Preserving heritage for Jews and their cities in the Diaspora

Saving a historic Welsh synagogue and other beautiful, abandoned Jewish houses of worship.

The former Merthyr Synagogue in South Wales is believed to be one of the oldest Synagogues still standing in Wales  (photo credit: CHRIS ANDREWS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
The former Merthyr Synagogue in South Wales is believed to be one of the oldest Synagogues still standing in Wales
(photo credit: CHRIS ANDREWS/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
Somewhere in the town of Merthyr Tydfil, Wales, sits a majestic Gothic-style synagogue replete with tall gables and a traditional Welsh dragon on top. Once home to a significant and thriving Jewish community, it has sat empty for the past 10 years.
So what do you do with a building after the community that built it has gone?
That’s where the Foundation for Jewish Heritage comes in. The London-based charity has dedicated itself to saving gorgeous, historic synagogues in danger around the world, thus preserving not only Jewish heritage, but that of the cities where they were built.
Foundation CEO Michael Mail is working on what he calls “adaptive reuse,” which preserves the buildings’ value while giving them a contemporary purpose.
“Buildings that had become meaningless can be meaningful again,” he stated, explaining that it wasn’t just Jewish heritage they were remembering, but that of an entire city.
Mail spoke with the Magazine about their unique rescue operations around the world and the Wales project in particular, which recently received major backing from wealthy benefactors.
In the 19th century, during the industrial revolution, Merthyr Tydfil was a boom town, and for 50 years was home to one of the most important iron works in the world.
This attracted workers from all over, including Jews who settled in the area. The thriving Jewish community built an impressive castle-like synagogue in 1877, one of three in town.
“I assumed it was a chapel or church and they had taken it over when I first saw it,” Mail told the Magazine, “but in fact it is the oldest still-standing purpose-built synagogue in Wales.”
The Gothic Revival-style building was awarded Grade-II listed status, making it formally recognized as a heritage site, and today it is one of the most important synagogue buildings in the United Kingdom.
The story of the Jewish community’s migration is also the story of the rise and decline of the industrial age. Once workers from all over flocked to Merthyr for good jobs in a thriving industry. In the 19th century, it was the largest city in Wales.
But as technology developed, jobs dried up, families moved out and the synagogue closed in 1983. Today, Mail says, there are officially no more Jews in Merthyr.
The building was used for other purposes, and since 2006 it has sat empty and deteriorating.
“Holes are in the roof and pigeons are coming in,” Mail lamented, “to such an extent that it was formally listed as a building-at-risk by the heritage authorities.
“We were told if we didn’t intervene, it may not be there in the next few years,” he stated. In 2008, plans were drawn up to convert the building into residential apartments.
PREVIOUSLY REJECTED proposals included turning the unused synagogue into a gym or office space. The stunning Star of David stained-glass window would have remained, according to the proposal, which in the end never came to fruition.
The foundation purchased the building in 2019 and now hopes to turn it into a museum.
Star of David stained-glass window in the Wales synagogue (Credit: FOUNDATION FOR JEWISH HERITAGE)Star of David stained-glass window in the Wales synagogue (Credit: FOUNDATION FOR JEWISH HERITAGE)
Supporters of the project include comedian and actor David Baddiel, who is of Welsh heritage, and venture capitalist Sir Michael Moritz, whose parents fled Nazi Germany for Wales, where Moritz was born and went on to become a successful investor in companies such as Yahoo, YouTube and Google, where he served as a board member.
It has also attracted backing from various members of the Welsh Parliament and the local council.
Dawn Bowden, member of the Senedd/Welsh Parliament for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, stated, “This is great news for the town, as this significant building moves ever closer to being restored and can therefore play a part in our future, as it did in the past.
Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council Cabinet Member for Regeneration and Public Protection Cllr Geraint Thomas added, “The synagogue is a prominent landmark building within the Thomastown Conservation Area and an extremely important part of the town center’s historic landscape. So we’re delighted that funding has been secured to ensure its future is looking very bright, and that it will become another feature in our ever-growing tourism offer.”
“The museum will tell about the 250-year-old history of the Welsh Jewish community, their lives and contributions within Wales,” stated Mail, but it will also serve a contemporary purpose: to share the story of the diversity of communities that all contributed to the history of Wales.” Mail sees the future center as a place of interfaith and intercultural dialogue.
“This is an educational project to build an understanding of what is Jewish heritage, Welsh heritage and European heritage,” he said. “We want to combat ignorance, prejudice and antisemitism.”
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Mail studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Brandeis University in Boston.
“I always had a passion for history, and of course Jewish history is remarkably tragic and dramatic.” When he discovered there was no organization working internationally on the preservation of historic buildings, he decided promote the vision himself.
“I think preserving Jewish heritage has been a Cinderella story – largely neglected. And the reasons are trauma,” he explained.
“We are losing our history,” Mail said. “The story of the 20th century is that the Jewish people moved.”
FOR CENTURIES, the centers of Jewish life were in Warsaw, Vilna, and Baghdad, Mail explained, but today, those communities are gone and the centers of Jewish life are in Israel and the United States.
“At the beginning of the 20th century, nine out of 10 Jews lived in Europe, and today it is one out of 10,” he said.
Mail gave the example of another synagogue the foundation is working to preserve, the Great Synagogue in Slonim, Belarus.
Slonim had a significant Jewish population for generations. Only 200 of that population survived World War II, and today there are none. Mail called the synagogue, “the last evidence of the vibrant Jewish life that existed for centuries,” and lamented that from 1945, the building was used to store furniture.
The foundation’s work is not limited to Europe, however, and teams have researched buildings in Arab and Muslim countries to preserve what remains of the Jewish culture that once flourished in the Middle East and North Africa. The foundation has identified 368 Jewish heritage sites in Iraq and Syria. One third of Baghdad’s population was Jewish at the turn of the 20th century, and the community played an important role within wider society.
Great Synagogue of Slonim, Berlarus, as it appears today (Credit: FOUNDATION FOR JEWISH HERITAGE)Great Synagogue of Slonim, Berlarus, as it appears today (Credit: FOUNDATION FOR JEWISH HERITAGE)
The Medieval Synagogue in Hijar, Spain, is another project the Foundation hopes to undertake.
“It has been a church for the last 500 years, but is only used currently for church services once a year,” Mail said. “The mayor wants to turn it into a Sephardi heritage center.”
Today, the Israel Museum in Jerusalem features an exhibition called The Synagogue Route, in which portions of historic synagogues have been removed, saved and preserved. Museum visitors can wander past decorative windows, pulpits and arks on display from Jewish communities as diverse as Germany, India and Suriname.
Mail explains, “The heritage attitude today is not to remove a building from its setting unless there is a very urgent need to do so. In order to understand, you need to see it in its context. It is part of that country’s national story too. It’s a shared heritage.”
Mail illustrated the point by telling a story of when he visited Poland. A local high school was doing a project on the pre-war Jewish community of their town and conducted a tour of the neighborhoods, pointing out various buildings that used to serve a Jewish function.
“I asked the 16-year-old who was escorting me, ‘How would you respond to a person who questioned why you are doing this, when there are no Jews here anymore?’ And she looked at me and answered, ‘This is the history of our town.’ I thought that was a good answer.”
For more information on the Merthyr Tydfil synagogue and other preservation projects:
www.foundationforjewishheritage.com/