Praying for the past

Praying for the past

By BATSHEVA POMERANTZ
November 29, 2009 14:40
4 minute read.
bouxwiller synagogue 248.88

bouxwiller synagogue 248.88. (photo credit: )

 
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For Dr. Michel Rothe, documenting Jewish sites in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France is his life's mission. Rothe's latest endeavor is a hazzanut concert of the Rhine Valley liturgy to take place on December 1 at the Ramban Synagogue of which he is an active member. Cantors Claude Hoenel of France and Michel Heymann of Luxembourg will perform liturgical pieces from the Shabbat and holiday services, accompanied by the Zimratya Choir of Jerusalem, conducted by Dr. Uri Aharon. Heymann is one of the last cantors to preserve the Ashkenazi liturgical tradition of the Rhine Valley, particularly Alsace-Lorraine. Rothe, a Jerusalem dentist and amateur photographer, made aliya from Alsace in 1983. He was born in Mulhouse, where he prayed at the local synagogue built in 1849 near the Protestant church. "I learned Hebrew with Pastor Moural. Like many clergymen, he studied Hebrew for theological research. Moural was recognized as a Righteous Gentile for helping Jews go to Switzerland during the Holocaust," he says. During his youth, Rothe photographed Jewish sites in the region. Later on, he was requested by the Consistoire, which represents French Jews, to document synagogues in the entire region. About 200 synagogues are described in the book Synagogues in Alsace and Its Communities throughout the Generations, which Rothe co-wrote with his father-in-law, the late Rabbi Max Warschawski, who was chief rabbi of Strasbourg and the Lower Rhine region. The book, published in 1992, is often the final documentation of synagogues that have disappeared, especially in the villages. Hebrew inscriptions on buildings and tombstones, as well as mezuza slots in doorposts, are evidence of Jewish communities in Alsace from the 10th century. Denied civil rights, Jews were forbidden to join professional guilds. They worked mainly as peddlers, money lenders and in the animal trade. In the 14th century, Jews were accused of poisoning wells, which caused the Black Plague. Pogroms raged throughout Alsace, and Jewish property was confiscated. Entire communities were burnt down - including Strasbourg, Bergheim, Colmar, Mulhouse. Elsewhere Jews were expelled. Although granted permission to eventually return, they encountered severe restrictions, such as limiting marriage to curb their number. Jews remained in the villages working in trade and supplying food to armies passing through the region. Until the French Revolution, only two synagogues remained. Rothe notes: "The French Revolution heralded a period of equal rights, markedly improving the situation of the Jews. New synagogues were built." In 1870 Alsace was conquered by the Germans, who ruled there until 1918. Some Alsatian synagogues kept a low profile and were housed in regular buildings. During the Holocaust, Alsatian Jews were harmed less than the rest of French Jewry. Many escaped to Switzerland or elsewhere. In Bouxwiller near Strasbourg, the Nazis turned the synagogue into an armaments factory. Reverting to its original use after the war, it was then sold by the dwindling community to a supermarket owner at the beginning of the 1980s. Gilbert Weil, a local architect, foiled the plans. Instead a museum was founded with a small-scale reconstruction of the original synagogue, with many artifacts on display. Today between 16,000 and 20,000 Jews live in Alsace, mainly in Strasbourg, Mulhouse and Colmar. Some Alsatian Jews made aliya. One of the region's synagogues will also make aliya. "My grandparents prayed in the synagogue in Sarre-Union," says Rothe. "There are plans to bring the synagogue's interior to a synagogue that is slated for Tzur Hadassah, where the grandson of one of Sarre-Union's community leaders lives." Another project of Rothe's is the "Judaism of Alsace-Lorraine" Web site, which documents all aspects of Jewish life in this region which borders France, Germany and Switzerland. The comprehensive Web site, with about 3,000 hits a day, originates from Jerusalem. The wealth of information on the French-language Web site covers the history, cuisine, customs, synagogues, dialect, news, and biographies of rabbis and cantors, writers, politicians and artists of the region, as well as Jewish life in Luxembourg and parts of Switzerland, all connected to the Rhine Valley area. "I feel a mission in my work on the Web site. People send photos, rare recordings or texts that would otherwise disappear," says Rothe. The Ramban Synagogue, built over 40 years ago, has been led since 2001 by Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Lau. "We are not just a place of prayer," says synagogue board member Marcel Lasowsky, "but a community emphasizing mutual help and involvement on social issues as part of religious commitment. This is thanks to Rav Benny's putting this on the agenda and working together with such organizations as Bema'aglei Tzedek [Wheels of Justice]." In recent years, new members have joined the vibrant community. Classes are held in Hebrew and English. Synagogue members volunteer in many ways. The synagogue reaches out to the secular, who are welcomed to hold bar mitzva celebrations. The concert takes place on Tuesday, December 1, at 8 p.m. at the Ramban Synagogue, 4 Rehov Amatzia, German Colony. Tickets available at the event; minimum NIS 100.

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