UK preservation group aims to restore, revive Europe’s abandoned synagogues

Foundation of Jewish Heritage has identified 3,300 pre-Second World War buildings used for Jewish prayer, of which at least 19 could be brought back into use

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: the interior of the the Great Synagogue of Slonim, selected for preservation by The Foundation of Jewish Heritage. (Foundation of Jewish Heritage)
Illustrative: the interior of the the Great Synagogue of Slonim, selected for preservation by The Foundation of Jewish Heritage. (Foundation of Jewish Heritage)

A British organization has launched an ambitious project aimed at restoring old, abandoned synagogues across Europe and bringing them back to community life, and in many cases commemorating communities that were wiped out in the Holocaust.

The Foundation of Jewish Heritage officially launched the Historic Synagogues of Europe project at an event Wednesday in the UK parliament building. It has identified 19 synagogues it hopes to initially put back into use out of over 3,000 buildings that still exist.

Historian Simon Schama speaks at the launch of the Historic Synagogues of Europe project that plans to preserve old synagogues, held in London, February 7, 2018. (Foundation of Jewish Heritage)

Historian Simon Schama led the launch event that was attended by dozens of lawmakers from all parties.

“Synagogues were always places of gathering, they were social gatherings … so when we remember, and try to restore and look after places not affected by the Holocaust we are essentially putting back together memory of living communities, even when Jews are absent,” Schama said.

Schama continued that the restoration work in places where Jewish communities no longer exist is especially important.

“The present is, in the chain of memories, about human vitality, the vitality of communities,” he said “So, if you do this, you bring back not only Jewish memory, you bring what Europe was. Europe had Jewish life as much as it had Christian life so we are, in a sense, validating the entirety of our historical memory when we do this, bad memories as well as good memories, memories of a living community.”

Research for the foundation was carried out by the Center for Jewish Art of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which listed some 3,300 pre-Second World War synagogue buildings, out of an estimated total of 17,000 that were in use before  World War II.

The remaining buildings, of which just 718 are still being used as synagogues, have been carefully catalogued based on their artistic, urban, and historical significance, as well as a rating of their condition, the Foundation said.

Sites that were no longer used as synagogues were found to have been pressed into service by local residents for other purposes such as storerooms or factories.

The Old Synagogue in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales. (Foundation of Jewish Heritage)

Two synagogues have been selected as the first to be given a new lease of life — the Old Synagogue in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales that was built in the 1870s, and the Great Synagogue of Slonim, in Belarus that was constructed in the 1640s.

Before World War II there was a community of 17,000 Jews in Slonim. By the end of the war, almost all had been murdered by the Nazis, and only 200 were left. After the war, the building was used as a storeroom, before being completely abandoned. It has stood derelict for the last 18 years.

Ideas for the building after its restoration include making it a Jewish museum, an educational and cultural center, or for use as a prayer house again.

The project has support from celebrities and cultural figures, including architect Daniel Libeskind, television newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky, artist Anish Kapoor, authors Linda Grant and Howard Jacobson, and former UK government ministers Malcolm Rifkind and Tristram Hunt, who have both signed a letter calling on European governments and heritage groups to support efforts to save and preserve the most at-risk synagogues, the Foundation said in a statement.

Michael Hail, founder and Chief Executive of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage told the Times of Israel that funding the restoration “is a crucial question.”

“It will be a substantial cost,” he said.

For Kaplinsky, the synagogue has special significance as some of her relatives were from Slonim. During a documentary television show Who do you think you are? she discovered that family members lived in Slonim and were murdered there by the Nazis during the Holocaust. During filming she visited the empty synagogue building.

Newsreader Natasha Kaplinsky speaks at the launch of the Historic Synagogues of Europe project, which plans to preserve old synagogues, held in London, February 7, 2018. (Foundation of Jewish Heritage)

Speaking at the Wednesday event, Kaplinsky, who in 2017 was awarded the Order of the British Empire for her work in Holocaust commemoration, highlighted the educational value there is in preserving the synagogues.

“Slonim isn’t just an old synagogue in need of a bit of TLC and repair, it is key, it is a lasting testament to a destroyed community, and it is now a place of profound education,” she said.

“That is why I am here. It feels important to restore the buildings so that we can learn from our past, so that we can turn something as horrendous and horrifying as the Holocaust into something we can use to increase our understanding, knowledge, and empathy, so that we can combat the growing intolerance in our world, and so that we can be forever mindful of the dangers of prejudice.”

Hail told the Times of Israel that local communities have shown an interest is restoring some of the buildings. The Slonim mayor, for example, backs the restoration and wants to reestablish the Jewish community in the city, he said.

The project, Hail explained, is about more than just the physical constructions.

“It is not about the buildings. They are portals into the Jewish life that was there. They are Jewish heritage, but it is shared heritage, it is European heritage. They are part of the landscape.”

The Great Synagogue of Slonim, selected for preservation as part of the Historic Synagogues of Europe project. (Foundation of Jewish Heritage)

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