Standing on the bimah of the Great Synagogue of Slonim in what is now Belarus is a profound and moving experience; the ghosts swirl, someone in our group is crying.
The Nazis set out not just to annihilate the Jewish people, but also destroy their culture, consigning their very existence to oblivion. In places like Slonim, you feel that they succeeded. Nothing is taught today in the local schools on the Jewish history of the town, the local museum does not mention the Holocaust. Yet Slonim in 1939 had 17,000 Jews in a town of 25,000. It was a thriving Jewish center that included a famous Hassidic dynasty. Very few survived the mass executions that took place during World War 2, and a community going back centuries was brutally extinguished.
The only witness that remained was the Great Synagogue itself, built in the 1640s, a hulking brooding presence in the center of the city – shattered, yet majestic. It was used to store furniture after the war and, for the last 20 years, has lain abandoned.
So what do we do with the Great Synagogue, indeed with all these historic, often beautiful synagogues across the landscape of Europe that so tragically lost their communities? Many are the last testament to the Jewish life that was and, if they disappear, there will be no physical evidence that these communities ever existed – oblivion.
There are many who will say ‘who cares?’ Yet these buildings represent the patrimony of the Jewish people – they tell our story, where we came from, who we are, and where we are going. Winston Churchill once wrote that ‘if we don’t know our past, we don’t have a future’.
By saving these buildings, we honor the communities that these buildings once served. They can become powerful sites of education on the Jewish life and contribution, educating the Jewish people, and educating wider society – combating ignorance and prejudice, serving as embassies of the Jewish people.
This is the view that drives the work of the London-based Foundation for Jewish Heritage.
The Foundation commissioned unprecedented research to map all the 3,347 historic synagogues of Europe in order to identify the most important sites most in danger.
The Great Synagogue of Slonim was one such building that was highlighted through this research, the former synagogue of Merthyr Tydfil was another.
Merthyr Tydfil was the industrial powerhouse of Wales in the 19th century and its largest town. There has been a Jewish presence in Merthyr since the 1830s and the construction of the synagogue in 1872 reflected a community that was growing and prospering. Today, Merthyr synagogue is grade 2 listed, the oldest purpose-built synagogue in Wales and considered architecturally one of the UK’s most important synagogues.
With the demise of the Merthyr Jewish community in 1983, the synagogue was sold and, for the last 13 years, the building has been lying empty, its condition deteriorating. The Foundation recently bought the building with the widely supported idea to create a Welsh Jewish Heritage Centre that will present the special 250+ year history of the Jews of Wales.
Another priority project for the Foundation is supporting efforts led by the Israeli-based Kiriaty Foundation to save the Etz Hayim synagogue in Izmir Turkey.
The Etz Hayim is the most ancient of a cluster of nine remarkable Sephardi synagogues in the old quarter of a city of almost 4.5 million, and there is a broader vision to restore them all and create a ‘Jewish Cultural Quarter’ as a visitor destination with a museum at its heart.
The Foundation for Jewish Heritage exists to play its role in saving Jewish history – to fight oblivion. We want to find solutions for these historic buildings that can bring them back into use, and in a way that serves educational purposes, for the benefit of the Jewish people and wider society. We are dealing with the past, but are future-focused, taking buildings that had become meaningless and making them meaningful once more.
Buildings are stories, and these stories – dramatic, profound, and glorious – are vital for our world of today.
New York Jewish Travel Guide