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The restoration team poses in front of the reassembled Iaşi Ark. Photo courtesy Lucia Apostol/FEDROM

 

The delicate restoration of the elaborately carved and painted wooden Ark, or Aron Kodesh, of the 17th century Great Synagogue in Iaşi, Romania is nearly complete.

Aron HaKodesh, Iaşi, Romania, in 2006, before restoration. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber

This restoration marks the final step in the years-long renovation of the synagogue —  the oldest surviving synagogue in Romania and one of only two synagogues still standing in a city that before World War II had more than 100. Originally built in 1670-1671 and rebuilt successively in 1761, 1822, 1863 because of fire and other devastation, it is listed as a historical monument.

The World Monuments Fund has supported the restoration of the ark for the past three years. It  had  placed the synagogue on its 2014 Watch List of endangered cultural heritage sites, underscoring the threats to the building, which had suffered greatly over the preceding decade due to years of botched and incomplete restoration work that had left it open to the weather.

The work on the Ark, which dates from the1860s, was carried out by a team led by the expert restorer Pia Stinghe (who carried on after the death of her husband Mihai in 2016). 

“My heart is filled with the immense joy to be part of this wonderful success story,” project leader Lucia Apostol of the Federation of Romanian Jewish Communities (FEDROM) said at Passover/Easter. “I think the actual triple great holidays are  a moment for sharing, for reflection, for gratitude to all the good people who became part of our life by joining in this challenging journey. After this, everything becomes possible.”

In a post on its blog, the WMF quotes Apostol as describing the project:

As the work progressed and the team of restorers removed decades of cobwebs, dirt, and organic growth, it became apparent that several pieces of the aron kodesh had been lost—perhaps stolen or detached due to age—but masked in previous interventions with layers of bronze veneer.

The team discovered that underneath the bronze veneer lay gilded surfaces with many missing parts; what was initially thought to be low relief sculpted elements turned out to be an impressive alto-relief. The team was able to recover some of the missing pieces and integrated them to the ensemble. Where original pieces could not be found, the lead restorer recreated them after carefully studying the history and geometry of the decorative elements that make up the aron kodesh, ensuring the visual continuity of the ornate design.

A little over two years ago no one thought the crumbling structure with its vivid decorations could be salvaged. Now, as the restoration nears completion, the aron kodesh, in all its splendor, will once again become the centerpiece of the Great Synagogue of Iaşi. Restoration of the ark is one of the last remaining steps necessary for use of the building. And it is exciting to think that the Jewish community of Iaşi will soon be able to access and use their synagogue after many years of absence.

General view of the restored exterior of the Great synagogue in Iaşi, Romania. Photo: FEDROM

The emergency stabilization of the Ark  was completed in 2015 thanks to the support of the David Berg Foundation. In 2016, the synagogue received a  $76,000 grant from the Wilson Challenge through the WMF, which along with a match from FEDROM, is enabling the completion of the work.

Restoration of the exterior and most of the interior of the synagogue was mainly completed in 2015.

See our JHE post from September 2017 with a slideshow of images of the Ark restoration process

HINT: we posted a number of articles during the restoration of the synagogue — search for Iaşi in the search box to see them.

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