31 December 2018

Ten synagogues I have
visited in 2018

Inside the Scuola Spagnola in Venice, founded around 1580 by Spanish and Portuguese speaking Jews (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018; click on images for full-screen resolution)

Patrick Comerford

In previous years, in my end-of-year reviews at the end of December, I have often summarised the year’s events in my life, as well providing my own commentary on the year in news, sport, and church life.

However, newspapers and television stations provide substantial summaries of the past year at this time of the year, and the consequences of ‘Brexit’ and the Trump presidency have been devastating and depressing at one and the same time throughout 2018.

Instead, I have decided to end the year on note of celebration over the next few days, looking back at ten countries I have visited this year, ten cathedrals I have visited in Ireland, ten synagogues I have visited, and ten places I have visited in Ireland this year.

The façade of the New Synagogue on Oranienburger strasse in Berlin survived Kristallnacht and World War II (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

1, The new Synagogue, Berlin:

This year marked the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht or the ‘Night of Broken Glass.’ On the night of 9/10 November 1938, Nazi Party members, the Hitler Youth and other people went on a government-sanctioned rampage against Jews throughout Germany and Austria. That night 80 years ago is remembered as Kristallnacht or the ‘Night of Broken Glass,’ and many say it marks the unofficial beginning of the Holocaust.

The New Synagogue on Oranienburger strasse narrowly escaped being destroyed that night through the brave intervention of a district police chief, Wilhelm Krützfeld. It is around the corner from Tucholsky strasse, where I was staying in Berlin.

When the Neue Synagoge or New Synagogue opened in 1866, it was seen as an architectural masterpiece. The opening was such an important event that the attendance included Count Otto von Bismarck, soon to be the first chancellor of the German Empire.

The name ‘new’ refers to the reformed, modern rites and practices. The building was designed by Eduard Knoblauch and completed after his death by Friedrich August Stüller. It was designed in the Moorish style to resemble the Alhambra in Spain, and could hold 3,200 people.

The heavily damaged New Synagogue was essentially demolished in 1958, except for the front façade and entrance. The Centrum Judaicum Foundation opened here in 1988 and the rebuilt New Synagogue opened in 1995 as a museum, cultural centre and community offices.

The congregation in the New Synagogue today is Berlin’s only Masorti synagogue. Gesa Ederberg became the first female pulpit rabbi in Berlin in 2007 when she became the rabbi of the New Synagogue.

The site of Berlin’s first synagogue at Heidereutergasse, dedicated in 1714 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

2, The Alten (Old) Synagogue, Berlin:

Berlin’s first major Jewish house of worship, the Alten (Old) Synagogue on the Heidereutergasse, was dedicated in 1714, almost 420 years after the first documented mentioning of Jews in Berlin in 1295. By 1354, six Jewish families were living in the Kleinen Judenhof or ‘small Jewish court’ settlement. Jews were first expelled from Brandenburg in 1446, but they were allowed to return to Berlin in 1447.

A site for the first Jewish cemetery was bought in 1672 on Grosse Hamburger Strasse, and Berlin’s first synagogue, on Heidereutergasse, was consecrated in 1714. The synagogue was then called the Great Synagogue and was rebuilt in 1854-1855 by Eduard Knoblauch (1801-1865).

The Alten (Old) Synagogue remained unscathed in the Kristallnacht. The last service there took place on 20 November 1942, and it was destroyed by bombing in 1945. Today, there are 19 or so synagogues or Jewish houses of prayer in Berlin, compared with 94 synagogues in 1932.

The Synagogue Rebbi Akiva on Rue Synagogue was originally built in the mid-19th century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

3, The Synagogue Rebbi Akiva, Tangier:

At one time Tangier had over 20 synagogues. Many of these synagogues are now closed, but I found signs on Rue des Synagogues, a twisting and turning street in Tangier, pointing to two of them.

The Synagogue Rebbi Akiva on Rue Synagogue was originally built in the mid-19th century. It was restored by Rabbi Moshe Laredo in1902, and was rebuilt in 1912. More recently it has been converted into a museum of Tangier’s Jewish community.

