Jews settled in Kupiškis in the middle of the 17th Century.  It is believed that these were Jews from Western Europe.  In 1682 Bishop Steponas Mikalojus Pacas gave permission for the Jews to build a synagogue.

 In 1765, 413 Jews lived in Kupiškis.  In 1847 the number had increased to 1,350.  In 1897 there were 2,661 Jews, constituting 71% of the town’s residents.  For centuries, the Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors enjoyed good relations.

 The Jews earned their livelihoods primarily as small traders, particularly in the flax and linen business, and as artisans.  In the second half of the 19th Century, the town experienced several devastating fires.  Toward the end of the 19th Century, economic conditions had deteriorated and many Jews began to emigrate, first to the United States and then to South Africa.  These Jews, in turn, often sent financial support to their families and the institutions in Kupiškis.

 The Jewish community was vibrant, with many educational, charitable, and religious institutions and organizations.  By the early 20th Century, there were two schools that taught in the Hebrew language and another that taught in Yiddish.  There also was a school of religious instruction, a Hebrew kindergarten, and a library.  There were many social-welfare groups, such as those for visiting the sick and for collecting funds for the poor.  There were active chapters of the various Zionist parties as well as the anti-Zionist Agudas Israel party.  

 The Jews primarily lived near the synagogues.  On this site there were three places of prayer at the beginning of the 20th Century.  Those Jews who followed the traditions of the Vilnius Gaon (Misnagdim) prayed in the Great Synagogue.  An adjacent prayer building was for Sephardic Jews, and a third prayer hall was for Jews who followed Chassidic traditions.

 Disagreements between the Misnagdim and the Chassidim resulted in each faction having its own rabbi and religious services.  Despite these differences, however, all of the Jews were Orthodox and they observed all the rules of the Sabbath and of the Jewish holidays.

 The Sabbath was observed from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday.  No work was permitted on the Sabbath.  On Friday, as the eve of the Sabbath approached, there was a loud blast from the horn at Chona Schmidt’s mill.  This was the signal for shops to close and business activities to end.  An hour later, the horn sounded again to announce the time for lighting the Sabbath candles, the first ritual of the Sabbath.  Kupiškis native Rabbi Ephraim Oshry wrote that on Friday evenings, “Every window glowed with Shabbat lights as men and boys streamed into the houses of prayer.”

 During the First World War, as the Imperial German army advanced east into Lithuania, part of the Jewish community fled to Vilna / Vilnius or to the interior of Russia.  After Lithuania gained its independence, many Jews returned.  In 1921, 1,500 Jews lived in Kupiškis.  In 1932 there were 1,444 Jews and they comprised 54% of the total population.  Jewish life as it had existed before the war resumed during in the interwar period, filled with the activities of the synagogues, schools, and other institutions.

 Many young boys who studied in local schools continued their religious educations in yeshivas (rabbinical seminaries) such as those in Slabodka (Vilijampolė), Telz (Telšiai), Radūn (Rodūnia, Radūnė), and Mir (Myrius).  Several prominent Jewish scholars, writers, and poets were associated with Kupiškis.  Among them was Rabbi Alexander HaKohen Kaplan, who was the city’s rabbi for 45 years (from 1839 to 1884) and wrote Shalomei Nedarim, a commentary on the Talmudic laws governing promises.  The Lithuanian Jewish poet Matilda Olkinaitė (1922–1941), who was from nearby Panemunėlis, studied at the Kupiškis pro-gymnasia.

 Jewish life in Lithuania changed dramatically after the start of the Second World War.  In June 1940, the Soviet Union seized control of Lithuania and soon after annexed the country.  The Soviets disbanded all Jewish educational, charitable, religious, and other institutions; forbade Hebrew education; and confiscated most private businesses.  On June 14, 1941, the Soviet police suddenly arrested 17,500 people in Lithuania and sent them to Siberia.  Of this number about 1,700 were Jews.

 A week later, on June 22, 1941, Nazi Germany invaded Lithuania and received the support of local Lithuanians.  A teacher of the German language at the Kupiškis Gymnasia organized the persecution of the town’s Jews.  They were summarily evicted from their homes, mistreated, and temporarily imprisoned with Jews from nearby villages in buildings near the center of Kupiškis.  In late June about 1,000 Jews were murdered at the athiests’ cemetery at the end of Gediminas Street and another 78 were killed in the Slavinčiškis [Slavianski] woods.  In July – September 1941, 2,700 were murdered near the Jewish cemetery.  According to other data, about 1,500-2,000.  This marked the end of Jewish civilization in Kupiškis.

 In the years after the war, the midwife Stefanija Glemžaitė (1885-1974) and her assistants compiled a list of the names of ąę of the murdered Jews.  In 2004, the names of seven of their relatives were added.  These names are inscribed on the Wall of Memory memorial that is displayed in the synagogue-library complex.  The memorial was dedicated on July 13, 2004, by 48 descendants of Kupiškis Jews, led by Norman Meyer.

 Rabbi Ephraim Oshry, who was born in Kupiškis, was one of the few European rabbis to have survived the Holocaust.  He had studied at the Slabodka Yeshiva and was living in Kaunas when the Germans invaded Lithuania.  He and his family were confined in the slave-labor camp known as the Kovna ghetto.  His wife and children died there.  While in the ghetto, Rabbi Oshry secretly began writing a responsa, which applied decisions of Jewish scholars to answer difficult questions posed by the Holocaust on such subjects as human nature, religion, and ethics.  After the war he emigrated to Rome and then to New York, establishing yeshivas in both cities.  In 1951, he published a detailed account of the Holocaust in Lithuania.  His responsa was published in 1959.

 Another Kupiškis native, the teacher, writer, and ardent Zionist Dr. Shlomo Kodesh, emigrated to Israel in 1933.  He wrote lovingly about Kupiškis, saying, “[T]he small town of Kupishok … for me includes all of my Lithuania, Jewish Lithuania….”