Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Latvia: Riga Synagogue Reopens After 2-Year Restoration

Riga, Latvia. Synagogue before restoration. Photos: Samuel D. Gruber (2003)

Latvia: Riga Synagogue Reopens After 2-Year Restoration

(ISJM) Today was the reopening of the restored Art Nouveau synagogue in Riga, Latvia, first opened in 1905. Much of the credit for this project goes to Gita Umanovska,. Executive Director of the Riga Community. Gita was instrumental in preparing the application the resulted in EU funds for the project as part of a larger tourism/economic development grant to Riga. As in many of the Jewish heritage projects in Latvia undertaken and completed in the past half decade, much of the success is also due to the organizational, inspirational and financial support of Community president Arkady Suharenko.

At the end of this blog entry I attach a passage from my travel notes written in September, 2003, after attending Saturday morning services at the synagogue. I have visited the synagogue several times, but believe the architecture of a synagogue is usually best seen when the building is in use.

This synagogue, needs to be seen close up and in detail, too. It is one of the last - perhaps the very last - major synagogue to widely employ Egyptian decorative motifs. Perhaps this is an influence from Copenhagen, where the Egyptian Revival was very strong, as the synagogue there bears witness.


Riga, Latvia. Synagogue before restoration. Photos: Samuel D. Gruber (2003)

Wednesday, August 26 2009

RIGA, Latvia – This week in Riga, after two years of restoration work, the doors of the Peitav Shul – the only synagogue in the Latvian capital – will finally open once again.

Reconstruction work on the building began in 2007 at a cost of more than $2.8 million. While most of the funds were contributed by foreign sponsors, financial support was also pledged by the Latvian government and about 100 other donors. The outstanding balance needed to complete the necessary work was raised from amongst members of the local Jewish community. About 1,000 local Jews donated sums ranging from $10 to $100,000. The names of all donors – regardless of the size of their contribution – are forever engraved on a plaque located at the synagogue’s entrance.

When work began on the synagogue it became apparent that the building was in much worse condition than originally thought. As a result, nearly 60 percent of the roof had to be replaced. When the funds dried out once again, two members of the Jewish community’s Board of Trustees – Leonid Esterkin and Arkady Sukharenko – each made a sizeable contribution.

“We are proud that our generation has that honor of restoring the synagogue to its former grandeur and of leaving it to future generations in this condition,” stated Mr. Sukharenko. “We are grateful to everyone who participated in this noble and important endeavor, and have invested their hearts and funds.”

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Riga, Latvia. Synagogue before restoration. Photos: Samuel D. Gruber (2003)
A Visit to the Riga Synagogue (September 2003)
notes by Samuel D. Gruber

I recount my experience at the synagogue, since it is one the few Jewish experiences in Latvia available to visitors from America or elsewhere. The activity at the synagogue constitutes one relatively small part of the Latvian Jewish life – the religious – but it is the religious community that is fully recognized by the government in issues of property restitution and other areas, so the synagogue and its supporters have special influence in the definition of Jewish life and community, and on financial resources, in Latvia today.

I counted about sixty men in the synagogue during the service. They weren’t all praying, or even pretending to follow along. A large number kept up an incessant chatter throughout the service, and especially throughout the Torah service. About a dozen women looked down from the balcony, where they not only were separated by the height and space, but by a high blue curtain as well. The women would lean on the parapet wall with the curtain pushed behind them. They tended to bunch in pairs, one on each side of a column. There were old women. There really was no danger of sexual distraction form them.

Barkhan led the “warm-up” prayers. He could hardly be heard, but he read at the shtender (reader’s stand) set on the platform before the Ark. Then the cantor, a fairly young man with a wonderful voice took over. He apparently teaches music at the university. Few there can read any Hebrew or know the prayers. is in Hebrew with Russian translation on the facing page. There are transliterations in the back of the siddur. (Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh was the prayer that get the most response, it was prayed as Kadoish, Kadoish, Kadoish). Most of the Torah reading was done by another Lubavicher, but the first section was read by a visitor, a man from Israel. As a visitor, I was offered an aliyah (opportunity to “go up” to the Torah and recite the blessing before and after the Torah reading), which I accepted, and recited the blessing in Hebrew. Most others read Russian transliteration printed on a sheet on the bimah.

After services I attended the kiddush in the social hall in the synagogue basement. This was set up with long tables and all the participants sat down for a traditional Jewish meal. It may be that like in L’viv many attend the service just to receive the free meal. There was herring and bread, chopped beets, and a cholent. I left after this, but more courses were being served. Rabbi Glasman gave the Barucha, and he also had everyone recite, word by word, the Barucha over the bread, though many had already started eating. Then one older man sang with a fine voice a long song in Yiddish about studying Torah (or Toyrah).

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