Sunday, November 29, 2015

USA: After 50 Years Modest Modernism of Binghamton, NY's Temple Concord Holds Up Well

Binghamton, NY. Temple Concord Sanctuary wing (1964).  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Binghamton, NY. Temple Concord Sanctuary (1964).  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

 Binghamton, NY. Temple Concord Sanctuary wing (1964). Stained glass by Jean-Jacques Duval.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Binghamton, NY. Temple Concord Sanctuary wing (1964). Sliding partition of left. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

USA: After 50 Years Modest Modernism of Binghamton, NY's Temple Concord Holds Up Well
by Samuel D. Gruber 

Binghamton, New York's, Temple Concord sanctuary, built in 1964-65, is a fine example of modest modernism, combining expressive features of angled walls, a continuous strip style clerestory window and bright stained glass above the Ark, all the while retaining an elegant simplicity of material and form and an intimacy of scale. In the tradition of many of Percival Goodman's designs - which clearly influenced this building - sliding partitions provide expansion of the sanctuary an adjacent social hall. The Goodman-like expressive angles and the use of wood and beige brick at the Reform Temple Concord provide a dramatic contrast to Binghamton's contemporary Orthodox  Beth David Synagogue, designed by Werner Seligmann.

Binghamton, NY. Temple Concord (Kilmer Mansion, 1898). Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Binghamton, NY. Temple Concord Sanctuary wing (1964), clerestory.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

The sanctuary wing was added in 1964 onto the 1898 Kilmer Mansion which the congregation bought in 1950 as their home, and which the congregation continues to occupy for much of its community activity. The mansion can also be rented for events. 

The architects of the "new" wing were Benjamin Bloch and Walter Hesse, with the Herbert Shalat (d. 1999) as Associate Architect. The great modern stained-glass artist Jean-Jaques Duval, about whom I've written before in connection with his work in Connecticut, designed the stained glass which combines the traditional symbol of the menorah with bright colors and an abstract infill design.  Except for the addition of ramps to the bimah, the sanctuary is little changed from its original design.

Binghamton, NY. Temple Concord Sanctuary wing (1964).  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Binghamton, NY. Temple Concord Sanctuary wing (1964).  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Binghamton, NY. Temple Concord Sanctuary wing (1964).  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Binghamton, NY. Temple Concord Sanctuary wing (1964).  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Jewish Turkeys for (USA) Thanksgiving

Gwozdziec, Ukraine. Synagogue north ceiling with image of turkey at lower register. Pre-World War II image reproduced in Hubka, Resplendent Synagogue, fig. 158 (Courtesy of The Tel Aviv Museum of Art).

Gwozdziec, Ukraine. Synagogue ceiling detail of turkey (1729). Reproduction from POLIN The Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

Jewish Turkeys for (USA) Thanksgiving

To my American readers, Happy Thanksgiving!  This is Turkey Day, when the quintessential American bird is celebrated, cooked and then devoured. Benjamin Franklin wanted to make the turkey our national bird (he failed). So, what's Jewish about this holiday or the turkey?  Or better, what connection is there to Jewish art and architecture?

The link is a well-known and oft-discussed meticulously painted representation of an American turkey, with particular attention given to its wattle, on the ceiling of the destroyed wooden synagogue of Gwozdziec, Ukraine. This ceiling, originally completed in 1729, has now been recreated in vivid colors at 85% size in Warsaw's Museum of the History of Polish Jews.

The turkey is one of just many animals represented in the ceiling.  Some of these are in the context of a Zodiac representation. Others are shown in heraldic poses supporting Jewish symbols and inscriptions.  The turkey, however, exists without an obvious context.

Thomas Hubka, author of Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteen-Century Polish Synagogue, writes: "At first, it is difficult to imagine how the North American turkey could have been painted in an early-eighteenth-century Polish synagogue, but books depicting the exotic flora and fauna from beyond the European world were widely available at the time."

