Europe: Synagogues sold for next to nothing

March 8, 2021

In Eastern Europe, historic synagogues are sold for the price of a used car.

On a visit to the city of Slonim in Belarus, Ilona Reeves fell in love with a 380-year-old dilapidated building that used to house one of the area’s largest and oldest synagogues.
Reeves, a 40-year-old author who lives in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, is a Christian, like virtually everyone who lives in the country. And the synagogue hadn’t been operational since before the Holocaust, when three quarters of Slonim residents were Jewish. Virtually all were murdered by the Nazis.
Still, Reeves looked at the structure, which had fallen into disrepair after years of use as shops, and saw something she wanted to save.
On a visit to the city of Slonim in Belarus, Ilona Reeves fell in love with a 380-year-old dilapidated building that used to house one of the area’s largest and oldest synagogues.
Reeves, a 40-year-old author who lives in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, is a Christian, like virtually everyone who lives in the country. And the synagogue hadn’t been operational since before the Holocaust, when three quarters of Slonim residents were Jewish. Virtually all were murdered by the Nazis.
Still, Reeves looked at the structure, which had fallen into disrepair after years of use as shops, and saw something she wanted to save.

“Standing outside the Great Synagogue of Slonim, I felt how small I am, we all are, in the face of such architectural monuments and traditions they represent,” she said.
With money that she’d freed up by selling her apartment in Minsk — partly to buy the synagogue — Reeves bought the synagogue in December for about $10,000 from the Slonim municipality on the promise that she restore it. She was the sole bidder.
The Slonim synagogue is just one of a number of similar structures to hit the market across Eastern Europe in recent years, and Reeves is among a small group of people who have committed to their upkeep.
“Buildings, including old buildings, that used to be synagogues appear on the market pretty regularly in Eastern Europe, and for relatively affordable prices,” said Michael Mail, founder of the UK-based Foundation for Jewish Heritage, which helps restore historic Jewish structures across Europe.
“But there’s often a catch, which is that restoration is complicated and costly,” Mail added.
Reeves knows that firsthand. She is now working on raising $2 million for the restoration project, which she hopes will take a decade but some professionals have told her might go on for 25 years.
The city of Vitebsk, located about 130 miles farther northeast of Minsk, recently offered essentially for free the hollowed remains of the Great Lubavitch Synagogue — where the family of the painter Marc Chagall used to pray — to anyone willing to restore it.
In 2016, a coffee shop called Synagoga Café opened in the old synagogue of Trnava, Slovakia. A non-Jewish contractor, Si­mon Ste­funko, bought the crumbling building some years earlier, renovated it according to the city’s strict preservation requirements and reopened it as an upscale hangout.
Financially, creating Synagoga Café didn’t make any sense, Stefunko said. The renovations cost millions of dollars that the coffee shop didn’t begin to mitigate even before it was shuttered last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he said. But he did it anyway “so something would remain from the Jewish community here,” Stefunko said. “I think it’s beautiful.”
The offloading of restoration costs represents the latest strategy for managing a glut of historical Jewish structures that have fallen into disrepair since most of Europe’s Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.
Before the genocide, Europe had an estimated 17,000 synagogues. Only about 3,300 of the structures remain standing today. Among those, only 776, or 23%, are being used as synagogues, according to the Foundation for Jewish Heritage.
Most of the surviving synagogues are located in Eastern Europe, where most of the structures that remained standing were nationalized following World War II by communist authorities who were anti-religious and often anti-Semitic.
Decimated by the Holocaust and the wave of emigration that followed the fall of communism, Jewish communities in places like Slonim and Vitebsk had virtually disappeared, leaving their former institutions in government hands.
In Belarus, which has a dictatorship with no laws for restitution of confiscated Jewish property, many of these structures were listed for protection by local authorities that lack the resources to restore them.
