Monday, November 30, 2009

Belarus: Israeli Ambassador Urges Government to Assist in Restoration of Synagogues

Grodno (Hrodna), Belarus. Great Synagogue (1902-05). Photos: Wikipedia Commons

Belarus: Israeli Ambassador Urges Government to Assist in Restoration of Synagogues

(ISJM) Belarus News reported on November 11, 2009 that the Israeli ambassador to Belarus has urged the government to restore synagogues amid a “disastrous” shortage of prayer houses for Jewish communities in the country.

According to the article:

The Belarusian government should pay attention to deteriorating synagogues, which were built with contributions by the faithful, Ambassador Edward (Eddie) Shapira said at an international conference in Minsk.

“I do understand that there is no restitution law in the country, but there is a wave of religious revival and the state does not only return churches that once belonged to Orthodox Christian communities but also helps renovate them,” the ambassador said.

Mr. Shapira expressed concern about the condition of the “unique” three-story synagogue in Hrodna [Grodno]. Many tourists, including Jews, visit the city, but it is impossible to invite them to the synagogue hit by “devastation,” he said.

The ambassador also voiced alarm over what he called the unwillingness of law-enforcers to probe attempts to incite national hate “even when they are visible by the naked eye.”

He said that a swastika and an anti-Semitic text were sprayed on the building of the Jewish community in Slutsk, Minsk region, earlier this year, condemning the act as a vivid example of racism.

The ambassador called on the authorities to draw up regulations that would prevent immoderate construction work at old Jewish cemeteries and the sites of the WWII mass execution of Jews, and ensure that human remains discovered at such sites be reburied with proper rituals.

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Of course, the ambassador's plea raises a host of sticky political and moral questions about government involvement in religion. On the one hand, Jewish and other groups are usually eager to see government support for synagogues and other Jewish religious and communal institutions - and such is a normal throughout much of Europe where the tradition of separation of church and state are not ingrained as part of the social and political cultures. On the other hand, these same groups fret about undo influence by government upon their activities, and on other forms of freedom of expression. How should be strike a balance?

On way, of course, is to look at the buildings that need to be restored. In Europe (but less so in America) governments are regularly involved in the protection, preservation and promotion of the historic buildings and other resources. When synagogues and other Jewish historic and architecturally significant buildings fall into this category, help should be provided to promote culture and history. I would never - however - support the government construction of synagogues (or churches or mosques for that matter). But in fact, in Belarus, as the ambassador points out the government does assist in the promotion of the Orthodox (Christian) church. But I would plea for the protection of historic synagogues based on their past - not on their future use. That issue is for Jews to decide (and to fund).

The Grodno synagogue is one of the most impressive in Belarus, and is situated in a major urban area. Just as the City of Warsaw has funded recent restoration of the Nosyk Synagogue, and the Hungarian government funded most of the expensive restoration of the Dohany Synagogue in Budapest, so too, can public funds assist in Grodno - which was returned to the Jewish Community of that city in 1991. The synagogue, however, was the site of intense communal rivalries in the years after its restitution. Disagreements over who would control the site and who would define the Jewish religious identity of Grodno were also factors that deterred international donors from embracing the project - as exactly the time when international attention was turning to places like Warsaw, Prague and Budapest. The Grodno Synagogue is now the Center of the city's Chabad movement, which is organizing its restoration. Today, Belarus is home to three main Jewish religious groups - the tradition Orthodox, the Chabad-Lubavich Orthodox, and a congregation of Progressive Jews. This confuses all requests for government support. Chabad has been more active (and successful) - especially in nearby Russia - in looking to government for recognition and active support. In neighboring Ukraine, which also lacks a restitution law, Chabad has also been the most organized and effective nationwide Jewish network - but there Chabad has mostly relied on private donors and the activism of local rabbis.

The lack of a proper restitution law in Belarus makes any general demand on the government for care of synagogues problematic. It would be better to fix the system and create a proper mechanism for the return and support of properties, than to bungle by on an ad hoc and reactive basis, and to beg for government largess. The problem in Belarus (and in other countries, too) is that governments are willing to "give back" older ruined and non-productive properties to Jewish communities, but they are reluctant - and even obdurate - to return useful income-producing properties. Thus, Jewish communities are after saddled with expensive historic properties, but no financial resource - and little or no government assistance - to maintain and restore them. This is like asking someone to make soup and giving them the ingredients, but no pot or fire.

What needs to be done is the proper and legal return of historic properties with the recognition that these properties are derelict due to more than a half century of neglect and or misuse by state or other non-Jewish users (appropriators). It is not enough to return a property, but the means also have to be attached to the property to make it whole again.

If an apple is stolen from a grocer, it does the grocer no good if only the apple core is returned.

I know that this is an expensive proposition - and its get more expensive all the time. But this is the system that we must lobby for. It is the only practical - and moral - solution. Governments add injury to insult when they return a ruined (historically designated) property to a Jewish community, and then within a short time threaten to penalize the community for not having maintained or restored the building - this after the government (or some predecessor government) neglecting the structure for decades. It is also wrong for governments to assume that just because a community will not or cannot maintain a property now, that it is forfeiting all claim on the building for all time. If such a scenario were carried out to its logical conclusion, than many governments themselves would find that they must forfeit many of their own buildings - since they are not maintained.

In places like Belarus is essential that a complete list of sites be compiled (this has already been done to a large degree), and that the conditions of the building, and its restoration needs be itemized, and that these be compared to potential uses for the building. This list then needs to be prioritized, and a small selection of sites be chosen for annual repair and restoration - sometimes by the Jewish community, sometimes by the government, sometimes by private entities - but mostly in the form of creative financing, use and lease or ownership arrangements involving all these parties. This can be done in many ways as examples from the Czech Republic and Poland demonstrate.

I will write more about the unusual architecture of the Grodno Synagogue in a future post.

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