Project to Restore Ruined pre-World War II European Synagogues to Be Launched This Week by Simon Schama

Plan to rebuild a small number of historic synagogues backed by high profile Jewish figures

The New West End Synagogue in London.
Eli Ballon

Jews have lived in Europe for over 2,500 years, but the decimation of communities over the generations has left many of their synagogues bereft of minyans and with no one to run them.

Other houses of Jewish worship simply fell into ruin over the years. Now the Foundation for Jewish Heritage has initiated its Historic Synagogues of Europe project to map the 17,000 active synagogues that Europe used to have before World War II, and restore the most important of them, the Guardian reported over the weekend.

Of all those synagogues – stretching from Cork in Ireland to Valdivostok in Siberia – only 3,318 remain standing and just 718 are in use as houses of worship. The others have been abandoned and in many cases, converted into other uses.

One derelict synagogue that could be restored despite the evaporation of the local Jewish community is in south Wales, specifically, in Merthyr Tydfil. Originally erected in the 1870s to serve the community of about 400 Jews, the Guardian tells. But the community dispersed and following different uses, today the building and its stone dragon carvings lies abandoned, exposed to the elements and filthy.

The project to restore noteworthy buildings from Jewish history will be launched by historian Simon Schama in the UK parliament on Wednesday. It is backed by more than 40 high-profile supporters, including Schama, Indian Jewish artist Anish Kapoor, "Downton Abbey" creator Julian Fellowes, and architect Daniel Libeskind.

"These places can serve as profound portals into the worlds that were once there," Michael Mail, one of the leaders of the project and CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, told the Guardian. The project has identified 160 good candidates for restoration, and they are now focusing on 19 of them, said Mail.