Disused synagogues in the Welsh valleys and North-East England are among shul buildings across Europe earmarked for restoration under a new heritage initiative.
Historian Simon Schama and broadcaster Natasha Kaplinsky addressed the formal launch of the Historic Synagogues of Europe project in the Speaker’s Rooms in Parliament on Wednesday.
Project leaders have identified more than 3,300 historically significant synagogues from Cork to Vladivostok, which are in need of renewal.
The Merthyr Tydfil and Sunderland buildings are the two from the UK included in the priority group of 19 which have garnered support in their localities.
Merthyr’s Jewish community was established in 1848 when the Welsh town’s ironworks made it a centre of the industrial revolution.
Built in Gothic revival style in 1877, the synagogue has been in disrepair since closing in 1983 and is now in the hands of a private developer.
The Foundation for Jewish Heritage, which is running the restoration programme, has funded a preliminary feasibility study to assess possible uses for the shul, after which efforts will be made to purchase the building.
Lionel Bernstein, who grew up in Merthyr in the 1950s and 60s, told the JC that the restoration of the shul would serve both as a tribute to the once-thriving community and a means to educate future generations about the former Jewish population.
Mr Bernstein — who like many Jewish former Merthyr residents now lives in Cardiff — explained that in the post-industrial environment, many young people “went off to university and never came back.
“When I was young, it was a very close community. We used to go to shul multiple times a week and on the high street many of the shops were Jewish owned.
“Traditionally the Jews worked as traders, mainly in textiles, having come from Russia and Poland. And on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur all those shops would be closed.
“Whenever I have been back I have always had a great sense of nostalgia. It just brings back a lot of memories from my childhood of my family and friends.
“But I don’t think Jews will ever go back to live in Merthyr so it’s important to have something to mark the contribution we made to the town. Children nowadays get more education about all religions and I hope it [the shul building] gets used as some sort of museum or memorial.”
The project has also won the support of the town’s Welsh Assembly member Dawn Bowden. In a speech to the assembly last month, she described the shul as “an important part of our collective history, not just for Merthyr Tydfil and for Wales but beyond that”.
She also recalled the words of then Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie at the shul’s reconsecration in 1955, praising the town for giving Jews “freedom of worship” after fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe.
Sunderland Synagogue was home to a community descended from Lithuanian Jews, most of whom migrated to the area in the mid-to-late 19th century.
The Jewish community reached its zenith of around 1,500 in the 1960s and among prominent figures down the years were Sir Jack Cohen and Charles Slater, who both served as mayor. The the latter — affectionately known as “Mr Sunderland” — was behind a successful bid to bring a Nissan factory to the area in 1987.
The Art Deco-style synagogue is one of three UK shuls designed by Marcus Kenneth Glass and received Grade II-listed status in 1999.
As in Merthyr, the Jewish community left Sunderland after de-industrialisation and the synagogue closed in 2006.
The building was bought by businessman George Fraser, whose plan to convert it into 12 luxury flats was rejected by the council.
He is now in talks with a group of Jewish volunteers regarding the sale of the building.
|THE 19 BUILDINGS ON THE INITIAL LIST|
|Híjar Synagogue, Spain
Second Temple, Hamburg, Germany
Bytca Synagogue, Slovakia
Synagogue in Police and Jemnice, Czech Republic
Thann Synagogue, France
Medieval Synagogue, Korneuburg, Austria
Soldiers’ Synagogue, Tomsk, Russia
Great Maharsha Synagogue, Ostroh, Ukraine
|Great Synagogue, Przysucha, Poland
Great Synagogue, Rashkov, Moldova
Cetate (Citadel) Synagogue, Timisoara, Romania
Alanta Wooden Synagogue, Lithuania
Apatin Synagogue, Serbia
Etz Haim Synagogue, Izmir, Turkey
New Great Synagogue, Novoselytsia, Ukraine
Great Synagogue, Slonim, Belarus
Great Synagogue, Oshmiany, Belarus
Saul Taylor, whose great-great grandfather migrated to Sunderland with his 16 children in the 1880s, said the volunteers were exploring options for restoration.
The North Londoner added that it was “important to remember that Sunderland was a really vibrant town with a big Jewish community.
“There were two shuls, a Jewish day school, a residential care home, a yeshivah, a kollel and two butchers. It was what London and Manchester are like now. And it survived until the end of the 20th century.
“There are thousands of people across the world, from Israel to Australia, who will be descended from Sunderland Jews. We feel we are doing this on their behalf, too.”
After initial assessments of the 19 buildings, the foundation and local volunteers will endeavour to raise funds for the works.
As an international charity, the foundation has already received donations from a number of philanthropic organisations. It will also seek Lottery funding in the UK.
Chief executive Michael Mail said the heritage venture was also backed by Stephen Fry, Sir Anish Kapoor, American politician Joe Lieberman and Lord Julian Fellowes.
Mr Schama, who is a trustee, told the JC that the project would help to dispel the myth that “Jewish history is just the Holocaust and Israel.
“We are living in a time in which everyone seems to be trying to make the most of these tribal ideas of their past. They are trying to present a purer and purer image of their history.
“But these synagogues are proof of what Eastern Europe was like for Jews. And it is impossible to get a sense of how these Jews lived without this living history.”
Similarly, the restoration of the Merthyr and Sunderland shuls would demonstrate that UK Jews “have not only ever lived in Manchester or London”.