New Roles for Old Synagogues

A Jerusalem couple documents European synagogues that survived WWII but lost their Jews

25joe (photo credit: Dorfman)
(photo credit: Dorfman)
Extract of an article in Issue 25, March 31, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. "Was your family from here, dear?" Rivka and Ben-Zion Dorfman heard that question time and again during their visits to Central Europe in the late 1980s. Why else, the townfolk thought, would anyone travel to an all-but-unknown village in formerly communist countries such as Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Serbia and Croatia, if not for family reasons? But the townfolk were surprised by the answer. A lively, determined, then-sexagenarian retired couple from Jerusalem were there to document synagogues in the small towns and hamlets that had lost their Jewish congregations. When villagers would protest that this was a waste of time because there was no longer a synagogue to be seen, only a structure that is now a factory or a derelict building, the couple would respond, "That's exactly why we're here." The indefatigable Dorfmans, who came to Israel for the first time from New York in 1948, have been at this project for over 20 years following their retirement. Rivka, now 83, taught kindergarten, and Ben-Zion, 84, was a biologist. Over the past two decades, they made seven visits to Western and Central Europe, documented 360 synagogues dating from the 15th to the 20th centuries, digitized 22,000 photographs, transcribed tapes of locals who remembered the pre-WWII synagogues and the Jews who inhabited them, have given hundreds of lectures, produced a photographic exhibition at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem and published a book, "Synagogues Without Jews and the Communities that Built and Used Them" (Jewish Publication Society, 2000). They no longer travel, spending their time, aided immeasurably by dedicated volunteers, in archiving the material already gathered. Their investigations into synagogues may seem surprising, because they are staunchly secular. "We see the synagogue as an expression of Jewish art," says Rivka, "which does not need a religious outlook to appreciate it." "The synagogues that we concentrate on are those without Jewish communities to care for them," says Rivka, interviewed in their comfortable home/office in Jerusalem's French Hill neighborhood. Athough some are derelict or are used as factories or warehouses, many have been restored or renovated, and serve as Jewish institutions, such as museums; secular institutions like community centers or libraries, or churches. The Dorfmans directed their research to Central Europe, instead of taking on the daunting task of Eastern Europe, especially Poland and Ukraine." We were more interested in analyzing a smaller number in depth. Some towns we have visited up to five times," says Rivka. "And remember, we were also in our 60s and retired," she adds. The rehabilitations for Jewish purposes undertaken by the local municipalities is most often not simple lip service to the past, but are thoughtfully and competently conceived and carried out. "Many municipal officials, educators and townspeople have a desire to come to grips with their past," she says, adding that the Dorfmans' research may be the catalyst for the renovations, but the couple does not have a formal role in decision-making. The Dorfmans often began their research by visiting major cities that had a Jewish community. "That's where our leads came from," explains Ben-Zion. And after locating a synagogue, the elderly couple had to contend with the problems of gaining entry to abandoned structures. "We started our hunt for the key with the mayor's office, but these were towns in the boondocks, and there might not even be a municipality building to turn to," Ben-Zion recollects. In one case, they received very unconventional advice from the local priest. "He fetched us a ladder and told us to climb over the synagogue fence and lower ourselves on a tree on the other side. He told us that the back door is missing. 'Walk right in,' he said mischievously." Ben-Zion mentions that the priest was still waiting for them when they returned to the fence an hour later. Once inside, the camera covers came off and the Dorfmans got to work. "The first object we looked for is the Torah ark. If there wasn't one, we searched for the niche where the ark had been," Rivka says. "One must take extensive photographs," says Ben-Zion. "You never know what will become important later on." Other useful tools were the ruler and the compass. Careful measurements led the Dorfmans to discover that one synagogue floor plan was aligned on a strict east-west axis to accommodate the Torah ark's east end placement, even though this distorted its parallelism to the sidewalk and flanking buildings. Inside an abandoned building, there was also the risk of being injured while walking on jagged masonry, glass shards and nail-studded beams. "Plus the danger of collapse," interjects Ben-Zion. Once, he almost walked off a stairwell to visit the women's gallery. There was none. "Vandals had removed the floorboards," he recounts. Traveling also proved to be physically straining. "Since the small towns were so close to each other (5-8 kms), we could spend an hour or so in one place and then be off to the next. Some long summer days, we pushed ourselves to as many as seven," says Rivka. Communication was also a challenge. The Dorfmans speak a passable German but were in no way prepared to take on Czech or Hungarian. "We had little cards that said 'Where is the synagogue?' in the appropriate language, says Ben-Zion. "We only asked white-haired people for direction," Rivka adds, figuring that the older generation would still remember. It all started during a summer vacation in 1987. Rivka had taken courses in Renaissance art at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and after retiring wished to travel to the major centers of Italian art. They got no further than Rome before they became enamored with synagogues, especially the 4th-century CE synagogue at Ostia, the ancient port of Rome. "There was something about the quiet dignity of these abandoned synagogues that touched us. It was as if they [the synagogues] were waiting patiently, but futilely, for their congregations to return, " Rivka says. They quickly narrowed their focus and changed direction. Their battle cry became, "the Renaissance can wait." Rome may be known as the Eternal City, she states, "but the synagogues' time was quickly running out." Rivka recounts their first foray, tracking down synagogues in Piedmont in northwest Italy, following advice from Jews in Rome about the wealth of synagogue architecture in the north. "You have to remember that 20 years ago, there was very little information about European synagogue architecture, so we were really excited. It felt like we were following a hot tip," she said. The Jews of Turin, the capital of Piedmont, were eager to help them. "We arrived on Israel's Independence Day. They were in a joyful mood and happy to direct us in the right direction," says Ben-Zion. They organized a route for the Dorfmans to take to the smaller, rural synagogues, many of which were owned and maintained by Turin Jewish communal organizations. The picturesque communities like Casale Monferrato, Cuneo and Mondivi reflected, Ben-Zion says, the prohibitions in the Middle Ages against Jews dwelling in metropolitan areas. "What researchers there were back in the 80s didn't bother with any synagogue that wasn't in a big city, so we had the field to ourselves," Ben-Zion states. Since the couple was the first to undertake a comprehensive study of town and village synagogue architecture, they encountered a great deal of skepticism from researchers in the field. "You want to go to Hungary? There's nothing left," Ben-Zion mimics the voice and gesture of a scholar who dismissed his project out of hand. "It's true, we were amateurs with no architectural training," Ben-Zion admits. "But we brought our love of Jewish art and history to do something before the bulldozers and whitewashers had their way." The Dorfmans both have encyclopedic knowledge of the subject, do the research, take the photographs and worry about the details. Their recall of names and dates is close to total, and in the few cases where memory fails them, the answer is most likely on the coffee table on one or other list. Extract of an article in Issue 25, March 31, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.