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Jewish Open House

Europe promotes its Jewish sites by opening their doors

by Ruth E. Gruber

September 30, 1999 | 8:00 pm

An unused, 18th-century synagogue in the northern Italian town of Cherasco, whose elegant canopied bimah features gilded carving, painted decoration and slim spiral columns. A 13th-century mikvah in the heart of Strasbourg, France, and a former synagogue in nearby Pfaffenhoffen that dates back 200 years. One-time synagogues in the Spanish towns of Girona, Cordoba and Toledo that predate the 1492 expulsion from Spain by centuries.

These are but a few of the dozens of sites of Jewish heritage in France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Switzerland that opened to the public Aug. 29 in the first-ever international Open Day of Jewish Heritage.

Some of the sites, including synagogues and former synagogues, ghetto areas, mikva'ot, Jewish cemeteries and Jewish museums, can already be visited on a regular basis. But most are unused, closed to the public or open only occasionally for religious functions.

Jewish heritage activists and experts drew up plans for the event during a workshop that took place at the end of May in Nice, France, within the framework of the General Assembly of the European Council of Jewish Communities.

This year's "Open Day" included free admittance to synagogues, cemeteries or other Jewish sites in some 29 towns and villages in Alsace, plus tied-in concerts, guided walking tours, lectures and exhibitions in some places.

In addition, more than a dozen sites opened in Paris, Provence and other parts of France.

Half a dozen or more sites opened in towns in Germany and Switzerland near the border with Alsace. Open monuments in Italy include a cluster of ornate synagogues in the Piedmont region, as well as synagogues in Rome, Siena, Venice and Florence. About a dozen monuments were presented in towns around Spain.

Both the Alsatian and international events are the result of an awareness of the importance of Jewish monuments and of Jewish cultural heritage, which has been growing throughout Europe over the past decade or so.

For decades after World War II, there was little interest -- among Jews and non-Jews alike-- in preserving or documenting Jewish sites that had survived both the destruction of the Holocaust and demographic shifts of Jewish populations.

The European Council recently launched a program aimed at developing strategies for the conservation and protection or Europe's Jewish monuments, which include thousands of abandoned cemeteries and neglected or ruined synagogues.

Information on the Open Day of Jewish Heritage can be found on the Web at www.sdv.fr/judaisme.

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