The Return of Synagogues

"For Use" or "For Ownership"?

In the Soviet period a religious building could be handed over to a religious association only “for free use” for exclusively religious purposes (this was and remains the status of the synagogues in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kiev, that have been operating since that time). In contrast, the significance of the new legislation of the CIS states is that the Jewish community can now receive a synagogue “for ownership,” which means that the community can do with it whatever it wants, e.g. establish a center for social aid or a Sunday school, open a shop or a hotel, rent out the premises or part of it to another public organization or to a commercial firm, renovate it (in agreement with the local authorities), or even sell it.

Of course, far from all the synagogues were returned as property to Jewish communities. While, for example, in Simferopol, Zhitomir, or Odessa, Jewish communities obtained returned buildings as their property, more often local authorities preferred to hand over the building but maintain control over it. Often, on the eve of transfer, a former synagogue was included in a list of architectural, historical, and cultural sites protected by law - in order to justify the rejection of a request to have the building returned to the Jewish community “for ownership.” Sometimes buildings were categorized as “for use” without legal grounds for doing so. In such cases a broad field of activity emerged for JDC lawyers, who tried to make sure that synagogues were returned “as property” rather than “for use,” that the community received not only the building but also the land it was located on (according to existing regulations involving land, the latter could only be handed over for use), and that documents regarding the correct use of synagogues were correctly and completely drawn up. In the event that a synagogue had already been given over “for use,” its status could be changed so that the building could become the community’s property. This was the case, for example, in Penza, where the synagogue building that had been transferred for use was two years later given the status of Jewish communal property. In Samara the synagogue on Chapayev St., that was returned in 1992, became community property in 1996. In Donetsk it took eight years for a synagogue that had been given over for use to become community property.

Efforts to implement the right to ownership were very significant since buildings that were returned were usually located in the very center of contemporary cities, where buildings, not to mention land, were very expensive. Furthermore, both the JDC and other sponsors were more eager to invest in repairing communal property than in premises that were rented or even given over for temporary use. This was the case since no one could be certain that the municipality would not break the contract after the repairs were implemented.
Another consequence of the community’s obtaining the building as property was that part of it could be rented out and thus cover the expenses of renovation and of maintenance, i.e. heat, electricity, security, etc. For example, the community of the city of Perm, which received the building of a former synagogue as property in May 1993, rented out the first floor to a commercial bank. The latter paid for the utilities and security of the whole building while the community used the second floor. It sometimes happened that parts of synagogues that were given over for use could also be rented out. Thus, a repaired part of the Nizhnii Novgorod synagogue building was rented to a business.

Many religious communities began to rent out parts of their buildings to other Jewish organizations, especially the Jewish Agency for Israel. The JDC, which supports a widespread network of social assistance institutions, called hasadim (from the Hebrew hesed meaning loving kindness), has often encouraged the location of hasadim in returned synagogues by providing additional aid for the renovation of synagogue buildings.



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19 Jul 2007 / 4 Av 5767 0