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Around the Jewish World Synagogues Open Across Europe As Part of Second Jewish Culture Day

Passover will be the theme of the second annual European Day of Jewish Culture, when more than 300 Jewish sites across Europe will hold an open house.

“For the Jews, Pesach is a symbol of freedom,” a statement from organizers said. “It is the holiday that recalls the birth of the Jewish people and at the same time it is the affirmation of human freedom against oppression.”

As part of the Sept. 2 event, synagogues, cemeteries, ritual baths, medieval ghettos and Jewish museums in 23 countries — from Spain to Switzerland, from England to Ukraine — will be on display.

Guided tours, exhibitions, concerts and events such as book fairs to food-tastings are also planned.

The aim of the event is to recognize Jewish heritage as an integral part of the cultural heritage of Europe, to promote tourism to Jewish heritage sites — and to promote Jewish pride and a sense of European Jewish identity.

“It is a sign of the opening of the Jewish community toward Europe,” said Cobi Benatoff, president of the European Council of Jewish Communities, one of the sponsors of the event.

“We want to present an image of openness and welcome, to show our traditions and make them known to visitors and fellow citizens,” he said, adding that organizers also want “to give an image of Jews today as people who participate fully in the development of their countries and Europe but who also still proudly and jealously conserve their own traditions.”

If the results of the first Jewish Culture Day a year ago are any indication, the initiative is paying off.

Last year’s more than 500 coordinated events in 16 countries drew as many as 150,000 people — more than 43,000 of them in Italy alone.

It was considered the most successful trans-border event sponsored by the ECJC in its efforts to promote a pan-European Jewish identity.

“It was the first event that really politically unified European Jewry,” said Amos Luzzatto, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. “It also was a politically important event for Europe as a whole.”

With more countries and more sites involved this year, even more visitors are expected.

Luzzatto said he did not expect the continuing conflict in the Middle East to affect Culture Day activities.

“We will go ahead normally,” he said. “Our security measures are permanent. We will continue to be cautious, but we don’t want to close our doors.”

In addition to the ECJC, organizers include France’s Agency for the Development of Tourism of the Bas-Rhin, B’nai B’rith Europe, and the Red de Juderias de Espana, based in Girona, Spain.

In several countries, such as Italy, the government serves as a sponsor for events, and the Council of Europe has included Jewish Culture Day as part of its campaign promoting “Europe, a Common Heritage.”

The scope of this year’s initiative reflects the growing interest in European Jewish heritage and Jewish heritage sites that has developed markedly in the past decade.

For decades after World War II, Jews and non-Jews alike paid little attention to preserving or documenting Jewish sites that had survived both the destruction of the Holocaust and demographic shifts of Jewish populations.

As recently as 10 years ago, information on Jewish heritage sites was hard to come by in many countries, and little systematic documentation existed. Centuries-old synagogues were used as warehouses or left to crumble, and even the location of many cemeteries had slipped out of memory.

But since the late 1980s — and particularly since the fall of communism opened up Eastern and Central Europe to tourists and scholars — Jewish heritage has become increasingly recognized as a rich legacy for Europe as a whole and has been embraced as an important component of multicultural society.

A recent project sponsored by the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research, for example, charted all Jewish cultural events that took place between May 2000 and April 2001 in four countries with small Jewish populations — Italy, Belgium, Sweden and Poland.

Researchers counted well over 700 events in all four countries, including 27 separate Jewish cultural festivals — 13 of them in Italy alone.

“This amounted to an average of one event for every 125 Jews,” said British Jewish scholar Jonathan Webber, an academic adviser to the project.

“There is clearly no correlation between the considerable size of this cultural production and the percentage of Jews in a given total population of a particular country.”

For this year’s European Day of Jewish Culture, sites in 36 towns and cities will be open in Italy, home to about 35,000 Jews. These include many of Italy’s 70 magnificent synagogues and even a medieval mikvah in Siracusa, Sicily.

Italy’s culture minister and other senior officials will attend an official inaugural ceremony in Bologna, and other major events are planned in Rome, Milan, Florence and elsewhere.

More than two dozen sites will be open in Germany, and at least four synagogues will be opened in Slovakia, home to 3,000 Jews, where concerts and exhibits are also planned.

More than two dozen synagogues and Jewish cemeteries in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France will be open, along with other sites around the country. In Spain, home to 20,000 Jews, about a dozen medieval ghettos in towns including Toledo, Girona, and Tudela will be focus of a variety of events.

Most sites on display are generally closed to public access.

Many were abandoned for decades — or, like the synagogues and ghettos of Spain and southern Italy, for centuries.

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