STRASBOURG, France (Mar. 9)
Time is running out.
Will a page in Jewish history soon be erased here in Alsace, this rich, historic province of France, this rural land that once provided most of the chief rabbis and scholars of the French Jewish community?
Within the next five years, some 20 to 30 synagogues in the region could be demolished.
And if not torn down, they could become — as some already have — a Christian parish hall and gym, a storehouse for fire-fighting equipment, a garage, a cinema or a private home.
Indeed, the oldest synagogue in Alsace, built around 1290 in Rouffach, is home to an architect.
No other synagogues in the area should suffer a similar fate, says Catherine Lehmann, P.R. director of Jewish Heritage of Alsace.
Lehmann not only spearheaded the drive to save synagogues, ritual baths and cemeteries in wine-producing Alsace, but is also a driving force behind what this fall will be the fourth “European Day of Jewish Culture” in 20 to 25 European countries.
Some progress has been made toward preserving Jewish sites in Alsace.
Synagogues in Pfaffenhoffen and Struth, along with a mikvah in Diemeringen have been restored.
In Pfaffenhoffen, a community center is now located in its 18th-century synagogue.
Still preserved is the arc, a matzah oven, a mikvah and a communal room. Information is available about the history of the building and the Jewish community that once existed there.
What happens in Alsace, says Lehmann, could be a harbinger for other Diaspora communities where demographic changes have left an area all but bereft of Jews.
During the last century, most rural Jews in the region moved to Strasbourg, where there is a strong and active Jewish community.
Nearly all of Alsace’s 15,000 Jews now reside in Strasbourg, the capital of the province, whose rural areas once were filled with Jewish bankers, cattle and horse traders, wine merchants, and a rich Ashkenazic heritage.
How did so many synagogues end up in Alsace? Most French Jews lived in the province when, in 1791, France became the first country in Europe to grant Jews citizenship.
Between that year and 1914, 176 synagogues were built in Alsace out of 256 for all France.
The old, dilapidated synagogues remain in villages, such as Benfeld and Westhofen, that now have only a handful of elderly Jews.
Preservation efforts are becoming increasingly necessary as the synagogues fall into further disrepair.
The rise of Middle East-linked anti-Semitism in France during the past year has also provided a spur to such efforts, according to Lehmann.
“To open our doors and to be proud of our heritage is, for me, a way of fighting anti-Semitism,” she said.
Some of the synagogues have been turned into Jewish museums, such as the Alsatian-Jewish Museum in Bouxwiller, which was saved from the wrecking ball and having the land used as a supermarket parking lot.
And, just a few months ago, a former synagogue in Hochfelden was turned into an art museum. The museum, which was bought by a cultural association, will house collections of area archeology, history, art and popular traditions.
But with the bimah and ark still very much visible in central positions, visitors will know that the building once was a Jewish house of worship.
According to Lehmann’s plans, the region’s synagogues will become cultural institutions, such as museums, libraries or music halls — not farm houses.
“We would keep the signs of Jewish heritage visible, outside and inside,” she says.
The synagogues — along with restored ritual baths and even cemeteries — will become tourist sites, Lehmann adds.
Not everyone agrees on the importance of the preservation effort.
Some people feel the Jewish community should focus on building synagogues and schools for the Strasbourg Jewish community, as well as on fund-raising for Israel and for Holocaust memorials.
“Saving the old synagogues needs a lot of money,” says Martin Berg, a local Jewish official.
Meanwhile, Lehmann is trying to get a foundation to support her preservation efforts.
Not about to abandon her efforts, she is nonetheless concerned.
After all, she says, “Time is running out.”