Experience a unique and incredible journey through Poland spanning 1000 years of Polish Jewish history and culminating with the reawakening of Jewish life in Poland today. Prior to WWII, Poland was home to the largest and most vibrant Jewish community in Europe. It was referred to as the epicenter of Jewish learning and culture for hundreds of years. More than sixty years after the Holocaust, Poland is once again home to a Jewish community proud of its heritage and culture. Join us as we explore the past, encounter the present and look ahead to the future!
Coming Together: The Shabbat Project, Midburn Festival, and InDNegev
Jewish Spirituality in Food and Music
Jewish spiritually exists outside the four walls of a synagogue found in the weekly rituals and everyday lives of the community. Every week Jews around the world come together at the Shabbat table for food, singing, and family. We are reminded of the importance of fostering good relations with one another. That it is necessary to not only feed our bodies but feed our emotional bonds.
This October in Israel you can experience the full scope of Jewish spirituality through community, Shabbat food, and plenty of music. Sit down at an international Shabbat table or head out to the Negev to experience a variety of music festivals hosted in Israel’s holy desert (InDNegev & Midburn).
InDNegev: Israel’s Reigning Indie Music Festival
The desert has always been a place of discovery and transformation for the Jewish people. What better place than to discover the newest and brightest of Israel’s music stars. Held near the historic Mitzpe Gevulot InDNegev gives independent Israeli artists the opportunity to reach a wider audience. This festival is truly a mix of any and all upcoming and traditional Israeli genres. This year's lineup will include Jasmine Mualem, Mercedes Band, Lola Marsh, Red Axes and many more.
After the pandemic year these artists are bursting at the seems to showcase the fruits of their labors. Performances are held at six different stage venues and the camping accommodations for this year have been stepped up. Festival patrons can expect a bar complex and multiple food vendors from across Israel. Music forms and strengthens a community spirit. So come together for some good times and great music at InDNegev. This three day long music experience begins on September 30th so don’t wait too long to buy your tickets!
From the Desert to Dessert: The Shabbat Project
The Jewish people are an international nation. For this reason you are likely to find a Shabbat dinner in any country you’ll visit. Oftentimes most Shabbat dinners are “open invite.” This contributes to the formation of new connections, making strangers into friends. The Shabbat Project is one such dinner that goes the extra mile to connect Jews from around the world with a cholent pot. Hundreds of participants gather every year (both online and in person) to dine together and share in the spiritual joy and connection of Shabbat.
Whether you are alone for Shabbat, need advice on hosting your own dinner, or seek other Friday night loving people this event is all you need. This year's Israeli Shabbat Project will take place on October 22nd in Kohav Yair. However, events will be hosted both online and in person around the globe. Be sure to check out The Shabbat Project on their website for a full list of all upcoming events near you.
Midburn Festival: Shabbat Spirit in the Holy Desert
Community and gratitude are the twin pillars of Jewish spirituality. This is something that is practiced at the Shabbat table and also at this year’s Midburn Festival on October 25th. This five day extravaganza in the Negev was conceived around the same ten principles developed by Burning Man creator Larry Harvey in 2004. These are immediacy, leaving no trace, radical self reliance, radical inclusion, radical self expression, participation, gifting, decommodification, communal effort, and civic responsibility. This year's theme is “return” symbolizing a return to community life, creativity in numbers, and artistic participation in a post pandemic world.
To its attendees, the Midburn Festival is considered to be much more than a music event in a holy desert. During those five days an entire city and culture is created out of thin air. The festival even has its own language expressed through dynamic symbols. There are no spectators or visitors in Midburn. Everyone is an equal participant in creating and maintaining the artistic joy of the city. In many ways the Midburn Festival can be compared to a spiritual pilgrimage. At the end of the journey the large wooden sculptures that adorned the desert landscape are set on fire. This honors two of the ten festival principles, to leave no trace and community participation.
