Restored Berlin Synagogue Opens Doors

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

BERLIN - More than six decades after the fall of the Third Reich, Rykestrasse Synagogue - Germany's biggest Jewish place of worship, and an architectural and historic landmark - reopened in the capital on Friday, after being closed for more than a year for restoration work to recover its pre-war splendor.

Synagogue official Herman Simon, who spoke at the reconsecration, said a few words in Russian, which earned him the applause of the group of attendees in the large hall who could understand.

Indeed, the restored building in Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district, and now the largest working synagogue in Germany, has a chance of filling up only if Germany's new Jews, the immigrants from the former Soviet Union, attend services in it.

It was no accident that all the siddurim (prayer books) on the shelf at the entrance to the synagogue had a Russian translation, except for one old siddur that had been printed in Frankfurt in 1926.

"There is no doubt that they are our human reserve now," says Gideon Joffe, the head of the Jewish community in Berlin, whose parents arrived from Latvia. "Our great challenge is to tie these Jews to the community."

Rykestrasse Synagogue was built in 1904, as one of the grandest prayer halls in a city abundant with splendid buildings. It also served as a concert hall and for other community events. It was set on fire on Krystallnacht, when the Nazis plundered and attacked hundreds of synagogues and Jewish busineses in Germany. But residents of the neighborhood quickly doused the flames, because the building was adjacent to many houses of non-Jewish Germans.

During the war, the synagogue was used as a military warehouse but surprisingly, a few of its original holy vessels were preserved, such as the hand-washing sink in the foyer and the eternal flame lamp.

After World War II, East Germany's Communist government opened the synagogue, in East Berlin, to demonstrate that Jewish life was once again restored in the "Democratic Republic." But it was hard to scrape together the 10 worshippers required for a minyan every Sabbath, and apart from special occasions only a small room in the structure was used.

Three years ago the $9.56-million rehabilitation project, financed by the local municipal government and the German lottery, was launched.

Representatives of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities, Berlin's Chief Rabbi Yitzak Ehrenberg and even Israel's ambassador to Germany, Shimon Stein, were absent from Friday's ceremony. However, representatives of all Germany's major parties, as well as Interior Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and the deputy speaker of the Bundestag (the German parliament), Wolfgang Thierse, were in attendance.

Full disclosure: Haaretz' correspondent visited Berlin at the invitation of the German Foreign Ministry.

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