Photo Source: Masters View / Howard Erickson
Map Source: People Group location: World Jewish Congress, Map geography: ESRI / GMI. Map design: Joshua Project.
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Jews have lived in Latvia since the 16th century. Before World War I, Jews played a major role in the development of the country's industries, commerce and banking. Discrimination brought economic distress to many Latvian Jews. Most Jews were forced into small trade in the suburbs of Riga and provincial towns. The majority of Jews in Latvia today live in or near the capital of Riga. Tragically, many Latvian citizens began to persecute the Jews immediately after the German invasion of 1940. By the time World War II was over, the Nazis had murdered 90% of Latvia's Jewish population in the Holocaust. Today, Latvia's Jewish population consists mostly of the Jews who came to Latvia after WWII from various parts of the Soviet Union.
The family structure of Latvian Jews is monogamous (one wife, one husband). The line of descent is matrilineal (lineage traced through the mother). All marriages in Latvia are official civil ceremonies. A couple who wishes to have a religious ceremony in the synagogue must have an official civil ceremony afterward. In the past, Jews in Latvia were particularly active in various industries such as timber, beer brewing, tobacco, hides, textiles, canned foods, fishing, and flour milling. Most Jews today engage in commerce, the majority in medium or small-sized trades. Latvian Jews may become members of the national assembly and take government positions. Because the majority of Jews in Latvia are from other former Soviet nations, Russian is their primary language. Unfortunately, many Latvians see the Jews as outsiders. Bread and potatoes are the staples of their diet. They also eat apples, beef, chicken, fish, cheese, and cucumbers when available. Latvian Jews wear typical European clothing, although the style of the clothing might already be dated. The majority of the Jews in Latvia live in apartments built with bricks and cement. The quality of the building materials varies. Unlike previous times, Latvian Jew can now legally own property. The Latvian Society for Jewish Culture is the leading communal organization in Latvia. There is a Jewish school in Riga with 500 children who are learning Hebrew and Yiddish. The Jewish community also runs a children's theater and choir.
Judaism is an ancient monotheistic religion based on the Torah, the first five books of Moses. The sacred writings of the Jews are called the "Tanak. " They include the Torah, the Prophets, and other writings that Christians view as the Old Testament. During the era of Soviet rule, the expression of any religion was harshly repressed. Jews were even fearful of having too many Jewish friends as it might be seen as suspicious by the communist regime. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, religious freedom was established. Many Jews living in the former Soviet Union immigrated to Israel, the USA, France, the UK, Canada, Australia or other nations. Most Jews in Latvia today do not observe the religious tenets of their Jewish faith. There, however, is a movement active in promoting the observances of Judaism. This Chabad movement of the Lubavitcher sect, is a traditional branch of Hasidic Judaism that stresses outreach to other Jews. This sect follows and observes the teachings of a particular rabbi and his sons after him. They encourage Jews to observe Jewish festivals and traditions once again. For example, they have begun to hold bar mitzvahs for teenage boys. Often a bar mitzvah marks the first time that a young man and his family have ever entered a synagogue.
The majority of Latvian Jews today are not able to enjoy full civil rights, having lived in Latvia for only a few decades. There have been several incidents of anti-Semitism against the Jews, including acts of violence. Every year some Latvian Jews are choosing to leave the country for Israel. Religious freedom has brought many people of Latvia into the churches. Evangelical denominations are rapidly growing. However, the Latvian Jews have remained largely untouched by the revival of Christianity. Even so, there is a small, but thriving, group of Messianic Jews in Riga.
Ask the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers to the Jews of Latvia. Ask God to anoint the gospel as it goes forth via radio and TV in Latvia. Pray that God will give the Messianic Jews of Riga boldness to share the gospel with their people. Ask the Lord to save key leaders among Latvian Jews who will declare the gospel of Jesus Christ. Pray for a vigorous and growing Latvian Messianic movement.