The Moshe Nahon Synagogue, the last surviving functioning synagogue in the old city, was built in 1878 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

4, The Moshe Nahon Synagogue, Tangier:

At the very end of Rue Synagogue, behind a nondescript door, I found myself at the Moshe Nahon Synagogue, the last surviving functioning synagogue in the old city. From the street, appearances are deceptive, but inside this is a monumental and lavish building, and one of the most beautiful synagogues in Morocco.

This synagogue was built in 1878 and was a working synagogue until it fell into despair in the late 20th century. But it was renovated in 1994, revealing intricately covered carvings that are illuminated by hanging lamps and many Jewish artefacts.

The Scuola Spagnola was founded around 1580 by Spanish and Portuguese speaking Jews (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

5, The Scuola Spagnola, Venice:

The Scuola Spagnola or Spanish Synagogue in the Ghetto in Venice was founded by Spanish and Portuguese-speaking Jews around 1580. This is one of the two functioning synagogues in the Ghetto, and it is open for services from Passover until the end of the High Holiday season.

The synagogue was founded by Jews whose families had been expelled from the Iberian peninsula in the 1490s. They reached Venice usually via Amsterdam, Livorno or Ferrara, in the 1550s. This four-storey yellow stone building, designed by the architect Baldassarre Longhena, was built in 1580 and was restored in 1635.

It is a clandestine synagogue, tolerated on condition that it was concealed within a building that gives no appearance of being a house of worship outside. Inside, however, it is elaborately decorated, with three large chandeliers and a dozen smaller ones, as well as a huge sculpted wooden ceiling.

The Scuola Grande Tedesca or German Grand Synagogue in Venice was founded in 1528 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

6, The Scuola Grande Tedesca, Venice:

The Scuola Grande Tedesca or German Grand Synagogue in Venice was founded in 1528 by the Askhenazi Community and is the oldest synagogue in Venice. The unknown architect had to overcome considerable difficulties to give the appearance of regularity to the asymmetric area of the main hall. He achieved this by building an elliptical women’s gallery and repeating the same motif in the banisters of the lantern-like opening in the centre of the ceiling, giving a feeling of unexpected depth.

This Synagogue was restored often over the centuries. The area with the Ark juts out on the outside over the Rio di Ghetto Novo, with a niche which is also to be seen in the Schola Canton, the Schola Italiana and the Schola Levantina.

The Scola Levantina … founded by Levantine Jews who brought different customs of worship and dress (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

7, The Scola Levantina, Venice:

The Scola Levantina in Venice was founded in 1541 by the Levantine Sephardi Jews who came from the Eastern Mediterranean between 1538 and 1561. It is probably the only synagogue in Venice that has kept nearly all its original features and has the only noteworthy exterior, with its two simple and severe facades interrupted by three orders of windows and the polygonal niche (diagò or liagò) found in the other synagogues in the Ghetto.

The Prayer Hall was chosen in 1950 to honour the martyrs of Nazism and Fascism. The inscription over the portal reads: ‘Blessed be he who enters, blessed be he who goes out.’

A tablet in the entrance hall reads: ‘If you understand, oh, man, what your end in the world will be, and if you show charity discreetly, then when you depart this life your place will be assured: then your chalice will be full of goodness and on your head will be placed a crown.’ Another tablet, dated 1884, commemorates a visit to Venice by Sir Moses Montefiore in 1875.

The Monasterioton Synagogue is the only surviving, pre-war working synagogue in Thessaloniki (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

8, The Monasterioton Synagogue, Thessaloniki:

The Monasterioton Synagogue at the top of Syngrou Street is the only surviving, pre-war working synagogue in Thessaloniki. It was built in 1927 by Jews from Monastir in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The synagogue was saved during World War II because it had been requisitioned by the Red Cross as a warehouse. The building was structurally damaged by the earthquake in 1978, but it was restored by the Greek government and is one of the three functioning synagogues in Thessaloniki.

