Jewish Heritage Europe

Important New Resource on European Synagogues Launched

 

 

 

An important new resource on European synagogues is now online. It’s a web site — historicsynagogueseurope.org — that includes an interactive survey map of more than 3,000 synagogues in 48 countries, with information on their age, type, style, current condition, and present usage. It also rates them according to their historic significance and to the risks and threats they face.

 

 

Map of synagogues — click on www.historicsynagogueseurope.org to use interactive functions

 

The survey map is a project of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage — a new body established to raise awareness of Jewish heritage and to promote and raise funds for restoration and preservation. The Foundation commissioned the Center for Jewish Art at Hebrew University in Jerusalem to carry it out.

“Prior to World War Two there were some 17,000 synagogues in Europe,”  Michael Mail, founder and Chief Executive of the Foundation, said ahead of the high profile event February 7 at Britain’s Parliament held to launch the project. Speakers on the program included the historian Simon Schama, and the Foundation reported support from a number of prominent personalities.

“Of the 3,318 now left, less than one quarter are functioning synagogues,” Mail said. “The rest are either abandoned, in ruins, or turned into buildings for other purposes. While other religious buildings have suffered during the 20th Century, with many of these synagogues it was the catastrophic loss of their communities of users during the war which makes the challenge of preserving Jewish cultural heritage so much harder.”

He described the project as a “call to action.”

This is not just Jewish heritage, it is Europe’s cultural and historical heritage and we are in a race against time to save it. This inventory will allow us to focus our efforts on the most important sites at risk, starting conversations with local stake-holders and interested parties, encouraging them to address the problem and to work with us to find solutions which will preserve the sites.

 

 

 

The survey and map were prepared by Center for Jewish Art scholars Sergey R. Kravtsov and Vladimir Levin, the Center’s acting director.

A key goal, beside production of a tool for managing the preservation process, was to expand the Center’s  Index of Jewish Art, which was fully digitalized and went online last year and is not limited to the synagogue architecture. Each entry on the synagogue map and database, Kravtsov told JHE, “has a link to the parent entry in the Index of Jewish Art, which includes not only more information, but also links to all the media related to the given synagogue.”

It took a year and a half to put together the survey and map — but drew on decades of prior research and cataloguing. About one-third of the 3318 synagogues that appear in the project had already been documented by the CJA during their research missions to countries all over Europe.

Other than that, Kravtsov told JHE:

The source material primarily was the literature in the field, from monographs on particular countries’ Jewish heritage and monuments, to guide books. In many cases, Internet sources have been used to obtain the updates on the latest developments on the sites. Google Maps was used in all the cases to accurately locate the synagogue, Google Street View was often used to see the present condition and environment of the building. The primary sources are explicated in the bibliographical note to every entry.

 

The methodology of establishing the risk to which a synagogue is exposed, he said, was “based on a study of the actual physical condition of the building and its actual use.”

With its launch, the Foundation has focused attention on two derelict synagogues in particular, which we have written about on JHE: the 17th century Great Synagogue in Slonim, Belarus, and the 19th century former synagogue in Merthyr Tydfil, Wales.

Feasibility studies are planned or under way in both places, with a structural survey commissioned in Slonim.

 

Slonim synagogue, 2006. Photo: Unomano, via wikimedia

 

According to the World Monument Fund, which already more than two decades ago put the Slonim synagogue on its Watch List of 10 Jewish heritage preservation priorities and which funded restoration work on the building in the early 2000s, “the baroque structure that has overlooked the Slonim city marketplace since 1642 remains the best preserved synagogue in Belarus, despite decades of neglect and vandalism.”

The building, with its dramatic gabled roof and imposing exterior, features an impressive group of paintings and carvings, including a collection of murals depicting musical instruments, scrollwork, and biblical scenes. Though built for the city’s once-sizeable Jewish community, in recent years Slonim has undergone substantial deterioration, largely as a result of the decimation of the local population during World War II and subsequent disuse of the synagogue. The building was used as a warehouse and was subject to vandalism, resulting in serious structural problems. When WMF began work at the site, the building’s roof had partially collapsed and its walls were structurally unstable.

 

Merthyr Tydfil Old Synagogue Photo: Foundation for Jewish Heritage

 

There have been recent calls to create a Jewish museum in Wales, and — perhaps — to house it in the derelict  Old Synagogue in Merthyr Tydfil — the oldest synagogue building in Wales, and a Grade II listed building.

The synagogue, a neo-Gothic style style building constructed in the 1870s, has not been used as a synagogue since the 1980s and now stands empty, with a bare, deteriorating interior.  Already in 2009 planning permission had been granted to convert it into flats.

 

Historic Synagogues of Europe web site

Foundation for Jewish Heritage Web site

 

 

4 comments on “Important New Resource on European Synagogues Launched

  1. You are right to point out that efforts to research, document and preserve historic synagogues, cemeteries and other sites of Jewish interest in Britain and across Europe have been going on for ‘decades’, nearly 40 years, in fact. The Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Index of Jewish Art, that was commissioned to undertake the latest mapping project, was established in 1979. Its Architecture Section was created in 1994. I was one of the team, along with Dr Sergey Kravtsov.

    Back in Britain, I had already founded the Working Party on Jewish Monuments in 1991. Between 1996 and 2001, I initiated and led a comprehensive ‘Survey of the Jewish Built Heritage’ all over England, Scotland and Wales (including, of course, Merthyr Tydfil Synagogue), mainly supported by the then English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund. With funding from the Arts & Humanities Research Council through the University of Manchester, the Survey was extended to the island of Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands – and even reached Gibraltar. In total, I raised over £1 million for this project that has done much to raise awareness of the existence and vulnerability of historic Jewish buildings and sites locally.

    Resulting publications include The Synagogues of Britain and Ireland: An Architectural and Social History (Yale University Press 2011) and companion architectural guidebooks Jewish Heritage in Britain and Ireland (1st edn English Heritage 2006, 2nd edn Historic England 2015) and Jewish Heritage in Gibraltar (Spire Books 2007), all by Sharman Kadish.

    2004 saw the formation of Jewish Heritage UK, with myself as Founder-Director. This was the first organisation solely dedicated to protection, preservation and public access to historic synagogues and sites nationwide (www.jewish-heritage-uk.org/). The charity has carried out two Quinquennial Synagogues At Risk? Surveys, published in 2010 and 2015 respectively (both are available online). So far, some £5 million of public funding, thanks mainly to the generosity of the Heritage Lottery Fund and English Heritage (now re-branded Historic England) has been secured for Jewish restoration projects.

    In contrast to most of mainland Europe, whose Jewries were decimated during the Nazi Holocaust, Britain possesses a small but vibrant Jewish community (c.270,000 [2011 Census]) that has worshipped in freedom and without interruption for over 350 years. We are in the fortunate position not only of being able to repair and restore historic synagogues, but also to keep them in use by living congregations.

    (Dr) Sharman Kadish
    (Founder-Director, Jewish Heritage UK 2004-2016)
    Manchester, England

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