British foundation for preserving Jewish heritage unveils map of Europe’s synagogues

Cnaan Liphshiz

(JTA) — Europe has 3,318 synagogues, according to a new British organization that unveiled what it said was the first-ever pan-continental study of Jewish houses of worship.

The Foundation for Jewish Heritage, which was registered in the United Kingdom in 2015 and aims to help preserve and restore endangered European synagogues, commissioned the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to tally and document Europe’s synagogues ahead of the foundation’s launch Wednesday in London, the foundation’s chief executive, Michael Mail, told JTA.

The results of the study, which took a year and a half to complete, are on display on an interactive map accessible on the foundation’s website. The map’s database includes a detailed classification for each registered synagogue, including such categories as its current condition, ranging from bad to excellent, its significance as a monument and its current status: used, disused or converted to serve as any one of a dozen purposes, including police station, mosque, garage and funeral parlor.

One synagogue mapped by the foundation in Poznan, Poland, is today a swimming pool. Another in Krakow, Poland, is a bar, Mail said.


Beyond providing researchers a continental overview that Mail said did not exist prior to the study, it also aims to serve as a reference point for philanthropists, added Mail, whose foundation identified some 160 synagogues in imminent risk of being ruined beyond the point of restoration.

“It allows for restoration efforts to become strategic,” Mail said. “Donors can see where they are most needed.”

Before World War II, Europe had some 17,000 synagogues, Mail said. Less than a quarter of the synagogues mapped by The Foundation for Jewish Heritage are now being used as such.

“We are quite simply losing our history,” said Mail, an author.

Mail said the foundation has made progress on two preservation projects: one in the Merthyr Tydfil Synagogue in Wales, and another in the Great Synagogue of Slonim in Belarus. The foundation aims to empower local authorities to restore or preserve synagogues rather than perform the works itself, he said.

At the Merthyr Tydfil Synagogue, a striking Gothic structure that became a gym following the local Jewish community’s disappearance in the 1980s and is now for sale, Mail’s foundation is in talks with authorities on opening a museum of Welsh Jewry. In Slonim, the foundation is conducting a feasibility survey to devise a preservation strategy with the mayor’s office.

The foundation has raised more than to $150,000 for these projects, the study and another program for preserving synagogues in Syria and Iraq.

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