The Return of Synagogues

"The More Property - the More Worry"

(Pirkei Avot 2:7)

In the process of restitution many problems have arisen which community leaders have not always foreseen before they received the property. For example, it has sometimes happened that, after having obtained the synagogue building, the community can not always find the means to renovate or maintain it. This happened with the small communities of Ivano-Frankovsk and Dragobych.
In Mukachevo the authorities returned a synagogue to the community. However, since the latter lacked sufficient funds for repairs, it immediately rented the building to the former owner and used the money to rent a smaller premises for its own needs.
In Vinnitsa in 1991 the building of a former synagogue was handed over to the city’s Jewish Culture Association but then was obtained by a rabbi from the United States who represented the Skverer Hasidim and who promised to renovate it. However, the rabbi’s money ran out before the repairs could be finished and the fate of the synagogue would have been a sad one if the JDC had not stepped in to help.
Such unforeseen situations arose as a result of the naiveté of some of the community leaders who believed that as soon as they receive a synagogue back patrons would automatically appear. There were some cases when, without giving sufficient thought to the matter, communal leaders agreed to receive half-ruined buildings which could not reasonably be reconstructed. On more than one occasion engineers working for the JDC had to explain that without a preliminary evaluation of the condition of the synagogue building there was no sense in inaugurating the process of restitution.
Another problem was that some communities avoided a utilitarian, strictly functional approach to the use of buildings that were returned and wanted to restore their former grandeur. However, this did not correspond to the aims of the JDC which views restitution in a more practical manner, in terms of obtaining suitable premises for community activity. Thus, for example, the community of Samara in 1995 succeeded in regaining their once beautiful but now dilapidated Choral Synagogue. The community envisaged an extremely expensive restoration that would have entailed the reconstruction of a two-storey prayer hall for one thousand worshippers although another synagogue was already functioning in Samara and the number of religious Jews was quite small. At the same time there was a lack of premises for Jewish philanthropic and cultural organizations in the city.
It was not always easy for the JDC to convince the leaders of various communities that their synagogue should be adapted to today’s needs, that part of it could be rented out as offices, another allocated for group activities, and a third – for social aid, etc. One powerful argument the JDC had at its disposal was its possible refusal to finance non-functional repairs.
In view of the relatively small number of religious Jews in the CIS and the great need for premises for philanthropic and cultural organizations, the JDC has basically followed a policy of facilitating the gathering of many organizations under one roof and the transformation of the synagogue building into a community center where the synagogue itself (the prayer hall and related areas) would occupy an important place but not the whole area. Although based on quite rational grounds, this goal has not always proved realizable in practice due to ideological differences between organizations and the personal ambitions of their leaders. Passions have been aroused in regard to the question of who will have control of the building that is received and what conditions will be established for its use.
Thus, Kharkov’s Choral Synagogue, with its extremely large area, was divided between the Habad Hasidim and the Reform community. A real war broke out between the two communities. Years passed before the Habad Hasidim obtained a control over the whole Synagogue, and started its renovation. Thus, the process of restitution has made it clear that the return of property may not be only a unifying factor in regard to community building, but sometimes also a divisive one.

Nevertheless, despite rivalry and friction, in many communities (for example, Kazan, Chelyabinsk, and Rovno) a compromise was found and secular and religious activity coexists in returned synagogues that are used by both communities. Such coexistence and, sometimes also, cooperation often takes place in small cities, where there are few Jews and community resources are limited. At the same time, in large Jewish centers, where religious communities have been able to regain synagogues and obtain sufficient money for their renovation (e.g. Moscow’s synagogue of Bolshaya Bronnaya St., the Golden Rose Synagogue in Dnepropetrovsk, and the Brodsky Synagogue in Kiev), the returned buildings fulfill their traditional religious functions while secular organizations operate outside the synagogue walls.



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19 Jul 2007 / 4 Av 5767 0