In all, there are three surviving synagogues, some surviving Jewish mansions on Vassilisis Olgas Avenue, the Modiano Market, and a new Jewish Cemetery in Stavroupoli. The Jewish Holocaust Memorial at the south-east corner of Plateia Eleftherias (Liberty Square) recalls the 50,000 Greek Jews exterminated in the Holocaust. The memorial is a bronze sculpture by Nandor Glid of a seven-branch menorah whose flames are wrapped around human bodies in death.

The bimah in the Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Chania (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

9, The Etz Hayyim Synagogue, Chania:

Etz Hayyim synagogue stands in a small alley off Kondhilaki Streer in Evraiki or the former Jewish quarter in the old town of Chania in Crete. There has been a synagogue here since the Middle Ages, and it is in the heart of the walled maze of alleyways and narrow streets that spread out from the harbour with its mediaeval lighthouse and the port’s surviving mosque.

There had been Romaniote or Greek-speaking Jews in Crete for more than 2,300 years, and they survived wave-after-wave of invaders, including Romans, Byzantines, Saracen pirates, Venetians and Ottomans. They were strongly influenced by Sephardic intellectual traditions with the Spanish Jews in Crete in the late 14th century, and the two Jewish communities intermarried and accommodated one another.

After World War II, the Etz Hayyim synagogue stood empty. The sleeping building was desecrated, and was used as a dump, a urinal, and kennel, damaged by earthquakes and filled with dead animals and broken glass, its mikvah or ritual bath oozing mud and muck.

The revival of the synagogue is due to the vision and hard work of Nicholas Stavroulakis who grew up in Britain, the son of a Turkish Jewish mother and a Greek Orthodox father from Crete. He first learned about Crete’s lost Jews when he was a young man, and his family ties inspired many visits to this island. He returned to Crete in 1995, set about restoring the synagogue, and Etz Hayyim reopened in 1999.

The synagogue’s floor plan is in the Romaniote, or Greek tradition. The ark faces the eastern wall, while the bimah faces the western one. The rebuilt mikvah is fed by a spring. The scattered remains of the tombs of past rabbis have been recovered and they have been reburied.

In a hallway, a simple plaque bears the names of the Jews of Chania who drowned in 1944 while they were being shipped to Athens and on to Auschwitz.

Etz Hayyim suffered two arson attacks in the same month in 2010. But there was international outage, and donations poured in for the restoration of Etz Hayyim. Today, barely more than a dozen Jews live in Crete, and Evraiki, the former Jewish quarter, is now crammed with tavernas, cafés and souvenir shops. Etz Hayyim holds weekly Shabbat services in Hebrew, Greek, and English, and is home to a research library with 4,000 volumes. Rabbi Gabriel Negrin, who was once a student in Crete, regularly comes to Chania from Athens to help with the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. I was both privileged and humbled to be a guest of Rabbi Gabriel Negrin and the community at a memorial service in Etz Hayyim on 17 June to mark the anniversary of the destruction of the Jewish community of Crete.

Kehillas Ya’akov was the first Mizrachi Synagogue in Britain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

10, Kehillas Ya’akov, London:

The East End of London is the cradle of Jewish life in England. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was said there were as many Jews living in one square mile of the East End of as there are throughout Britain today – over 250,000 people.

Today, estimates say, about 2,000 Jewish people live in the East End. Many of them are elderly, and there are just three synagogues still functioning in the East End. After the two-day residential meeting of the trustees of USPG in Limehouse, in January, I strolled through the East End of London, and photographed the Kehillas Ya’akov was the first Mizrachi Synagogue in Britain.

An English Heritage report said Kehillas Ya’akov or the Synagogue of the Congregation of Jacob at 351-353 Commercial Road ‘is a remarkable survival ... and is all the more exceptional for continuing in use as a synagogue.’

This is no ordinary synagogue. From the outside, it looks unremarkable, sandwiched in the middle of a parade of shops on the Commercial Road in Stepney. But inside, there is a fusion of two worlds: one that has disappeared, and another that may be fast disappearing. Here East European Jewry meets the Jewish East End of London, and it is here that hope springs eternal.

Despite the date 1921 on the façade, the synagogue was founded in 1903 and is one of the last three synagogues still functioning in the East End.

The cupola of the Neue Synagoge or New Synagogue in the Spandau area of Berlin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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