Last Yom Ha’atzmaut I was having dinner with colleagues in Antwerp when they told me to visit the synagogue in Ostend if I had the chance. I was told that it was modelled on the Dutch synagogue in Antwerp.
On the morning of erev Kippur I was at the opening of a new shopping centre in Belgium, Blauwe Toren or Bluegates. Rather than rushing back to London and getting caught up in traffic congestion, I called the chairman and secretary of the Ostend Jewish community, Lilian Wulfowicz. She said ‘Come just before 7 this evening. We are opposite St Joseph’s church’ . I drove around looking out for a church.
I found the synagogue in a quiet square behind the Serruys hospital. I found the front door padlocked and initially thought I had the wrong evening. Someone in a flat cap then ambled up with some keys and introduced himself as Armand Benizri, officiating minister. Armand is the brother of Shalom Benizri, rabbi of the Brussels Sephardi Community whom I met about 10 years ago. An English couple then walked up and the husband was an old school friend whom I hadn’t seen for almost 40 years. They were taking a slow drive back from Presov in Slovakia where he had been taking the Rosh Hashana services.
As we went inside we asked whether the service would follow Ashkenaz or Sephardi custom. Armand replied ‘ according to the majority. If we have a lot of Chasidim from Antwerp then we pray Ashkenaz, if not we pray Sephardi’ . As we did not have visitors from Antwerp we took out the Sephardi machzorim, printed in France.
It is a beautiful little synagogue, opened in 1911, with high vaulted arches and ornate friezes, the Echal being set into a large recess. The interior is identical to the Portuguese synagogue in Antwerp, both synagogues being opened around the same time just before the First World War. It seats about 100 and also has a mikva, now in a state of some disrepair. In 1911 there was a substantial Ashkenaz community living in Ostend and Lilian explained that in the 20s and 30s the synagogue would be full on Rosh Hashana and Kippur. I noticed some plaques on the walls in English, recording donations made by English members in the 1930s. The community was decimated during the war.
By 7.15 we had our minyan and a total attendance of 14 men and 5 ladies. Before starting Kol Nidre Armand reminded us that we all had a contribution to make to the service and to the spirit of Kippour. The service was according to the north of Morocco minhag and Kol Nidre finished at around 9.30. We agreed to restart in the morning at around 9.15 when we had the same attendance. As a result everyone got a mitzvah and we took a break at 3pm when we went off to the beach for a couple of hours. I found out that some of the families were from Lebanon, originally living in Palestine under the British Mandate, then finding themselves in Lebanon on holiday when the 1948 war started after which they could not return home to the new state of Israel. In the 70s they emigrated to Belgium.
After Neila there was a large kiddush to break the fast. We all stayed on for a bit and had a chat. With a small congregation it was like being part of a large family. We had all been together for 25 hours at the end of which we were on first name terms. We exchanged E-mail addresses and phone numbers. I then drove to Calais to take a late night ferry to Dover.
The Ostend synagogue is in Filip van Maestrichtsplein. It has listed building status by the regional government and is therefore eligible for some restoration grants, though not a lot has been forthcoming. It is open every day in July and August, also on Rosh Hashana and Kippur and on other occasions by special request. Contact Armand Benizri at E-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org.