The current discussion and division of judicial and governmental opinion regarding the abandoned synagogues of Gush Katif is a painful reminder of the fate of other synagogue buildings the world over.
It should be obvious to all that, for synagogue buildings to serve their intended purpose, there must be living Jews present in them to use the facility. Otherwise the synagogue building remains just that a building but not a living institution. Nevertheless, Halacha invests the building with a certain holiness, simply by the fact that it once served as a synagogue, even when it is no longer used by Jews. It is this halachic view that serves as an important part of the wrangling over the fate of the Gush Katif synagogues.
I do not wish to enter into this halachic discussion in this article. I wish rather to point out the fate of abandoned Jewish synagogue buildings throughout our long exile. Examples of this can be found strewn around our own Land of Israel as well Jericho and Joseph's Tomb near Nablus come to mind immediately. And the most painful reminder of our forced abandonment of our holiest places is naturally the Temple Mount in Jerusalem itself. From the time of Ezra onward, the holiness of the Temple Mount is in place. It is unnecessary for me to point out that, in spite of this, the Temple Mount has for centuries been the location of non-Jewish houses of worship. It is therefore at one and the same time the symbol of our hopeful future and a reminder of our very painful past.
IN TOLEDO, Spain, there is an ancient synagogue building dating back to the 12th century. The building has served as a mosque and mostly as a church over its millennial life. Today it is a non-denominational historical building a national museum type of building. There are great buildings in Spain that still retain the grand Hebrew writing on their walls and ceilings that once identified the buildings as Jewish houses of prayer. These are also museums today, but for long periods of time they were churches.
All over Eastern Europe, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, there are buildings that once were synagogues or yeshivot that today are warehouses, laundries or schools. No Jews, no synagogue, seems to be the logical conclusion. Many cities and towns in Europe (ironically, especially in Germany), which are now completely bereft of any Jewish population, have nevertheless rebuilt the synagogue building that once stood in their community, and care for it meticulously. Even though many of the synagogues of Germany were destroyed on Kristallnacht and thereafter, and even in communities where there is no current Jewish population, synagogue buildings still exist. They serve as a stark reminder, a silent sentry to the events of the 20th century.
IN AMERICA, there is a plethora of abandoned synagogues. This situation came about when demographic, social and economic changes emptied certain neighborhoods of their Jewish population. The synagogue buildings were left behind, either boarded up or sold to others to serve as their houses of worship. The old Lawndale area of Chicago where I grew up had over 40 synagogues in its area and most of them were housed in imposing, even magnificent buildings. I drove through that neighborhood a few years ago, haunted by nostalgia and memories. The neighborhood has deteriorated badly, becoming a den of drug lords and tough gangs. The synagogue buildings, including the beloved synagogue building in which I grew up and where my father served as rabbi for so many years, are mainly burned-out, boarded-up shells, while a few of them serve as churches.
The golden American exile also lists synagogue buildings as casualties of constant Jewish societal change and restlessness the hallmarks of the exile, according to the Talmud. In Detroit, the Jewish neighborhood "changed" so often that one of its largest congregations' successive synagogue buildings kept on being sold to the same church as both groups moved on to more upscale neighborhoods. The church, only half-jokingly, finally asked for representation on the synagogue's building committee when the new synagogue edifice was going to be planned.
Wherever Jews lived, synagogue buildings were constructed. But because of the realities of the exile, sooner or later, all were abandoned by the Jews, either voluntarily or forcibly. It is just that we did not think that such a fate could await synagogues in modern-day Israel. Gush Katif has proven us wrong in our na ve belief.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator (rabbiwein.com).