Friday, January 24, 2014

Romania: After Years of Neglect, Restoration of Great Synagogue of Iaşi Begins (Again)

 Iaşi, Romania.  Great Synagogue after placement of new dome covering.  Photo: FedRom (2013)

Iaşi, Romania.  Great Synagogue, now work started .  Photo: FedRom (2013)

Iaşi, Romania.  Great Synagogue, new work started .  Photo: FedRom (2013)

Romania: After Years of Neglect, Restoration of Great Synagogue of Iaşi Begins (Again)
by Samuel D. Gruber  

(ISJM) After more than six years of abandonment, the 17th-century Great Synagogue of  Iaşi, in northern Romania, is again the object of government-sponsored restoration work, thanks to pressure by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania (FedRom), and international attention.

After years of repeated appeals from the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania (FEDROM) to re-start this work, The Ministry of Culture and Heritage (MCP) has restarted the project which was stalled after the primary contractor went bankrupt in 2007.  Now, according to FedRom representative and architect Lucia Apostol, one of the best preservation contractors in Iaşi, IASICON LTD, has been selected to complete the conservation work.  New work  began in the second half of 2013 and emergency conservation work, including roof repair and removing dampness from the foundations, was completed at the end of 2013.

 The contractors estimate that the entire project will cost 2.34 million lei (approximately US$700,000). In 2013 the Ministry of Culture (MCP) allocated about 650,000 Lei, about 27% of the project cost. Assuming similar allocations continue for the next few years,  the restoration would be completed in about three years from now.  Future allocations, however, are not certain, and costs can rise.  In addition, there is needed work not included in the MCP project, which must be financed by FedRom.  This includes all provisions for religious use, including restoration and provision of a functioning ark, bimah, and chandeliers.  In recent months roof work has been completed, including replacement of the metal covering the synagogue dome.  Additional funds, most likely from international donors, will certainly be needed.

In October 2013, The World Monuments Fund (WMF), placed the Iaşi synagogue on its 2014 Watch list of endangered cultural heritage sites, on of 67 sites worldwide so-designated.  Launched in 1996 and issued every two years, the Watch List is the flagship advocacy program of WMF, aimed at focusing attention on key threatened sites (I was glad to write a recommendation for the listing on behalf of FedRom’s application).  To arrange contributions to the project contact WMF. 

Iaşi, Romania.  Great Synagogue, interior with striped walls .  Photo: FedRom (2013)

Iaşi, Romania.  Great Synagogue, interior with striped walls; Ark still in situ.  Photo: FedRom (2013)

The synagogue is the oldest in Romania and one of only two synagogues still standing in a city that before World War II had more than 100.   It is already recognized as a Romanian National Historic Monument.  It was built in 1670-1671 for a small community, and subsequently rebuilt or restored rebuilt in 1761, 1822, and 1863. The synagogue originally had a more rural appearance. It is free standing and is set in a small garden, but is now almost entirely surrounded by new buildings. The building is noteworthy for its simple block-like massing surmounted by a tall dome. Inside, a very large and elaborate Torah Ark, surrounded by frescoes, fills one end of the vaulted prayer hall, which is sunk below ground level.  The former women's gallery housed a small exhibit on local Jewish history, organized in the 1980s. This is now, like the synagogue, closed.

The synagogue’s age, distinctive form, and the fact that it has continued to serve a small but active Jewish community, are all remarkable in Romania and have made the synagogue widely known internationally. Unfortunately, the building needs serious repair and restoration – work that was stopped five years ago – and deserves greater recognition (with the history it represents) within Romania itself.

The Iaşi synagogue is just one of scores of noteworthy synagogues still extant in Romania.  Most need maintenance and repair, and many need more extensive restoration.  FedRom has prioritized these needs and is developing several preservation projects around the country in addition to the government assisted project at Iaşi, including the main Choral Temple in Bucharest; the Great Synagogue in Oradea; and the synagogues in Galati and Tulcea.

Attempts to restore and preserve the Iaşi synagogue stopped for many years.  Restoration of the building, funded by the by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage of, began in 2006 but stopped in 2007 when Remicon Ltd, the construction company that was carrying out the work went bankrupt. Since then, the synagogue was left in a perilous state since then; closed to the Jewish community and public, surrounded by scaffolding, with walls uncovered and its dome unprotected.  Now, in addition to its earlier structural problems, exposure to the elements has resulted in further deterioration.

The Jewish community in Romania is very small and poor, with very limited political and cultural influence. Despite the a relatively large Jewish population of Romanian origin in the United States and Israel, the plight of Jewish heritage sites in Romania has not received the attention and support given to Germany, Poland, Lithuania and some other countries. The Romanian Jewish Community carries responsibility for a very large number of extant synagogues and other sites, but has very limited resources and staff to monitor, maintain and restore them.  Architect Lucia Apostol described the challenges facing of Jewish heritage preservation in Romania in her presentation at the April conference in Krakow on Managing Jewish Immovable Heritage in Europe.

Iaşi is the capital of Moldova and as such is one of the major cultural centers of Romania. For centuries the city was an important center the Jewish culture and religion for Northern Moldova and Bucovina. The city once supported a large Jewish population, though this was devastated during the Romanian Fascist period and the Holocaust. Before World War II the  Jewish community of the city probably was half the total city population – and there were over 100 synagogues and prayer houses. During the Iasi Pogrom of June 29-July 6, 1941, and its aftermath, about 14,000 Jews were killed or deported - about half the Jewish population of the city.  The history of Jewish Iaşi, its destroyed synagogues and its devastated and dispersed Jewish population, now resides in the surviving Great Synagogue.

(Lucia Apostol and Ruth Ellen Gruber provided information for this report)


Hels said...

Great news... At long last!

Are there photos, inside and out, of the synagogue in its heyday? When the rebuilding gets going, which iteration of the old synagogue will be replicated - 1670, 1761, 1822 or 1863?

Elissa said...

Are there photos of the frescoes? Can you tell us something about "Jewish heritage" tourism to Romania (and Moldavia) in relation to the other countries you referenced?

Samuel Gruber said...

Romania has as much or more to see in Jewish heritage than Poland, but they are years behind in organizing and promoting Jewish heritage tourism or pilgrimage. They lack the infrastructure but also the cultural, institutional, and governmental will. There is only a small community of scholars and activists in the country trying their best to turn this around. Romanian-Jewish groups abroad, and those seeking their roots, are less organized than for Galicia and other more northern areas. I think today, Germany, Poland and Czech Republic are the most organized in preserving and promoting a whole range of Jewish heritage sites and projects. I have not been to Romania for many years - but I will try to write more about what is going on.