Making structural changes to buildings that are listed for protection is difficult and often illegal, requiring special permission from the state or municipality. The protected status often brings down the market price of the buildings because developers have no way of turning a profit by purchasing them.
But many buildings that had housed historical synagogues in Eastern Europe are not listed, meaning once they are sold to private owners they can be altered and even demolished.
The former Great Synagogue in the small town of Ostrino, in western Belarus, is on sale in an auction where the minimum bid is about $40. The new owner will face some requirements to preserve it, but may use parts as a warehouse or residential unit.
And in 2019, a 19th-century building that once was a synagogue in the village of Porazava, near Slonim, was sold for $6,000 to be used as a warehouse.
Similar situations occur also in Western Europe. In 2018, a 200-year-old synagogue in the city of Deventer, in the eastern Netherlands, became a restaurant after its upkeep became unaffordable to the local community, which includes a handful Jews.
Local governments in Eastern Europe have given back many properties that communist regimes had confiscated from Christian and Jewish faith communities.
Christian communities have been able to reclaim, restore or trade up many of the structures returned to them, sometimes with funding from the Vatican and the Orthodox Church.
Similar movement has also happened with some properties given back to local Jews, though with far less deep pockets of support.
In 2002, the municipality of Babruisk in eastern Belarus handed back to the local Jewish community a former synagogue that had been used as an army warehouse and later a tailor shop. The building, the only one of the city’s 42 synagogues still standing, was restored and inaugurated as a synagogue thanks to the fundraising efforts of an energetic local rabbi, Shaul Hababo.
In Moldova, Rabbi Shimshon Izakson is hoping to pull off a similar transformation at the former Rabbi Yehuda Ţirilson yeshiva and synagogue compound — a massive complex in downtown Chisinau that is so dilapidated that only the external walls remain.
But other times, Jewish communities that inherited historic former synagogues stolen from them when they were much larger were not able or willing to preserve them to the satisfaction of their own members.
Earlier this month, a massive chunk of the roof of the 18th-century Great Synagogue of Brody in western Ukraine collapsed. Another part of the building, which is government-owned and listed as a monument for preservation, imploded in 2006. Severely damaged in World War II by German troops who tried to blow it up, what remains of the synagogue is held up by structural scaffolding. No Jews live today in Brody, which used to have thousands of Jewish residents.
The Jewish community of Satu Mare in northern Romania consists of about 100 members. Following restitution negotiations in the 1990s, it owns an impressive 129 cemeteries and four synagogues, which are falling into disrepair because the community cannot afford to maintain them.
“In truth, this building is a drain on our resources, as are the hundreds of graves we need to preserve and fence,” Paul Decsei, the community’s pointman for managing the assets, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2017 from inside the city’s main synagogue, the Decebal Street Synagogue, an imposing but crumbling 19th-century structure. “But on the other hand, we can’t walk away from any of it. It’s our heritage and we have a responsibility toward it.”
That has also been the case with the Chevra Tehilim prayer house in Krakow, Poland. In 2016, the community-owned structure, which features culturally significant decorations on its walls, was leased by the Jewish Community of Krakow and reopened as a trendy nightclub called Hevre, despite protests by some community members who said it ruined the structure.
Reeves, who bought the building in Slonim before she had even seen its interior, cited its beauty as her reason to go ahead and make the purchase. She envisions a cultural or community space where Judaism would have a prominent place.
As a practicing churchgoer who grew up during communism, Reeves’ decision was rooted in her religious sentiment.
“I’ve always had a dream to build a church. Even a small, wooden one,” Reeves, a mother of one son, told JTA. “With the Slonim synagogue project, it feels like I’m halfway there. Or perhaps I’ve already met the goal.”

