Friday, March 27, 2009

Belarus: Kobrin Synagogue Restoration Project Needs Emergency Funds or Risks Losing Building to Government Seizure

Kobrin synagogue photos: courtesy Yuri Dorn

Belarus: Kobrin Synagogue Restoration Project Needs Emergency Funds or Risks Losing Building to Government Seizure
by Samuel D. Gruber (ISJM)

In Bratislava last week I had the pleasure of getting to know Bella Velikovskaia, Executive Director of The Union of Religious Jewish Congregations in the Republic of Belarusand an expert member of the Jewish Heritage Research Group. Bella and her colleagues have one of the hardest jobs in Europe – documenting and protecting Jewish heritage in Belarus. They have made a good start with the documentation –and the results can be seen on the webpage of the Jewish Heritage Research Group, especially in the list of Jewish heritage sites. Protecting and preserving synagogue, former synagogue and cemeteries more difficult. Though some properties have been returned to the Jewish Community, the Jews of Belarus lack the funds to carry out many successful projects to repair, restore and reuse these buildings. Attempts have been made in the past to restore the great synagogue in the western Belarus town of Slonim, and also to find a use for the former Yeshiva building in Volozhin, both of which are important historical, religious and architectural sites. Unfortunately, both projects languish, though although the World Monuments Fund recently awarded a planning grant to all the Volozhin project to be re-addressed and re-formulated. A third pending project is the adaptive restoration of the the former synagogue in Kobrin. This project may have a better chance of succeeding – if funds can be found – since the building could serve again as a synagogue for the many Jewish communities in that part of Belarus who presently have no religious center.

To my great regret, I have never been to Belarus During the many years I was associated with the United States Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad as Research Director, I was discouraged from engaging in projects in Belarus because of the frosty relations between the US Government and government of Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko. In this, and in many other ways, the Belarus Jewish community has suffered from being out-of-touch with many foreign institutions, and ineligible for certain kinds of foreign assistance. Besides humanitarian aid from the JDC and some other Jewish charities, there has been little formal support from aboard for Jewish heritage projects. Mostly there have been donations from individuals which are usually directed as specific cemetery care projects.

The situation at Kobrin is now urgent, because the government which returned the large 19th-century masonry synagogue to the Jewish community in 2004 threatens to take it back unless restoration work begins. This is a situation that is also becoming common in Poland. After holding Jewish properties for a half century or more and letting them deteriorate into near-ruins, they are returned to communities - but without any financial assistance to restore them. Communities must not only quickly find a use for the building, but also the funds to make them work. Sometimes years pass and nothing happens. Sometimes governments demand quick action. I frequently say the situation is similar to being asked to make soup. On is given the carrots and potatoes, but not pot to cook them in, and sometimes not even a fire. Consequently communities are overburdened. In Belarus, there is a real plan for Kobrin. But there is not enough money. And the government threatens to take the building back if nothing happens soon.

Synagogue of Kobrin

According to Yuri Dorn, Coordinator of Jewish Heritage Research Group in Belarus, the 1868 synagogue building was given to the Jewish community of Kobrin and the Union of Religious Jewish Congregations in the Republic of Belarus in 2004. It had been used for grain storage after the Second World War, and later beer and nonalcoholic beverage production plant in the building prior to 1996. Then the building was given to the local history museum, but the museum lacked funds to start restoration. The synagogue building was left unguarded, and fell into further disrepair.
The restoration project was formally announced last September, and since 2004, much has been done to develop a project for the rebuilding and move it forward.

- all legal documents for property rights have been executed
- all legal documents for the right to rent the adjacent territory without any compensation have been executed
- new technical passport for the building has been executed
- a web site related to the restoration of the synagogue building was designed (
- $8,500 was given by a private donor to clean the synagogue and the adjacent territory and to remove of the garbage outside the city.
- physical and chemical analysis of plaster and outside wall paint was conducted, the research of the history of the building in historical archives was been made
- the grounds have been partially fenced and a watchman hired.

Still, beginning last year the local authorities began to for the restoration of the building exterior . According to sources, this is because he President of Belarus is going to visit the city of Kobrin in the mid-September of this year. Local authorities want the town to look its best for the President’s visit. They insist on implementing the following work on this building:

- replacing roofing with partial repair of the support system
- painting the building (exterior walls)
- closing window openings with wooden shields
- installing new iron entrance door

The cost of this immediate work amounts to $38,250, money the Jewish community does not have on hand. Estimates for the cost of the total renewal of the building are about a half million dollars (but this depends on the scope of the final project and the world economic situation). Certainly some of this work is needed – the building should be secured against the elements to prevent even worse damage. Some of the work, however, may be premature, since a complete preservation plan and design for reuse has not been completed.

The Union of Religious Jewish Congregations in the Republic of Belarus will continue to negotiate with local authorities to gain tie, and to create a situation where scare funs are spent on the most important parts of the project. Meanwhile they are raising money. In a worst case scenario, if the work is not done, they will lose the synagogue forever.

For more information and to make contributions contact:

Yuri Dorn
Coordinator of Jewish Heritage
Research Group in Belarus
13B Daumana St.

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