Thursday, November 20, 2008

Greece: New Work at Etz Hayyim Synagogue, Hania (Crete)

Greece: New Work at Etz Hayyim Synagogue, Hania (Crete)
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) Dr. Nikos Stavroulakis writes that the Ezrath Nashim (women’s section) of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue of Hania,Crete, has been recreated, completing a two-decade process in which the ruined synagogue has been reclaimed, restored and revived.

The latest (and final?) work is "restoration" in the broadest sense. It is known where the women’s section was, but there are no visual or written descriptions of its former appearance, and there was only fragmentary physical evidence remaining in the synagogue.

According to Nikos, “We had little to work from other than a rough idea of its dimensions and elevation and the likelihood that it had been built in the late 17th or early 18th cent., and [that is] was built out of what had remained of the original bell tower [of the former church, from which the synagogue created]. The ground floor is open and gives visual access to the graves of the rabbis in the courtyard and there is a door from the street as well as another to the mikveh and also one to the synagogue proper. The upper floor is of wood in [the] contemporary (Ottoman) style, based on surviving similar structures in Hania where old Venetian buildings were re-vamped to suit expansion and also to regularize floor plans beneath.”

The rebuilt Ezrath Nashim “gives visual access to the interior of the synagogue through one of the Venetian arches (that to the south-east) and is spacious enough for our immediate needs for further expansion of the library.”

Rabbi Nicholas de Lange
of Cambridge (UK), an authority on the Jewish history of Greece, and of Hania in particular, affixed up mezzuzot on Erev Rosh Hashanah.

Learning from Hania

After almost 20 years in the “business” of conserving and restoring old synagogues and cemeteries, I’ve learned that most projects take a long time, and often the very best projects need that time to develop and mature. Its never been easy getting money for projects, and these days its going be harder than ever to find grant and loans to carry out big restoration projects – unless governments start pouring money into public works, and the unlikely prospect that historic preservation is given higher priority than bridge repair.

No project demonstrates the virtues of taking time than the long-term and closely nurtured restoration and revival of the Etz Hayyim Synagogue. The saving of the abandoned and ruined Etz Hayyim, the last vestige of the Jewish community of Hania of Crete began two decades ago. Actual restoration on the structural parts of the synagogue began in March 1998 by the World Monuments Fund, but Stavroulakis, who has nurtured this project from the start, had presented the need for saving the building as early the 1990 Future of Jewish Monuments Conference in New York. It took getting the building listed as a WMF Jewish Heritage Preservation Priority in 1996, and the inclusion of the site on the first WMF Watch List of Endangered Monuments (also 1996), to really get the project rolling. WMF and Stavroulakis raised about $300,000 in planning and construction grants to take care of all the structural needs of the synagogue, including a new roof (this was a process I was involved in as a consultant to WMF). WMF than stepped back from an active role, and Stavroulakis raised additional funds and created the program for furnishing the building, rehabilitating adjacent spaces, and creating an active religious and cultural center.

Since then it has progressed in stages, and each stage as been part of a process of rediscovery, rededication and reuse of the complex. The result (I am told by those who have recently visited) is not just a dusty ruin, or an empty and cold restored building. It is a living center uniting past and present – a contemporary place rooted in the past. History is well served, but so are (the modest) needs of Jewish life in Crete.

Read Stavroulakis' account from the 2004 Conference: The Future of Jewish Heritage in Europe, (click "Stavroulakis" at bottom of page).

The biggest problem confronting former synagogues in need of restoration is often not money – but what to do with the building if and when it is restored. The truth is that without a use, money and effort are often not well spent if a building sits empty – and even neglected – when the conservators go home. Planning and budgeting use for an old building – something that often only develops over time – must be part of the process of every restoration project from the start. I most cases this may mean a slower project, but in the end it will mean better chance for the continued life of an historic building.

Few projects are shepherded by creative and charismatic individuals like Nikos Stavroulakis. But ordinary people, locally-based, with stick-to-it-ness can get things done. The world community, through organizations like the World Monuments Fund, and local government agencies, need to help with money and expertise, but it is usually good - even essential - to have committed people at the helm.

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