Gwozdziec, Ukraine. Synagogue north ceiling with image of turkey at lower register. After pre-1914 study by Alois Breier, reproduced in Hubka, Resplendent Synagogue, plate 3

Hubka links the presence of exotic animals in the decoration to Jewish ethical literature and writings that celebrate God's creation. According to Hubka: 
"The illustrated Perek Shira (chapter of song) was a popular "exotic creature" book specifically written for a Jewish audience. The book was a collection of hymnic sayings in praise of the Creator placed in the mouths of various animals, especially exotic animals. Many animals and their sayings emphasized the wonder and incomprehensibility of God's creations.  For example, written next to a drawing of a dragon: "What does the dragon say? Sing unto him, sing psalms unto Him: talk ye of all his wondrous works (Psalm 105;2). As a measure of its popularity and ethical function, Perek Shira was included in some of the earliest printed prayer books in Eastern Europe...Thus the unknown turkey was to be contemplated by pious Jews as an example of the unfathomable variety of God's creatures. As they did with the exotic ostrich and unicorn, the artists of the Gwozdziec Synagogue may have placed the turkey in a prominent central location so that the congregation would "Lift up [its] obtain knowledge of the works of the Holy One" (II:231b). 
- - Hubka, Resplendent Synagogue: Architecture and Worship in an Eighteenth-Century Polish Synagogue, p. 103.

An image of a turkey was also found on the ceiling of the now-destroyed synagogue of Hodorow, Ukraine, which has many parallels to Gwozdziec. That ceiling is replicated at Beth Hatefutsoth in Tel Aviv.

 Hodorow, Ukraine. Synagogue ceiling. Image of turkey reproduced at Beth Hatefutsoth, Tel Aviv.

The abundant use of exotic animals in synagogue context can be noted elsewhere, too. Prof. Brancha Yaniv, in an important article from 2006, has also treated the carved figures on the ark of Olkieniki and Druja in the context of the Perek Shira. See: “Praising the Lord: Discovering a Song of Ascents on Carved Torah Arks in Eastern Europe,”Ars Judaica (2006).

But there is more to turkey than how they look and what they might say about God's creation. From at least the early 19th century, almost exactly 100 years after the painting of the Gwozdziec ceiling, we know that Jews - or at least wealthy Jews - were gobbling up turkeys at the festive table. Turkeys are mentioned several times by memoirist Pauline Wengeroff (Rememberings: The World of A Russian-Jewish Woman in the Nineteenth Century, various editions) when she lovingly describes in great detail the life and cultural and religious rituals of her early girlhood in 1830s Bobruisk (now Belarus). When it came to food it seems the larger household lacked for nothing. 

Wengeroff mentions turkeys (which they called "Indians") prepared and eaten for  Pesach and Sukkos. For Pesach she describes the process of kashering chickens and turkeys, and at a noon meal on Pesach, following the seder, "there had to be stuffed turkey neck." She also mentions eating roast turkey on Shmini Atzeres and Simches Torah (the last days of Sukkos). So it is clear by the 19th century that turkeys, along with chickens and geese (also mentioned throughout the memoir) were part of the Eastern European Jewish diet.  Perhaps turkeys were still "exotic" when the Gwozdziec ceiling was finished in 1732, but a century later they were not. Do you know more about the role of turkeys in Jewish art and culture? Let me know.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

USA: Modern Orthodox / Orthodox Modernism I, Beth David in Binghamton, NY

Binghamton, NY. Beth David. Exterior. It was wet morning, and the concrete holds the dampness. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Binghamton, NY. Beth David. Front elevation drawing. image: Recent American Synagogue (NY: The Jewish Museum, 1963).  

Binghamton, NY. Beth David. One of two concrete columns at entrance to front courtyard. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

USA: Modern Orthodox / Orthodox Modernism I: 
Beth David in Binghamton, NY, Designed by Werner Seligmann
by Samuel D. Gruber

When I stayed over in the Binghamton, New York, the other week, I had an opportunity to attend early morning services at the Orthodox Congregation Beth David.  This small building has long been known by religious architecture cognoscenti as a masterwork of modern design; an example of Orthodox Modernism for the Modern Orthodox. Designed as a light box perched atop a heavy base; the small building is full of big ideas. In its creation of a welcoming unified space Beth David is a forerunner of the many small sanctuaries built since the 1990s that strive for "intimacy" and to create "community." Since it was designed for a small Orthodox congregation the sanctuary dimensions hardly exceed those used for chapels at the some of the large suburban synagogues also built in the 1960s.

Binghamton, NY. Beth David. Sanctuary. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

 Binghamton, NY. Beth David. Sanctuary, view of Ark and bimah. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Binghamton, NY. Beth David. Plans: Recent American Synagogue Architecture (NY: The Jewish Museum, 1963).

