The tiny Jewish community in Carpentras, France has issued an appeal for contributions to help complete renovation work on its historic synagogue, which this year is celebrating its 650th birthday, making it the oldest active synagogue in France and one of the oldest in Europe.
In an open letter dated July 17, Meyer Benzecrit, president of the approx. 200-member community (the Association Culturelle Israelite de Carpentras), stated that funds pledged by the state, region, city and other sources will not cover the more than €1.2 million costs needed for planned renovation and restoration of the building, which was recognized as a cultural heritage monument in the 1920s.
Jewish community members told JHE Coordinator Ruth Ellen Gruber during a meeting in Carpentras August 24 that about 60 percent of the funds had been pledged — 40 percent from the state; 15 percent from the region; and 5 percent from the city. That still left a shortfall of around €500,000.
A first part of the restoration — the renovation of the vaulted sanctuary ceiling, painted deep blue and sprinkled with stars — was completed in April. But other major work remains.
“It is urgent to start the renovation as quickly as possible, as there are large cracks in the ceiling…electricity is obsolete…painting and woodwork need a lot of attention,” Benzecrit wrote.
Documentation carried out in 2016 to assess the restoration requirements, obtained from the Jewish community by JHE, states that the synagogue overall is in “relatively good” condition but that “emergency work” is needed both to repair structural problems and to bring the wiring and other fittings and systems up to the safety code, particularly as the synagogue is maintained as a tourist attraction visited by some 7,000 people a year.
It lists necessary repairs to the masonry, flooring, joinery, woodwork, ironwork, painting, and gilding, as well as to heating, electricity and other systems.
To enquire further about the renovations contact the Jewish community in Carpentras, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Carpentras synagogue was originally built in 1367. Jews had been expelled from the Kingdom of France in 1306, but found refuge in papal lands, or the Comtat Venaissin, where they were permitted to live in four towns: Carpentras, Cavaillon, Avignon, and l’Isle sur Sorgue.
In the 18th century the synagogue was expanded and its interior was reconstructed in baroque/rococo style, by Antoine D’Allemand, a local architect who carried out other major projects in the town, including its aqueduct. With teal-colored wooden walls, tromp l’oiell painted “marble,” and ornate ironwork, it resembles Italian synagogues of the same period.
The ground floor of the complex includes two mikvehs — one (which would have had heated water) dating from the 18th century, and the other — reached at the bottom of a 10-meter shaft — dating from medieval times.
It also includes two bakeries — one for daily bread, and the other for matzo. Both include the marble slabs on which the dough was kneaded as well as ovens. The matzo bakery includes machinery that was used to roll out and perforate the dough.
The synagogue is a major tourism site in Carpentras, and signage for it is posted throughout the town.
Celebrations to mark the 650th anniversary of the synagogue include a series of concerts, talks and other events throughout the year, with proceeds going toward the renovation. Click here to find the schedule.
There is also a Jewish cemetery in Carpentras — like the synagogue dating back to the 14th century — which was listed as a historic monument in 2007. Hidden behind a 10-foot wall, it lies just outside town, across from the aqueduct (designed by the same architect who designed the 18th century reconstruction of the synagogue) and includes about 760 legible gravestones, shaded by mature pine trees. (A catalogue of the stones was published in 1998 but it’s not clear if and where it is available.)
The oldest part of the cemetery has no gravestones, as a papal edict at the time forbade erecting stones or making inscriptions. The oldest stones date from the late 18th and early 19th century, after the French Revolution. There is also a ceremonial hall and a Geniza.
Many of the gravestones are found in family groups, surrounded by iron railings — their names are typical Jewish family names of the region, some of which reflect the town of origin. Families include: Carcassonne; Cavaillon; Lisbonne; Mosse; Lunel; Milhaud; Monteux; Mossé, Valabrègue.