domination in the late 1980s, standing up to the Soviet Special Forces, rural towns like Oni were losing their way. The garment factories and mineral spas closed. Jobs became scarce. By 1991, Georgia was independent, its Communist-era economy moribund. Then, in April 1991, an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale struck the whole region of Racha, destroying homes in Oni, and cracking the synagogue walls (renovations were completed in 2005). Many local Jewish families came to the decision not to rebuild. The community shrank to a fraction of its former dimensions. Baazov’s contemporary Nathan Eliashvili—also a leading intellectual and rabbi—once wrote that Georgians “felt a moral obligation to treat the Jews with honor,” in part because of a shared history of persecution and conquest. Though many of its congregants have vanished, the Oni synagogue remains—an emblem of a deep Jewish history in this small mountain town. Soon, there may be no congregants left to tell the story behind the ornate architecture and the stacks of prayer books.
The migration of Jews to Israel is registered acutely by Oni’s Orthodox Christian population. “A third of Oni’s people were Jewish. They were close neighbors,” said Khatuna Archvadze, 58, a retired lighting engineer. When the Jewish people left for Israel, they did not sell their houses or forget their roots. They send money sometimes. We still write and call each other.”