The small building, set on an urban corner, was designed by Werner Seligmann and dedicated in February, 1964, at the time when Seligmann was teaching architecture at Cornell University.  The budget was less than $200,000 and the building lot is only 80 x 120 feet. Seligmann managed to pack a lot into this space and to accommodate the needs an Orthodox congregation, including two kitchens, mikvah, and places for congregants to store books and tallit, and also a well-designed hand washing station near the social hall.

Seligmann would later design the synagogue in nearby Cortland, New York, where he lived, and go on to be Dean of the School of Architecture at Syracuse University (where I knew him slightly in his later years). The scale of Beth David fits in the neighborhood of late 19th and early 20th-century wood frame houses, but the style is distinct. Constructed mostly of poured concrete and concrete block (polished on the inside) Beth David is a superb example of how urban contextualism does not require stylistic imitation, but rather a sympathy for scale and massing. 

As Seligmann's colleague Bruce Coleman has pointed out, Beth David has roots in the work of both Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright. The building was, still unfinished, selected for inclusion in the seminal 1963 Jewish Museum exhibition on new synagogue design curated by Richard Meier. Seligmann and Beth David also won a Progressive Architecture citation for religious architecture that same year. In his remarks about the project included in the exhibition catalog, Seligmann quoted Corbusier on form. The sanctuary design, however, especially recalls Wright's work (Unity Temple and even some early house designs. Susan Solomon, in her book Louis I. Kahn's Jewish Architecture (Walthan, Ma: Brandeis univ Press, 2009), offers an enthusiastic appreciation of Beth David and also links it to Louis Kahn's designs. 

Seligmann wrote:  
"...Hierarchy was quite clearly a problem. There was not enough room on the site to organize the whole axially with the sanctuary as the center, but it was possible to contrast the sanctuary to the other functions. Isolation is a powerful way to create hierarchical significance. This was all possible in the design of the Beth David Synagogue by moving the sanctuary to the roof top. ...By form I do not refer to shape, but to the ideas organizing it, just as we talk of form in poetry or music. Form in this sense is a matter of the mind, it is a way in which knowledge is made manifest. Architecture speaks primarily through its form and, as Le Corbusier says, "it will strike a chord in us, when form has been sparked by poetic emotion. Passion creates drama out of inert stone."
Interestingly, Seligmann makes no reference to the Talmudic recommendation that synagogues be located high up, nor does he refer to the tradition of upper story sanctuaries in Germany, his own country of origin (which he may not have know) and Italy (which he probably did). Nonetheless, the experience of reaching the sanctuary is one of "going up" (aliyah).

Binghamton, NY. Beth David. Plans. Sections. Images: Recent American Synagogue Architecture (NY: The Jewish Museum, 1963).

The upper level is reached from either external steps to the roof, or more regularly from an interior stair lit by a skylight. Both lead to a glass faced vestibule that opens onto the roof and into the sanctuary. Seligmann planned a roof garden at this level, but like him planned garden outside the Cortland synagogue, this was never implemented. Consequently, at both buildings the architects interlined dialog between planned space and natural forms, never got started. It was left for other architects in the 1960s to carry this forward. The flat roof serves as both a podium and a frame for the central elevated sanctuary space. Practically, however, the large expanse of flat roof (which I got to know well, since got locked out there!) has caused problems over the years as do most 1960s flat roofs in the snow, ice and water filled Birmingham weather.
Binghamton, NY. Beth David. Stair from front courtyard to roof. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Binghamton, NY. Beth David. View into vestibule and sanctuary from roof. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

 Binghamton, NY. Beth David. View from sanctuary to roof and neighboring houses. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

The morning was overcast when I visited, but still the sanctuary glowed with light which entered form every side.  The sanctuary reminds me of the bridge of ship, one can look out all sides. For the separation of men and women Seligmann and the congregation eschewed the use of a gallery (which would have made the building that much higher). Instead the women's seating in included in the broad space of the sanctuary, but set slightly higher and to the side, and they face inward.

