Netherlands synagogue invitation-only due to antisemitism fears

The synagogue in Groningen was once home to a thriving community, but the Holocaust and growing antisemitism has left the community a shadow of its former self.

The interior of Groningen synagogue.  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The interior of Groningen synagogue.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
A synagogue in the Netherlands that once counted over 1000 members among its congregation on high holidays now operates on an invitation-only basis due to growing antisemitism in Europe.
Before the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands in 1940, Grongingen was home to a thriving Jewish community of over 2,800 Jews. The Jewish quarter featured kosher butchers, bakers famous for their challah, and Groningen's domed synagogue, large enough to hold a congregation numbering 1,000 worshipers on High Holy Days, Politico reported.
But by the end of the war almost the entire population had been wiped out, with some Jewish Groningers losing over 100 family members each. Some survived the camps, others were able to hide or escape deportation, but many drifted away from a city filled with painful memories.
Unable to sustain a congregation, the synagogue was sold off and first turned into a laundromat, its stained-glass windows smashed out to make way for steam pipes, as explained by Politico. By the 1970s it had fallen into disrepair, saved from demolition by only one vote in the municipal council.
A campaign by a young Jewish woman from Amsterdam reversed the building's fortunes; it was reopened in 1981, and its Torah scrolls, said to have survived by being hidden in a bank vault, were returned to the head of the synagogue.
However, the worshipers have not returned, partially due to ongoing antisemitism in Europe which drives the congregation to maintain a low profile.
On the Jewish New Year, the synagogue had too few men to make up a minyan, and those in attendance had to depart disappointed.
In part, the low numbers are due to the fact that the synagogue doesn't post any notice of its services online, nor does it make its presence felt. Instead, members send each other WhatsApp messages to confirm attendance for Shabbat services on Saturday mornings, and are encouraged to vet visitors at the entrance.
Alex Farber, 18, a New Yorker who is studying in Groningen, missed a number of holidays before he became aware that the community existed. Eventually he was introduced having made friends with fellow Jewish students. He had to bring identification with him, and to make his plans to attend known in advance.
“It was actively difficult,” he told Politico. “My synagogue [in New York] posts every service on its website.”
Local police keep watch on the synagogue during services, and the community has an emergency plan in case of attack. But members of the congregation knew people affected by the 2015 shooting at the Great Synagogue of Copenhagen, and others caught up in the Yom Kippur attack on a synagogue in Halle, Germany this year.
“History is getting forgotten,” said David Gurov, 20, whose friend was inside the barricaded Halle synagogue when a gunman tried to force his way in.
“The layer that was holding back antisemitism from growing has been breached,” he added, speaking to Politico.
According to the report, a recent survey taken in 12 European countries by the European Agency for Fundamental Rights found that a large majority of Europe's Jews feel antisemitism has increased over the last five years. Many are reticent about wearing anything that would identify them as Jewish in public spaces. A quarter of respondents said they had experienced antisemitism within the last year.
“I’m concerned about antisemitism becoming normalized, and slipping into the mainstream,” Tom Burghard, 20, told Politico. He said he had noticed an increasing sense that the Holocaust was becoming a part of history, distancing young people from the realities of antisemitism.
“If it’s not a physical attack, people don’t take it seriously,” he said. “They don’t understand this is how it starts.”
Members of Groningen's synagogue are among those to have had a brush with antisemitism recently: when services are not being held, the main entrance and half of the hall is open to the public as a secular space, playing host to art exhibitions and concerts.
During one such event, held in remembrance of the deportation and murder of the residents of a Jewish home for the elderly in the 1940s, a member of the public entered and became argumentative, blaming Jews for society's problems.
But while the incident put some members of the congregation on edge, others are refusing to give in to fear.
“They say after a massacre it takes 200 years for people not to be afraid anymore. I’m not going to be around for 200 years,” said Judith Klop, speaking to Politico. She was attending the service with her two young adult sons.
“I decided not to be afraid,” she said.