Sparks of Creation
Spirituality is rooted in every part of creation but none more so than in food and music. As human beings we pour ourselves into our creations. When we eat a meal someone has prepared for us or listen to a piece of music they have composed we share in their spirit. These are also some of the most intimate activities we can share with others. Experiencing good food and good music together can break down the highest walls between people. So generate some spiritual sparks of creation into your life and don’t miss out on these amazing Shabbat and Israeli music festival experiences!
The Together Plan empowers communities in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe to learn how to help themselves. We help communities to see what can be achieved collectively, and work with community members to develop skills and provide the training necessary to realise their vision.
We help to set up and run projects which community members of all ages can benefit from and participate in. At the same time, we promote responsible and transparent leadership, which is vital to develop the genuine friendship and trust necessary for a community’s survival. Ultimately, our communities will become self-sufficient both financially and in their activities – at which point we will step back, watching the community progress from strength to strength.
Midburn is a 5-day event which takes place annually in the Negev desert near Sde Boker. This event is heavily inspired by the famous "Burning Man" festival and is considered to be the regional equivalent. As such the event features incredible art and statue displays which are burned on the final night. While the event has parties it is not considered a music festival, rather encompasses themes such as spirituality, creativity, self-expression, community and much much more.
InDnegev is a 3-day long music and art festival which takes place annually in the Negev desert. The festival is known for giving a platform and stage for up and coming independent Israeli artists, so much so its earned the nickname IndieNegev. The festival was started in 2007 and has been going strong ever since. If you're a fan of indie art and music you don't want to miss this festival, expected to take place in Mitzpe Gvulot in the Negev.
Augmented with historical footage
The capital of Belarus, Minsk is a beautiful city with a rich historical heritage that was largely promoted by the Jewish population. Jews began to populate Minsk actively in the 16th century, and since that time their number has only grown. It is hard to believe that from the middle of the 19th century until the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, Minsk was a predominantly Jewish city - 52% of the capital's population were Jews, and this was the city's largest community.
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From the beginning of the 14th century until 1793, Minsk was part of Poland-Lithuania; it later fell under czarist rule and became the most important commercial center of Belarus from the 15th century. At the same time, the first Jews appeared on the territory of modern Belarus, during the era of the existence of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. The Jews who lived there in this medieval state and their descendants are still called "Litvaks". The Jewish community of Minsk prospered during the 17th and 18th centuries in spite of the opposition of the townspeople.
During the 19th century, Minsk was one of the largest and most important communities in Russia. In 1847 the Jewish population numbered 12,976, rising to 47,562 (52.3% of the total population) in 1897, which made Minsk the fourth largest community in the Pale of Settlement.
Minsk was one of the places where the Jewish labor movement originated and developed. In the middle of the 1870s circles of Jewish Socialists were organized, which were very active during the 1880s and 1890s. The years 1893–94 also saw the birth of the "national opposition" to them, led by A. Liessin. In 1895 a convention of Jewish Socialists was held in Minsk, which discussed the projected establishment of a Jewish Socialist Federation. The Jewish Socialists of Minsk sent delegates to the founding convention of the Bund in 1897, and Minsk became one of the centers of the Bund's activities, being the first seat of the movement's central committee until 1898, when it was dispersed by the police. From 1901 to 1903, Minsk likewise became the center of the activities of the Independent Jewish Workers' Party.
[caption id="attachment_28528" align="alignnone" width="1824"] Photograph by The Together Plan - subject to copyright ©[/caption]
After the establishment of the Soviet regime, Jewish communal and religious life was silenced at Minsk as elsewhere in the Soviet Union. The suppressed religious and national institutions were replaced by institutions of Jewish culture based on the Yiddish language and Communist ideology, and Minsk became an important center of Jewish-Communist cultural activity in the Soviet Union. Moreover, until 1936, Yiddish was the state language of the BSSR together with the Belarusian, Russian and Polish languages.