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“PER LA MEMORIA DELLA SHOAH NON SI FA ABBASTANZA”: LE PAROLE DI REGINA SUCHOWOLSKI-SLUSZNY

Poco prima dello scoppio della Seconda Guerra Mondiale, la comunità ebraica in Belgio era composta da circa 75 mila ebrei, divisi tra le città di Anversa e di Bruxelles. Circa il 45% della popolazione ebraica venne deportata e mandata principalmente ad Auschwitz, di questi, solo 1200 fecero ritorno. Un totale di 28.900 ebrei belgi furono uccisi tra il 1942 e il 1945.

Al contrario di altri paesi in Europa, il regime nazista si dovette scontrare con una forte resistenza popolare che impedì la completa applicazione delle politiche antisemite. Questo clima permise ad una complessa rete clandestina di nascondere più di 6mila bambini, dalla tenera età fino ai 15 anni, all’interno di famiglie non ebraiche sparse nel Belgio. Una di queste fu Regina Suchowolski-Sluszny, che ebbe la fortuna di riunirsi alla sua famiglia e di essere accudita da una famiglia che considera tuttora parte della sua.

Da decenni Regina, vicepresidente dell’Associazione dei bambini che furono nascosti in Belgio, nonché presidente del Forum delle organizzazioni ebraiche, si occupa di raccontare nelle scuole la sua storia e quella di suo marito George, che ebbe un’esperienza simile.

Nonostante abbia visitato centinaia di istituti e raccontato la storia a migliaia di ragazzi in tutto il Belgio, per lei raccontare ciò che le è accaduto durante la Shoah e gli orrori di quel periodo sono una missione di vita, che porterà avanti, come dice, “fino a quando il mio corpo glielo permetterà”. Regina ha parlato di fronte a politici e leader del mondo ebraico a Cracovia alla conferenza organizzata dalla European Jewish Association.

Proprio per l’occasione, Regina Suchowolski-Sluszny ha condiviso con Shalom vari temi, tra cui quello di quanta strada ci sia ancora da fare nell’educazione dei ragazzi riguardo la Shoah e nella lotta all’antisemitismo in Belgio.

“Non esiste una vera educazione in materia. Sanno che c’è stata una guerra, ma oltre a quello non sanno altro” ha tuonato la Presidente del Forum delle Organizzazioni Ebraiche parlando delle lacune del sistema educativo in Belgio.

“Qualche mese fa sono andata in una scuola ed ho chiesto alla maestra di cosa avesse parlato ai suoi studenti. – ci ha raccontato Regina –  Lei mi ha risposto che avevano parlato di quell’argomento per un pomeriggio.”

Il problema, secondo Suchowolski-Sluszny, proviene proprio dalla classe docente. “Nonostante sia obbligatorio parlare della Shoah nelle classi, gli insegnanti non sanno cosa sia la Shoah. – ha fatto notare –  Per questo parlare di Hitler e far vedere Schindler’s List ai propri alunni non potrà mai essere abbastanza.”

Dei tanti incontri fatti durante questi anni, due episodi hanno particolarmente colpito la sopravvissuta: il primo ha per protagonista una ragazza, che dopo aver sentito la testimonianza ha capito il vero valore delle cose; mentre il secondo riguarda un ragazzo le cui idee sugli ebrei e su Israele erano state fortemente influenzate dal padre, completamente cambiate dopo aver discusso con lei.

In entrambi i casi la testimonianza ha creato in loro un cortocircuito, “ciò che faccio è fargli porre determinate domande, poi capire ciò che è giusto o sbagliato è un processo che i ragazzi devono fare da soli.”

Mentre per quanto riguarda dell’antisemitismo, in linea con quanto detto dal Rabbino Menachem Margolin nel suo discorso di apertura alla conferenza di Cracovia, in Europa non si sta facendo abbastanza per contrastare il fenomeno.

Molto di quanto detto dai vari governi dei paesi membri dell’Unione Europea e dallo stesso governo belga, secondo lei sono “parole al vento”. Lo stesso fenomeno viene preso sottogamba dalle forze dell’ordine del suo paese, che il più delle volte ignorano le segnalazioni della comunità ebraica, al contrario di quanto avviene per esempio in Italia, lodando il lavoro svolto dal prefetto Lamberto Giannini, vincitore del King David Award dell’EJA.

Un’altra scottante problematica riguarda il BDS, aggiunge Regina Suchowolski-Sluszny, e l’esempio lampante è ciò che sta accadendo nelle università europee. “Succede ad Anversa, a Bruxelles, ovunque. BDS è libero di agire e nessuno fa qualcosa per fermarlo. – sostiene – Chi firma le loro campagne sono soprattutto gli accademici.” Un problema che bisogna risolvere il prima possibile se si vuole dare ai ragazzi una vita universitaria più tranquilla, secondo la Presidente del Forum delle organizzazioni ebraiche.

https://www.shalom.it/blog/orizzonte-europa-bc251/a-per-la-memoria-della-shoah-non-si-fa-abbastanzaa-le-parole-di-regina-suchowolski-sluszny-b1105101

The European Jewish Association and the Rabbinical Centre of Europe are delighted to announce a brand new project that we are rolling out across Europe

