As we recently described [link to Part I], Georgian Jews have a long and storied history in the ancient republic. While their numbers have been reduced through emigration and aliyah, Georgian Jews who remain are part of a thriving community.
Located between the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea, Georgia lies at the crossroads of Asia and Europe. Its Jewish community today reflects influences of empires ranging from the Ottoman to the Russian, and it encompasses Sephardi and Ashkenazi traditions, along with some Eastern Hasidic influences.
Most estimates place the number of practicing Jews living in Georgia today at around 3,000. The largest Jewish communities are found in Tbilisi, Gori, Kutaisi, Batumi, Oni, Ahalkalaki, Surami, Achaltische, and Kareli. Approximately 250,000 Georgia Jews live elsewhere around the globe. Over 200,000 have settled in Israel, and approximately 10,000 in the United States.
As late as the 1970s, over 80,000 Jews remained in Georgia, but the numbers dwindled after Georgia achieved sovereignty in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union. It is ironic that one of the longest surviving Diaspora Jewish groups has largely relocated today.
Even though the population is reduced, the Jewish community that remains is active and close-knit. A clear sense of Jewish identity remains high. For example, intermarriage is low, and the average Jewish citizen of Georgia is more knowledgeable about Jewish history than those in surrounding republics.
More than 30 Jewish institutions can be found throughout the country, ranging from day schools and supplementary schools to newspapers and a Jewish radio and TV station. The Rachamim Society was established in 1990, and it supplies medical and financial support to Tbilisi Jews and maintains its synagogues and cemeteries. Another organization, the Association of Georgian Jews, works to regain Soviety-confiscated Jewish property. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) also have representation in Georgia. JDC and the Hesed Eliyahu are involved in medical and food assistance with Georgia’s elderly Jewish population, who comprise more than half of the Jewish community.
Overall, Georgian Jews’ political situation has improved since the end of Soviet occupation. Twenty years ago, a presidential decree was issued that called for protection of Jewish monuments – a sign that Jewish history in Georgia was not only recognized but honored. However, the country has almost continuously faced political and economic turmoil, and acts of violence still occur. In 2002, the Orthodox Christian church was established as Georgia’s state religion, creating concern for all of the republic’s religious minorities. Because of factors such as these, as well as the War in South Ossetia in 2008, aliyah has increased significantly. Over 20,000 Jews have moved to the State of Israel in the last 25 years. Luckily, a good political relationship exists between Israel and Georgia, and Israel has provided disaster relief to the republic on several occasions.
Visitors to Georgia can still explore many synagogues and cultural artifacts of the over-2,600-year Jewish presence there. Most tours include visits to the republic’s capital, Tbilisi, home to several synagogues, an Old Town, and ancient fortresses. Visits to the Jewish communities of Kutaisi and Batumi are also popular. Georgia is a country of beautiful landscapes, and drives through its countryside, mountains, and riversides can be breathtaking. At every stop there are ancient cultural artifacts to explore, from mountaintop fortresses to towering cathedrals, a variety of museums, and several UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Now that you have learned more about the centuries-old history of Georgian Jews, consider a visit to this lovely and culturally rich country, while artifacts of its long Jewish heritage still exist. The small Jewish communities found throughout the country are warm and welcoming, and they open their homes and synagogues readily to visitors. For more information about visiting Georgia, contact us today.