Yiddish schools were established, and at the Institute of Belorussian Culture, founded in 1924, a Jewish section was organized. It published several scientific works devoted to Jewish history, literature, and folklore. A Jewish department was also established (1921) within the faculty of education of the University of Minsk. These institutions, however, were closed down in the mid-1930s. Various newspapers, periodicals, and other publications in Yiddish were issued in the town. These included the daily newspaper Der Shtern (1918–21), Der Veker (1917–25; until 1921 the organ of the Bund), Oktyabr (1925–41), and the literary monthly Shtern (1925–41). In 1926 the Belorussian Jewish State Theater was opened, presenting performances until June 1941. In 1926 there were 53,686 Jews in Minsk (40.8% of the population), increasing to 70,998 by 1939 (29.7% of the total population).
[caption id="attachment_28529" align="alignnone" width="2409"] Photograph by The Together Plan - subject to copyright ©[/caption]
Some 100,000 inhabitants were left in the city when the German forces entered on June 28. The population rose to 150,000 as the front line moved farther east, and tens of thousands who had fled and had been overtaken by the speed of the German advance, turned back. About one-third of these were local Jews. Their number was increased by refugees from as far west as Bialystok, as well as by survivors of mass executions carried out by the Einsatzkommandos (mobile killing squads) in the vicinity, so that another 30,000 Jews were added. Later, about 23,500 German, Austrian, and Czech Jews were deported to Minsk, and settled in a separate ghetto, so that despite the fact that a large number of Minsk Jews had been murdered before the establishment of the ghetto, at least 85,000 Jews found themselves incarcerated and trapped. Some say the numbers were as high as 100,000. The only Jews to survive the Minsk Ghetto were those who escaped, and it is believed, up to 13 people who hid underground for 9 months.
The resistance record of the Jews imprisoned in the Minsk ghetto is unique. One Sunday in 1941, within days of finding themselves inside the ghetto, a group of local Jews and Jewish Communists from Poland met and decided that it was the duty of the Minsk Jews to take an active part in the war against the German invaders. They rejected the possibility of armed resistance inside the ghetto and decided to devote all their efforts to affecting the escape of the largest possible number of Jews into the forests in order to become partisans. Four resistance groups arose in the "Aryan" part of the city in August and September 1941. However, it was only after the November 7 massacre that Hersh Smolar, the Polish-born leader of the Jewish resistance, met Isai Pavlovich Kozinets, known as Slavek, the leader of one of the four groups, who subsequently became the leader of the entire underground movement in Minsk.
[caption id="attachment_28530" align="alignnone" width="1824"] Photograph by The Together Plan - subject to copyright ©[/caption]
After World War II, the Jewish culture of Belarus was destroyed. The surviving Jews, under the pressure of the anti-Semitic policy of the authorities, were actively assimilated. The activity of religious communities was practically stopped in the 1940s - 1950s. The number of the Jewish population in the post-war period decreased from 150,000 in 1959 to 112,000 in 1989. And today in Belarus, according to the latest census, there are only about 12 thousand Jews.
Almost nothing reminds of the pre-war and even more so the pre-revolutionary Jewish heritage, old Jewish schools and synagogues were closed or converted into civilian facilities. However, if desired, traces of the Jewish presence can still be found.
Best test site ever
On March 6, 2021, Michael Berenbaum and Jonathan Ornstein published the following op-ed in The Jerusalem Post calling for the creation of a "Holocaust Survivor Day." In their words, "Holocaust survivors deserve a day of joy; a day of celebration. Not a day to share with condemnation of the Nazis, but a day to celebrate their lives they built in response to the Holocaust. Survivors represent the best in all of us, the best of the human spirit. They are our treasure and our light and we must shine that light into every dark corner of our world.
The Jewish communities in three cities alongside the Rhine – Speyer, Worms and Mainz – formed a unique and outstanding community alliance in medieval times. Since the 12th century, ShUM is not only an abbreviation of the three Hebrew city names Schpira, Warmaisa and Magenza, but also a trademark of the cities today. ShUM was the cradle of Ashkenazi Jewish culture during its formation, from the 11th century onwards. The ShUM communities were extremely innovative: The architecture of its synagogues influenced others across Europe, in ShUM the first ever-recorded women’s shuln was established and monumental ritual baths were built. Women and men alike are praised on the tombstones in the old Jewish cemeteries in Worms and Mainz, with no differentiation between genders. These cemeteries are the oldest in Ashkenaz and there, Jewish sepulchral culture was developed. Religious laws and religious decisions, known as Takkanot ShUM, were discussed by scholars from the three communities – and binding for Ashkenazi Jewish Culture for centuries. Still today, liturgical poetry and prayers from ShUM are sung in Synagogues.