The European Jewish Association and the Rabbinical Centre of Europe are delighted to announce a brand new project that we are rolling out across Europe, directly helping the sick and needy with the often expensive costs associated with securing much needed medical equipment.
Our brand new medical equipment lending centre means that the sick and immobile needn’t worry about buying wheelchairs, or expensive crutches walkers and the like.
We will provide them to communities on a need-by-need basis at no cost. When recuperation is over, the items simply get returned to the local community lending branch centre and passed to the next person that needs them.
This simple, effective project overseen by us but run at branch level by communities is open to everyone, but supplies are limited.
For more information on setting up a branch, or to apply for help. Please contact us at Rkaplan@rce.eu.com

New Cooperation with The Jewish Community of Netherlands Israeelitische Hoofdsynagoge Arnhem (NIHS-Arnhem)

The European Jewish Association is proud and delighted to welcome another organisation to our growing roster of partners and communities.
We have just concluded and signed a memorandum of understanding with The Jewish Community of Netherlands Israeelitische Hoofdsynagoge Arnhem (NIHS-Arnhem)
When two dynamic and active Jewish organisations get together and agree to work closely with one another, beautiful and important things flow from this. We look forward to working for the betterment of Dutch and European Jewry together.

European Jews face new threat in wake of COVID-related anti-Semitism

Top European rabbi tells Israel Hayom a special center to monitor real-time incidents via remote feeds could be established in order to tackle anti-Jewish attacks.
The recent terrorist attacks in Austria and France, as well as the spike in coronavirus cases in Europe, has created a fear among Jews in the continent that anti-Semitic conspiracy theories blaming Jews for the spread of the pandemic could become mainstream.
 
A recent study in Germany showed that one in three Germans has somewhat of a conspiratorial view of the world.
 
Felix Klein, who is the federal commissioner for Jewish life in Germany and the fight against anti-Semitism, told Israel Hayom that the recent protests against the COVID-19 regulations have become fertile ground for anti-Jewish sentiment.
 
“The current protests against corona-related restrictions serve as a rallying point for antisemites, Holocaust deniers, and believers in conspiracy myths. At “hygiene protests”, participants downplay the Holocaust by, for example, comparing the current requirement to wear a face mask with the obligation to wear a Star of David during the Nazi regime,” he told Israel Hayom. “Portraying themselves as rebels – as do for example the supporters of the new political party Widerstand2020 (Resistance2020) and the Reichsbürger movement – is typical of adherents to anti-Semitic beliefs: Presenting oneself as breaking taboos, as ‘finally’ bringing the truth to light, as showing at last who is pulling the strings behind the scenes – and, as has been done for thousands of years, pointing their fingers once again at Jews,” he added.
 
When asked about the danger posed by such conspiratorial views, he noted that there is a concern verbal statements could eventually morph into action.
 
“Conspiracy myths also prepare the ground for violence, as history has shown. Those who perceive themselves as victims and feel threatened can themselves turn into a threat. Anti-Jewish pogroms throughout history have been the fatal consequence of such obsessive hatred of Jews, as have the antisemitic terrorist attacks worldwide in recent years,” he said. “A recent study has shown that radicalization online takes place four times faster than offline. That is what makes it so important to quickly adjust our laws. This is the thrust of the package of measures put forward by the federal government. I am confident we can achieve a lot through a combination of repression and education. After all, what is ultimately at stake is social cohesion in times of crisis.”

Meanwhile, Jewish groups have scrambled to deal with the threat of rising anti-Semitism in the age of coronavirus. The group “Concert – Together for Israel” strives to bolster Israel’s image and fight modern anti-Semitism, says its job has been made much more difficult in the wake of the pandemic, and many pro-Israel groups are facing potential elimination.
 
“Generally speaking, one can say that small organizations that rely on a small staff expect a slowdown and a long recovery, but the big organizations that need a large operation worry about their long-term viability in light of the added costs,” Nava Edelstein, the group’s program director says.
 
Rabbi Menachem Margolin, the head of the Brussels-based European Jewish Association that has led a comprehensive effort to counter anti-Semitism in Europe, told Israel Hayom that he has been overseeing a “virtual command center” that gets daily updates from Jewish communities on online anti-Jewish attacks.
 
“We constantly see how anti-Semitic voices on the web attribute the virus to a Zionist-Jewish conspiracy, on top over other forms of anti-Semitism that involve graffiti and vandalizing of Jewish institutions,” he said, adding the largest volume of reports originates in France, Romania and Belgium.
 
“We are considering setting up a center that would monitor events through Jewish communities’ video feeds in real time, so that we can alert security forces when such incidents happen,” he revealed.
The article was published in Israel Hayaom

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