Threatened historic synagogues in seven countries received an exceptional Chanukah gift this year: $250,000 in grants to help save them.
Ranging from $10,000 to $70,000, the grants target synagogues in Yugoslavia, Belarus, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Ukraine, plus an archaeological site in Surinam featuring the brick remains of what is said to be the first synagogue of any architectural significance in the New World.
Announced shortly before the holiday by the World Monuments Fund and The Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, the grants also include a commitment from the Lauder Foundation to donate $500,000 over the next five years toward saving sites of Jewish heritage.
The grants were believed to be one of the biggest ever awarded to Jewish heritage sites. They represent a milestone in attempts to preserve and protect threatened synagogues and to recognize their cultural and historic value – even in places where Jews no longer live.
The new grants inaugurate the World Monuments Fund’s Jewish Heritage Grant Program, a newly enlarged program designed to address urgent preservation needs of historic but endangered sites of Jewish cultural heritage around the world.
“Our remaining synagogues and other Jewish heritage sites, once vital centers of Jewish community life, are, at last, receiving the attention and respect which they deserve,” said Ronald Lauder, whose Foundation also funds Jewish educational activities in more than a dozen countries.
“We must not allow these precious links to the Jewish past to disappear from the landscape and collective memory without an effort on our part to intervene and help fund their restoration,” he said.
Among the grants was an award of $65,000 for immediate measures to stabilize and protect the synagogue in Subotica, Yugoslavia. Donors said the grant is “a demonstration of support for the newly democratic country and as an example of positive cultural cooperation.”
The Subotica synagogue is considered one of the finest art nouveau buildings in all of Europe.
Built in 1902, it has a tall central dome, patterned in multi-colored tiles, that rises up from small, lower cupolas, sinuous gables, and ornamental buttresses decorated by fanciful red ceramic tiles. Inside, its walls bear frescoes inspired by Hungarian peasant embroidery.
Owned by the municipality, the synagogue has stood empty for years – a casualty of the Holocaust, communism and the past decade of war and conflict in Yugoslavia. At one point, it was converted into a theater, which caused severe damage to the interior.
The 200-member Jewish community is headquartered in a building next door, which includes a prayer room, and a Holocaust memorial was erected in front of the synagogue in 1994.
Subotica Mayor Jozef Kasza, long an opponent to former Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic, has spearheaded efforts to restore the building as a symbol of Yugoslav rebirth.
He is working on the project in cooperation with the Jewish community, under the slogan “SOS Synagogue” and has pledged that the city of Subotica will match 25 percent of donated funds despite extremely difficult economic conditions.
Other historic synagogues receiving grants were:
* The baroque-style Choral Synagogue in Slonim, Belarus, built in 1642 ($10,000).
* The 17th-century synagogue in Boskovice, Czech Republic, whose walls and vaulted interior have elaborate frescoes featuring ornamental and floral motifs and Hebrew inscriptions ($70,000, which will enable completion of full-scale restoration).
* The baroque style synagogue complex in Mad, a wine-producing village in northeastern Hungary, built in 1795 and one of the oldest in Hungary. The complex includes the former rabbi’s house and yeshiva ($40,000).
* The synagogue in Pinczow, Poland, built around 1600. It is one of the first synagogues to include a women’s section in its original design and has some of the earliest preserved synagogue wall paintings in Poland ($30,000).
* The archaeological site featuring the brick remains of the first synagogue of any architectural significance in the Americas, at Jodensavanne, Surinam. The synagogue was originally build by Dutch-Portuguese Jewish settlers around 1700 ($10,000).
* The synagogue at Zhovkva, Ukraine, built in 1692, a superb example of monumental Eastern European Jewish architecture ($25,000).