Despite destructions, crusades, pogroms and massacres throughout the centuries, ShUM was a promised land among the diaspora. The communities were known as holy communities. The sites are still today spaces where Jews from all around the world connect to their heritage, both tangible and intangible. The monuments and cemeteries are iconographic spaces which are well known and therefore a journey to them is more significant than mere sightseeing. It is like a visit to the origins of Ashkenazi Judaism, to connect with heritage spanning over centuries.
On July 27, 2021, UNESCO inscribed the “ShUM-Sites Speyer, Worms and Mainz” among the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Let us take a closer look at the Worms’ Synagogue and also its reconstruction after the Shoah.
The first synagogue in Worms was built in 1034, as we know from the original Hebrew founder’s inscription. It is the oldest Hebrew inscription north of the Alps. The inscription names the founders, Jacob and Rachel, a childless couple who are praised in that what they did was “Better than sons and daughters / They shall remain remembered for good memory”. It is also said that the Worms’ synagogue is “the small sanctuary” – miqdash me’at –, in reference to the temple in Jerusalem as the large sanctuary. This seems positive, as a confirmation of God’s presence in exile. It can also be interpreted that a small temple is a limitation of God’s presence in exile. The term reflects the experience of exile as a restriction – and at the same time of great creativity and achievement, especially in SchUM.
A new Synagogue was built in 1174/75 as the first Synagogue was destroyed in the Crusades from 1096 onwards. The first two-span Synagogue ever known was built in Worms – in comparison to the usual Romanesque halls. The Bimah for Torah reading is situated between two columns dividing the inner space. These columns were another architectural revolution as they referred to the temple in Jerusalem and the two columns there, named in the bible Yahin (HE will raise up) and Boaz (In HIM is the power). This combination of two columns and the bimah at the centre were role models for the Synagogues of places such as Regensburg, Vienna, Prague and Krakow.
The Women’s shul, built in 1212/13, was donated by Judith and her husband Me’ir ben Joel. Judith herself was the daughter of Joseph, the founder of the mikveh (ritual bath) from 1186. The women’s shul is cross-vaulted over a central pillar. Listening windows in the wall assisted women to follow the main services – although they had their own female cantors and prayer leaders. With another reconstruction of the synagogue in 1355, after the plague pogrom in 1349, the women’s shul received gothic windows. The next devastating pogrom, in 1615, was followed again by a time of rebuilding and adapting. The new synagogue was re-opened only in September 1620. This reconstruction followed the Romanesque architectural form and also added the gothic and new architectural elements that we know today. A new entrance with a small community hall on the upper floor was also added to the front of the women’s shul. The facade formed the new representative north view of the synagogue district. In addition, the famous Rashi-Yeshiva, named after the scholar who had studied in Mainz and Worms in the 11th century, was built as an annex to the synagogue. Further changes of the substance followed in the renovations after the city fire in the Palatinate War of Succession in 1689. After this, the interior became much more baroque.
From then on until 1938, no more destruction swept over the time-honoured synagogue compound. The synagogue reform movement of the nineteenth century left its own mark: an inscription of 1842 reported with pride on opening the wall between the synagogue and the women’s shul in order to enable women to participate freely in the synagogue services. The traditional seating arrangement along the walls and around the Bimah was abandoned. The gothic Bimah was replaced by a new one. In the 1860s, the community installed, against a minority opinion, an organ in the synagogue. Because of this, orthodox members of the community erected their own synagogue, not more than 50 metres apart from the façade of the women’s shul. On Shabbat and High holidays, the community nevertheless gathered in the old, time-honoured synagogue.