Binghamton, NY. Beth David. View to bimah. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Binghamton, NY. Beth David. Bimah. Some new rails have been added for the safety of the congregation's aging members. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Binghamton, NY. Beth David. View to Ark showing both women's and men's seating. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

A more common version of this plan, a favorite of mine for Orthodox shuls, was used very effectively in the early 20th century at Philadelphia's Mikveh Israel designed by Tachau and Pilcher and dedicated in 1909.  More contemporary with Seligmann's work is the Sons of Israel Synagogue in Lakewood, New Jersey, designed by Davis, Brody and Wisniewski and also included in the Jewish Museum exhibit. Seligmann would surely have known the early design from Rachel Wischnitzer's 1955 book Synagogue Architecture in the United States, and he was probably aware of the the Lakewood synagogue, too. Both these plans, however, have all the men's seating facing center as in traditional Sephardi and early American synagogue designs. Seligmann and the Beth David Congregation mix things up a bit; they use this plan and have facing seats near the bimah, but behind are seats facing front in a more common Ashkenazi fashion.Significantly, there is no mechitza in front of the women's seating and today it is practice to bring the Torah to the women when it is carried throughout the sanctuary.

Binghamton, NY. Beth David. Sanctuary. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Philadelphia, PA. Former Mikveh Israel. Tachau & Pilcher, archs. (1909). View of sanctuary showing raised women's seating on the sides. Photo: R. Wischnitzer, Synagogue Architecture in the United States (Philadelphia: JPS, 1955).
Philadelphia, PA. Former Mikveh Israel. Tachau & Pilcher, archs. (1909). Plan: R. Wischnitzer, Synagogue Architecture in the United States (Philadelphia: JPS, 1955).

Lakewood, NJ. Congregation Sons of Israel. Davis, Brody, Wisniewski, archs. Women's seating is off the edges of the photo behind a mechitza. Photo: Recent American Synagogue Architecture (NY: Jewish Museum, 1963)

The ground floor consists of a central flowing social area, from which other functional space open. There is a hallway to the small daily chapel on the corner of the lot, and to classrooms.  A curved stair leads to the second floor.

Binghamton, NY. Beth David. Ground floor flexible space social area. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Binghamton, NY. Beth David. Stair to second floor. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Binghamton, NY. Beth David. View across roof with added beams for sukkah and the top part of the daily chapel. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Probably the most used space at Beth David is the small tall chapel set on the corner of the lot, where as a block-like tower it guards the intersection of the two streets. This space is used for daily prayers. It incorporates the Ark and a stained glass window of lions flanking an open book with the Ten Commandments, which were transferred from the congregation's previous home. The ceiling seems to float on a frame of natural light which filters into the space. The reader's table is a permanent fixture made of a cast column of concrete.  Similar but taller columns flank the main entrance to the synagogue courtyard.

Binghamton, NY. Beth David. Exterior of daily chapel on corner.  Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Binghamton, NY. Beth David. Chapel, interior. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015
Binghamton, NY. Beth David. Chapel, interior. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Binghamton, NY. Beth David. Chapel, reader's table. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber 2015

Modest changes over the decades accommodate the needs of an aging congregation (shallow front steps changed to ramp, new horizontal rails on the bimah), and a few additions that are less sympathetic (air conditioning fixtures on the roof, and an ornate front door at odds with the modern style). In addition, wood beams have been placed across the front courtyard to allow the seasonal erection of a sukkah.Despite these changes, the building conveys most of the spatial and visual experience as intended and the small congregation appears to maintain much of its original spirit, too.

You can read the history of the congregation here.  

Friday, November 20, 2015

Lithuania: Test Excavations (2011) and Ground Radar Survey (2015) of Great Synagogue and Shulhoyf point to More Archaeology in 2016

Vilnius, Lithuania. Historical information about the former Great Synagogue is provided on the site of the former synagogue an Shulhoyf. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Oct 2015

Vilnius, Lithuania. A school now occupies part of the site of the former Great Synagogue. Next door is a monument dedicated to the Vilna Gaon in 1997. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Oct 2015

Vilnius, Lithuania.  Part of the site of the former Shulhoyf where new housing was built after World War II. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Oct 2015

Vilnius, Lithuania.  Part of the site of the former Shulhoyf. Photo: Samuel D. Gruber Oct 2015

Lithuania: Test Excavations (2011) and Ground Radar Survey (2015) of Great Synagogue and Shulhoyf Point to More Archaeology in 2016
by Samuel D. Gruber

The heart of Jewish Vilna (Vilnius) was the Shulhoyf, the crowded open space outside the Great Synagogue. That building, which was possibly first built in 1573, was rebuilt after February 25, 1633, when Wladyslaw IV Vasa (r. 1632-48) granted this privilege to the Jews: "for the purpose of security and better protection from fire, permission is given to build a synagogue in our city of Vilnius on Jewish Street, which is densely lined up with buildings [...], on the same plot where it stands now." [translation in Synagogues of Lithuania N-Z, p. 240. The synagogue was changed several times, with a major renovation by engineer Leonid Viner from 1893-1898.
The Great Synagogue survived World War II in a very ruined condition and was eventually demolished in the 1950s in order to make space for needed housing as the city rebuilt. Those few Jews left in Vilna had more immediate survival concerns, and no one was willing or able to make the case that the building be saved. Like many Jewish monuments in the post-World War II Soviet period, the ruin was superfluous and it was demolished.

