The March 2018 issue of the Association of Jewish Refugees Newsletter featured an article on the work of the Foundation. Read it below or visit https://ajr.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/5738-AJR-Journal-March-2018-FINAL.pdf
Save our Shuls
Historian Simon Schama joined TV presenter Natasha Kaplinsky at the recent launch in Parliament of a project to preserve the historic synagogues of Europe.
They are among dozens of names from the worlds of politics, heritage, the arts and religion to add their support to the initiative which aims to bring the current state of these historic synagogues to a wider audience.
Commissioned by the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, the project lists 3,318 synagogues, mostly pre-dating WW2, in 48 countries across Europe. The buildings have been catalogued based on their artistic, urban and historical significance and their condition rated to help focus preservation efforts on the most important sites at risk.
The findings have highlighted 160 buildings which the Foundation believes urgently need attention if their rich cultural history is not lost for ever. Two of these are UK synagogues: Merthyr Tydfil and Sunderland.
At the launch of the project on 7 February at the Speaker’s House in Parliament, Mr Schama said: “Synagogues were always places of gathering ... so we are essentially putting back together memories of living communities. We might reasonably ask where there are no Jews – because of extermination or assimilation - why should we bother? The answer lies in human vitality. We will be bringing back not only Jewish memory, we will bring what Europe was – a place that had Jewish life as much as it had Christian life.”
Natasha Kaplinsky, who last year received an OBE for services to Holocaust commemoration, spoke about her paternal family’s links with Slonim in Belarus and its Great Synagogue, one of those in the ‘at risk’ category.
Ms Kaplinsky said: “Slonim had 17,000 Jews prior to the Second World War. By the end it was estimated there were 200. Slonim isn’t just an old synagogue in need of a bit of TLC and repair, it is a lasting testament to a destroyed community and a place of profound education. It feels important to restore the buildings so that we can learn from our past and turn something as horrendous and horrifying as the Holocaust to help increase our understanding, knowledge and empathy so that we can combat the growing intolerance in our world and be forever mindful of the dangers of prejudice.”
In Merthyr Tydfil the Foundation has helped investigate a feasibility study to restore the building and preserve it as a Jewish Museum of Wales telling the rich story of the 250-year-old Jewish community there. In Sunderland the Foundation is working with the Churches Conservation Trust to identify possible future uses for the site.
Michael Mail, founder and Chief Executive of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, said: “Prior to WW2 there were some 17,000 synagogues in Europe. Of the 3,318 now left, less than one quarter are functioning synagogues. 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.”
Backing the project to preserve the sites, more than 40 high-profile supporters including Downton Abbey creator Lord Julian Fellowes, authors Linda Grant and Howard Jacobson; architect Daniel Libeskind; sculptor Sir Anish Kapoor; journalist Robert Peston and former ministers Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Tristram Hunt, have signed a letter calling on European goverments and heritage agencies to support all efforts to save and preserve the most at-risk synagogues.
To find out more about the project and how to get involved see www.historicsynagogueseurope.org