In 1934, the 900th year of the first Worms Synagogue was commemorated. Letters from the Jewish world streamed in, from Budapest to New York and from many German-Jewish communities. They mirror what the Worms’ community meant to the Jewish world because of its long-lasting tradition and the clear signs of resilience and of feeling home. Leo Baeck, head of Germany’s Jewish community, who held the main speech in June 1934, underlined: “Nine centuries of such a house of prayer means also fatherland. A covenant was created: between this space and fatherland, between home country and spirituality.”
As the wave of destruction swept over the German Reich around November 9, 1938, the Worms Synagogue was not spared, it burnt for two nights. Lost were its valuable interior from the 13th century onwards, Torah Scrolls, furniture, a small Jewish museum and its over 180 objects.
After autumn 1939, the remaining walls and entrances of the Synagogue and its annexes were further destroyed. As the rubble was piling high, much of the original building material, enclosing ornamental fragments or the entrance portals, was sheltered within the debris. After this, Friedrich Maria Illert, City archivist and since 1934 director of the City’s Cultural Institutions stepped onto the scene. Immediately after the November Pogrom, Illert put all of his efforts into saving architectural fragments, objects and documents from the rubble – everything he was able to lay his hands on. In the aftermath of WWII, Illert, on this ground, depicted himself as the saviour of the Jewish past in Worms. Illert was, before and after 1945, an influential enthusiast for the city’s cultural heritage as the “oldest City of Germany” and the Nibelung legends. He included the Jewish monuments in his view on Worms – not as Jewish places but as a mere reflection of German culture. After 1945, he never said one word about the deported and murdered Jews of Worms. In 1945, the rubble was piling high and the streets of Worms was empty of Jews. Around six Jews lived in Worms at that time, having survived in so-called “mixed marriages”. In 1945/6, Jewish Displaced persons started to visit Worms, the ruins, and the still intact Cemetery Holy Sand, where numerous Rabbis and other renowned Jews are buried. In 1946, the Yiddish paper Frayhayt wrote: “The ruins of Worms and the destroyed Warsaw together represent … the destruction of all European Jewry.”
Then an initiative started to rebuild the synagogue in Worms. Illert was moving through the rubble, building up the entrance portal of the synagogue in 1948/9.
In a letter in 1947, he addressed various politicians and state administrations: “Since I was outside the Nazi-party and had no knowledge of the events within the party, I do not know whether and on what grounds the destruction of the synagogue was ordered. All I can say is that after the demolition of the walls in 1942, I was not prevented from picking out all the inscriptions, portals, window-wraps, and the Rashi-chair from the ruins and bringing them to the museum.”
This was self-made white-washing.
Only in 1949, a wall was built around the destroyed synagogues compound. It was built after a visit by the Jewish Restitution Organization. Representatives had underlined in a report that nothing was done to shelter the ruins.
Illert in 1947 contacted Isidor Kiefer who, until his emigration to the US in 1933, was a member of the board of the Jewish community. Illert presented himself as a trustee for the Jewish Heritage in Worms. He was never designated as such, neither by the last Jews of Worms nor by the Reichsvereinigung, which was the implemented directorate of all communities after 1939. Regardless, Isidor Kiefer gratefully took up the initiative and supported strongly the reconstruction of the Synagogue. He had lost his status, his home, his country, and he longed for Warmaisa. Both, Illert and Kiefer, did not consider the Jewish community in Worms as legally extinct, but rather still alive, but in exile. Illert did this because his aim was to reconstruct medieval Worms and Kiefer because he was not able to face the abyss of destruction. There is no proof that Illert and Kiefer even knew each other personally before 1933 – what makes the story even more complicated.
Kiefer insisted that the reconstruction of the synagogue was central for the Jewish world in general and he started a signature collection in mid-1955 for supporting the reconstruction, using a form produced by Illert. Illert and Kiefer also reached out to politicians: the city administration of Worms, as well as the federal and the national governments. There were also voices from exiled Jews who did not support the reconstruction. One example of this was Ferdinand and Carola Kaufmann who wrote: “Incidentally, a synagogue should only be there where it serves its original purpose and where ten Jews unite for prayer. … the Worms community no longer exists”.