 Vilnius, Lithuania. Great Synagogue. Plans for 1893 reconstruction, Leonid Viner.

Vilnius, Lithuania. Great Synagogue, interior. Watercolor by P. Smugliewiz. sepia on paper, 1786.

While we know a fair amount about the history and architecture of the Great Synagogue, much less is known about the places and spaces of the Shulhoyf. While public officials have focused on the chance to uncover the synagogue, most archaeologists and historians are more interested in the architecture and history of the ancillary spaces, and whatever finds might be revealed through excavation.

In 2011 archaeological excavations, led by Zenonas Baubonis and Mindaugas Maciulis of the Kulturos paveldo išsaugojimo pajegos (‘Cultural heritage preservation forces’) took place next to the school built on the synagogue site and confirmed location of some of the buildings features. The excavation was initiated by the Cultural Heritage Department of the Ministry of Culture, in order to identify remains of the Great Synagogue to assess "the nature, scope, methodology and research goals for the future." Excavation was coordinated with careful collating of all cartographic information about the site and this information has been linked into the cartographic database of the Lithuanian State Coordinate System. consulted plans included the Vilnius Old Town of 1939 (1:1000); the Vilnius Great Synagogue building plan of 1939 (1:50) surveyed by Berlin and Segal; the pre-war Vilnius city plan (1: 250); and the plans of the Great Synagogue reconstruction project of 1893. With these indicators, despite the change in the street plan, the location of the synagogue can be determined, allowing three successful small excavations. 

Vilnius, Lithuania Schulhof plan by Leonid Viner, 1893. Reproduced with key in Synagogues of Lithuania N-Z, p 282.

In the 1930s, Israel Cohen visited and wrote of the Shulhoyf in his essential history and guide to Vilna (but not published until 1943):
"The heart of the Jewish quarter, from the time when the community first began to assume organic form in the fifteenth century until the present day, was the Schulhof or synagogue courtyard. It derives its name from the Great Synagogue, which was the most important of the many buildings and institutions that clustered thickly around this quaint cloistral enclosure. it was shaped like the letter L, reversed, and could be approached from the Zydowska through a huge iron gate, flanked by lamps on two stone pillars, or through a short alley from the Niemiecka. it was entirely surrounded by houses of prayer and study of varied size and different degrees of antiquity, and embodied within its limited ambit more of the memories and legends, and of the aspirations and sufferings of Vilna Jewry over a period of five hundred years than any equivalent piece of earth in any other Jewish community in Europe. During the greater part of this period the Schulhof was the focus of ll the manifold activities of the community -- religious, administrative, judicial,intellectual and social -- and even in recent times it continued to dominate its religious and cultural life."
"Here were formerly situated those institutions so vital to conformity with ritual tradition -- the slaughter-house and the baths, which have long ago been removed to more suitable locations. Here were the offices of the Kahal, from where all the affairs of the community were administered, and also the courthouse of the Bet Din, where the judges deliberated upon the many vexing questions submitted to their wisdom and authority. Here too, as is recorded on a wall, was situated the well from which the Jews of the whole adjacent area used to obtain their water. For, although the municipality was obliged to provide them with water as one of the services for which they paid an annual tax, the Jews were nevertheless obliged to procure their own supply from the neighboring Vingari wells by special agreement, made in 1759, with the Dominican monks, whom they paid 200 gulden a year. These monks, who had acquired the wells from Lithuanian magnates, allowed the Jews to convey the water by means of wooden pipes to the synagogue courtyard, but to no other place. Thirty years later another agreement was made with them for an additional supply of water through a special pipe to the communal baths"
"The Schulhof was thus the busiest place in the ghetto. It was frequented not only by those who had some particular business to transact, but also by those in quest of the latest news or gossip. Here rabbis and scholars, romancers and poets, philosophers and ghetto politicians, would perambulate for an airing, for friendly discussion, or for solemn reflection; and here merchants, returned from an adventurous journey to Muscovy or Prussia, would eagerly relate what was happening in the outside world. It was, moreover, the object of pilgrimage of all, however mighty, who came from other lands and heard of the Schulhof's fame. Napoleon thrilled the Jewish throng when, during his brief halt in Vilna in 1812, he bestrode the secluded courtyard in wonderment. Thirty-four years later, Sir Moses Montefiore, aroused feelings of less awe but deeper veneration when he was conducted around by a galaxy of grey-bearded rabbis and savants."
-- Israel Cohen, Vilna (Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1943), pp. 102-104.
Cohen goes on in much greater detail to describe the Great Synagogue and many of the buildings around the Shulhoyf, especially synagogues and study houses. A detailed history and description of the synagogue and the prayer houses of the Shulhoyf can also be found in the recent authoritative Synagogues of Lithuania: a Catalogue, vol. 2 N-Z (Vilnius academy of Arts Press, 2012), 281 ff.

