The first representatives of the jewish enlightenment in Petersburg
Among the first Jews who visited the capital of the Russian empire after the annexation of Byelorussia, were not only representatives of Jewish societies, financiers and businessmen, but representatives of the early Jewish Enlightenment under the influence of the well known Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelson, who had urged Jews to acquire a European education. Jews, recently granted Russian citizenship, were drawn to Mendelson's ideas especially by his call for communication with the general population and the goal of obtaining civil rights via education and mastery of trades. These ideas, which played a significant role in the spiritual history of Russian Jews in the 19th century, were already wide spread among well-off and educated Jews in Byelorussia by the last quarter of the 18th century.
In 1783 Jacob Hirsch, who had arrived in Petersburg from Mogilev, applied to the Commission for Public Institutions, which had been formed the previous year. He presented a memorandum in German regarding a project for the reform of Jewish public education. His goal was to improve the position of Jews through acquisition of general education. To this end he proposed adding secular education to the curriculum of instruction in cheders, setting up Jewish secondary schools in larger communities, and founding a central modular school in Mogilev, where, together with Jewish subjects, general disciplines and even trades would be taught. He thought it would be possible to bring in educated Jews from Byelorussia as teachers, and also to draw upon scholarly Jews from abroad via Moses Mendelson.
Jacob Hirsch's appeal to the Commission to establish public educational institutions wasn't accidental. The Russia annexation of western territories coincided with attempts at reform of public education undertaken by Catherine II. Although in his memorandum Jacob Hirsch cited the support of fellow Jews, he considered it necessary and also opportune to receive the support of the Russian government, "so that my well-intentioned undertaking would not only not be hindered but facilitated." However, Jacob Hirsh's brief stay in Petersburg went without result, although his project was read by and received the approval of some members of the government. This project was the first of many by enlightened Jews to be brought to the government during ensuing years.