A letter from the City of Worms to the Federal Office for Preservation of Heritage from 1958 exposes a more than ambiguous motivation: “The resurrection of this synagogue in Worms could be regarded as sufficient in the sense of the reparation idea, which is the primary basis of … the reconstruction plan.”
Since February 1949, the small, newly established Jewish Community in Mainz – around 80 individuals – was responsible for the Jewish Communities alongside the left bank of the River Rhine – including the handful of Jews in Worms.
Prominent intercessors such as Chancellor Konrad Adenauer or Federal President Theodor Heuss turned the balance for the rebuilding of the Worms Synagogue. A letter from Kiefer to Adenauer in March 1954 was, in my opinion, the crucial turning point. “The writer of these lines was a machine manufacturer in Worms before emigrating as a result of anti-Semitic events. … A few days ago, the American Newspapers, especially the N.Y. Times, wrote about your suggestion regarding further reconciliation between Germany and the United States… I would like to contribute to this attitude of reconciliation and as a gesture towards the Jews who experienced such an injustice in the past and ask for the immediate reconstruction of the over 900-year old synagogue in Worms… I mention briefly that the synagogue coincides with the Worms Cathedral that was built in the 11th century.” The Chancellors administration answered that his suggestion would be, with great sympathy, considered and discussed.
Kiefer wrote to the Minister of the Interior in 1955. The result was an intensification of the debates and negotiations between the parties participating – although the Jewish community in Mainz was more or less overlooking the scenery from the sideline. In 1955, the Council for Monuments Preservation agreed to the reconstruction. In 1957, the compound was cleared of rubble. A huge amount of the original material for the reconstruction came out of the debris. The Foundation stone was laid on September 29, 1959.
A reply to another letter from Kiefer in November 1958 to the Chancellery underlined that the reconstruction of the synagogue “is of special interest to Chancellor Adenauer.” The synagogue was reconstructed with small adaptations to the modern style in the 1950s – and the organ was not reinserted. On the 3rd of December, 1961, the new-old Worms’ synagogue was opened. Isidor Kiefer passed away on October 16 of the same year.
Numerous prominent visitors and guests attended the opening ceremony in 1961. Exiled Jews arrived to Worms. Many institutions and individuals had assisted in buying objects such as prayer books, wooden benches, etc. to make the synagogue ready for services. German police were present and watched over the ceremony – something very different compared to 1934.
The head of the Mainz Jewish community is the owner of the Compound although the city of Worms is still legally the trustee, as the Jewish Community does not have enough financial and human resources to maintain the building.
Up to the 1980s, the structure was, at first glance, more or less a museum, a space visited by tourists. They often perceived the synagogue as a symbol for reconciliation. Until the mid-1990s, Jewish visitors left remarks in the visitor book that it was a wonderful place but empty of “Jewishness” and a space where ghosts lived.
In the 1990s, through immigration from the former Soviet Union, Jews began to arrive in Germany. Jews started to build their lives in Worms and Mainz. The Worms Synagogue started to change: the former women’s shul is now a vivid space where cultural events, concerts, exhibitions and commemoration on the Shoah takes place. The Synagogue itself is used as a religious space. The Jewish community’s head today is a woman. Life has returned to the Jewish religious heritage of SchUM.
It was unique and also ambiguous to rebuild a synagogue in Post-Shoah times without a community and based partly on the indistinct idea of “Wiedergutmachung”.
However, I am sitting at my desk and looking directly from my office down to the synagogue and I can see that it has changed again – into a living heritage, a Jewish heritage with a living Jewish community. Jewish chants and prayers can be heard again, drifting on Shabbat or other holidays, through the old alleys of Worms.
Credit to: Dr Susanne Urban, Worms, Germany 2021 - Taken from: https://www.frh-europe.org/constantly-rebuilt-the-worms-synagogue-a-space-of-belief-trauma-and-resilience/
This ambitious project seeks to tell the story of Jewish people in south Wales
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