Saturday, August 20, 2011

Slovakia -- Rabbi Andrew Goldstein on Synagogues, Memory and Future

The Goldsteins and Maros Borsky in Samorin synagogue. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

Rabbi Andrew Goldstein, who was on the recent trip in Slovakia to tour the Slovak Jewish Heritage Route, gave an eloquent sermon this week in his synagogue in London that evoked what we saw -- and raised  important questions regarding surviving sites of Jewish heritage and their place, role and future. These issues have been a continuing focus of this blog, and (of course) of anyone involved in the field. In 2009, a conference in Bratislava was devoted to these issues and formulated a series of "best practices" recommendations to consider when dealing with disused or abandoned Jewish sites.

Rabbi Goldstein is the chairman of the European Union for Progressive Judaism and has spent decades traveling and teaching in east-central Europe.


What do you do with a synagogue building that becomes redundant? What do you do if the community shrinks and can no longer support a congregation or the upkeep of the building?

I wonder if our friends at Harrow and Wembley Progressive spent long searching the Talmud to see what were their options: as you know they recently sold their building to a fundamentalist Christian church and moved in with Middlesex New...Reform synagogue. A brief look at the rabbinic sources says you can sell a synagogue if you use the proceeds to build another: which lets Harrow & Wembley off the hook, or for community benefit: which was certainly the case when North London sold their building. The Talmud says you may sell a synagogue on condition that its not going to be turned into a wash-house, a tannery, a bath-house or a toilet. What about a church?

It seems as if once a month you read in the Jewish Chronicle of an English synagogue being closed as its congregation dwindles and a number have become evangelical churches and increasingly mosques. Just think of the famous Brick Lane building that started out as a church, then an ultra-Orthodox synagogue and now a mosque. And I suppose we should recall that NPLS started out by using a former Primitive Methodist church as it first synagogue. The continued use of a redundant building for religious purposes seems appropriate, but often British shuls seem to be turned into blocks of flats or office buildings: at least I have not heard of a tannery or public convenience.

Sharon and I have just returned from a fabulous tour round Slovakia as guests of the Slovak Tourist Board, arranged by our friend Maros Borsky. The idea was to take journalists along the Slovak Jewish Heritage route that Maros has developed. Photographs of which we saw displayed in our Art Gallery a few weeks ago: we visited the actual sites, along with journalists from Israel, Hungary & Italy. The Israelis were all secular, yet seemed genuinely moved by Sharon singing Psalms in the empty shuls we were taken to.

Of course Slovakia is quite different from the UK....because the vast majority of its Jewish population was wiped out in the Holocaust. And of those of who survived, most left the country after the war with its take-over by the Communists or during the brief window of opportunity during the Prague Spring. Since the end of communism the community has dwindled further and those that have stayed have tended to move to the capitol Bratislava that nowadays has the only viable Jewish community in the country.

Unlike neighbouring Poland and Austria and Ukraine, unlike Germany, very few Slovak (or Czech) synagogues were actually destroyed during the Holocaust (sadly one of the few was in Spisske Nova Ves where our Slovak Torah comes from). The Communists, however, destroyed many buildings or used them for, often quite unfitting purposes: Bingo halls, markets, store-rooms: though so far I've not discovered a tannery. The Communists also destroyed the surviving Jewish community; and for all of these reasons there are hundreds of Jewish buildings and cemeteries in places, quite often in large towns, where there is not one living Jew residing.

What is the present day Jewish community to do with this vast number of Jewish sites? It cannot preserve and look after everything. Maros Borsky has persuaded the community leaders to concentrate on just a few buildings and cemeteries of special historic or architectural merit. Places that might have a long-term future, that might give evidence of the former glory of the country's Jewish community. Then Maros came up with the idea of a Slovak Jewish Heritage Route that tourists could follow to experience this treasure trove of Jewish beauty.

This was the route Sharon and I along with the 8 professional journalists followed a week ago.

To justify our trip, we too must attempt to get published articles encouraging others to visit Slovakia and, at least, seek out a few of the buildings on the route, and soon I must get down to write a few articles, so this sermon is a first attempt. Tonight, as a theme, I will answer the question I posed at the beginning: what is a fitting use for a redundant synagogue? For a fitting use is one of Maros' criteria as well as a local body able to guarantee a long term future for the building.

The Route starts in Bratislava where Maros is concentrating in converting the woman's gallery in the only remaining synagogue into an exhibition of Judaica from the collection of the community. Downstairs the sanctuary will remain for High Holyday services, the weekly minyan more comfortable in the small "Winter" synagogue. Presov, in the far east of the country, also has a historic Judaica collection in the gallery, though there is rarely a minyan to davven in, perhaps, the most fabulously decorated of all the shuls in the country. It stands in a compound that contains 3 other former synagogues, now used as office buildings. Further east is Bardeov where a tiny shul, a stieble indeed, is preserved exactly as it was when the last Jews were deported 70 years ago. The Orthodox synagogue in Zilina is also intact, though I was saddened to hear that services don't actually take place there: on Rosh Hashanah the tiny community meet in a nearby hall and reminisce - seemingly nobody to lead even a short service. A small exhibition in the women's section is visited by local school groups, but I was interested in a showcase with a selection of Table Tennis memorabilia: once Zilina the centre of the Jewish game. Trnava has two synagogues: one once Orthodox and Neologue and both have been turned into are galleries. The former expensively repaired with the vividly painted walls & ceiling restored to their former glory. The Neologue made safe, but left to remind visitors of its neglected state, a result of the destruction of its community, a reminder of the Shoah. I'm not sure which is the better state for a redundant synagogue found a new use.

The synagogue in Nitra is used as a concert hall and Sharon and I, on a previous visit, heard a children's concert there. Upstairs is Slovakia's official Holocaust memorial exhibition, and on the stairs a collection of prints of Nitra born Shraga Weil. Perhaps a perfect combination for a beautiful building, restored and looked after by the municipality: a reminder of the fate of its past worshippers and yet regularly used for inspiring music. Please God this will be the eventual fate of the magnificent building in Liptovsky Mikulas where we had one of the most moving experiences of our tour. One of our party, David Sivor had there had his Bar mitzvah, and in the now empty sanctuary recalled the event, and Sharon sang Psalms: the acoustics perfect; for a brief moment a reminder the large community that once worshipped in that place.

The future of the Jewish community in Slovakia is uncertain but, at least, through the inspiration of Maros Borsky, they now have a splendid Heritage Route that will long tell of the glory of the former community. Many other stories I could add, especially about our visit to the cemetery in Spisske nova Ves, our Torah town, where Dr Ruzena Kormasova and her High School students continue to research the history of the town's former Jewish community and look after the cemetery. But how appropriate that I tell my story on an evening where we include in our service the blessing of a baby whose mother, if not Slovak - is Czech. Thank God our congregation is thriving: perhaps it has always been like this in Jewish history: Jewish life in one country declines, but the Jewish people and Judaism lives on in places new.

Rabbi Dr Andrew Goldstein
19th August 2011....19th Av 5771

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