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Dutch Jewry Divided over 19th-century Shul

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The 135-year-old synagogue in the village of Meerssen, which was converted to prosaic uses after the Nazis decimated its congregation, is once more functioning as a house of worship and a “house of learning.”

It has also become a point of contention between the Orthodox and Liberal (Reform) Jewish communities in Holland.

On Oct. 1, the first Bar Mitzvah in 75 years was celebrated there. Last Friday, the synagogue was formally dedicated as a “House of Learning,” where Christians and occasionally Jews study the Jewish roots of the New Testament.

Meerssen is located near Maastricht in southeastern Netherlands. Some years ago, its mayor organized a committee to restore the building, which was gutted by fire in 1959.

Money raised in subsidies from government and private donors helped restore the building, but furnishings and Torahs are still lacking.

That did not prevent a British couple living in Holland from celebrating the Bar Mitzvah of their twin sons, Scott and Lee Collins, at the Meerssen shul. The Collins belong to the Liberal Jewish congregation in the neighboring province of Brabant.

A Liberal rabbi, David Lilienthal of Amsterdam, officiated. That drew a protest from the Orthodox rabbi of the Utrecht district, which includes southern Limburg.

He objected because the Meerssen synagogue was originally Orthodox. He accused Rabbi Lilienthal of violating the Sabbath by driving to the service and desecrating the Torah by transporting it by car on the Sabbath.

The Meerssen synagogue seems likely to survive these contretemps. It was founded in 1853 when 1,340 Jewish families lived in Meerssen, a large number for so small a town.

The reason was that neighboring Maastricht forbade Jews to live there.

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