In 1935, about the same time Cohen visited Vilna, Marc Chagall painted the interior of the Gaon's Kloyz

Marc Chagall. The Gaon's Kloyz (no 7), interior view towards southeast. Oil on canvas, 1935. Photo: Synagogues of Lithuania, vol. 2, N-Z, 299.

Since Lithuania attained independence in 1990 there has been on again off again discussion of building something significant at the former synagogue site, including even the far-fetched idea of rebuilding the structure entirely.  In 1989, an international competition was held by the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Lithuania and the Vilnius City Municipality for the creation of the Great Synagogue Memorial In 1990, the competition was won by Israeli architect Tsila Zak in cooperation with Swedish sculptor Willy Gordon. The memorial design integrates actual remains of the original synagogue found through excavation, with reconstruction of representative parts of the original complex supplemented by symbolic architecture. Contracts were signed with the artists only in 2011. That was the year that some excavation were carried out to pinpoint the exact location of the synagogue and to ascertain what material aspects survive. 

 Vilnius, Lithuania. Site of Great Synagogue, Archaeological excavation, 2011. Photo: courtesy Lithuanian Ministry of Culture.

Vilnius, Lithuania. Site of Great Synagogue, Archaeological excavation, 2011. Photo: courtesy Lithuanian Ministry of Culture.

Vilnius, Lithuania. Site of Great Synagogue, Archaeological excavation, 2011. Photo: courtesy Lithuanian Ministry of Culture.
Following the 2011 excavations and follow-up research, this past summer (2015) Jon Seligman, director of the Excavations, Surveys and Research Department of Israel Antiquities Authority, led a team to carry out a non-invasive geophysical investigation (ground-penetrating radar) of the site. Seligman and his Lithuania colleagues plan to carry out further actual excavation in the near future (2016), assuming sufficient funds are raised.

Some of results of this research were published in the popular press: GPR reveals buried grand synagogue of Vilnius etc.  More can be learned on the project website“When you talk about the synagogue you have to talk about the whole complex,” Seligman told The Times of Israel. “We have a good understanding of the synagogue and a poor understanding of the complex.” According to the project website initial work will concentrate on the the exposure of the Great Synagogue, part of the Gaon‘s Kloyz and of the bathhouse with the mikveh. 

In 2011, Lithuanian Prime Minister Andrius Kubilius visited the site and said: "The Great Synagogue and the excavations are important not only for Lithuania, but for the global Jewish community. It is a powerful symbol of both a great Jewish heritage, a great tragedy when the entire Jewish community was destroyed, and it is a very powerful symbol for the Jewish future. … The Great Synagogue is not only about Jewish history, it is a particularly important element in Lithuania’s history of the colorful and multi-ethnic Vilnius." 

Vilnius, Lithuania. Great Synagogue interior. Photo:  postcard.

Meanwhile, we are hopeful that as this excavation work moves forward, the Municipality of Vilnius will also step up the pace of removing and returning the many now-known Jewish gravestones that were removed from the Uzupis Cemetery in the 1960s and after and used for building material around the city. It would be an shame and an embarrassment to break ground on excavation of the Great Synagogue while these stones are still used as steps on a church and for other unsuitable purposes.

Read more about the Shulhoyf and Great Synagogue archaeology at the project website and Facebook page: