Dubrovniks question: Does a synagogue need Jews

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DUBROVNIK, Croatia – Walk south down the large stone pathway of this medieval city toward city hall and turn left into an alley about 250 feet before the sun clock. Arrive at a tiny sign on the door announcing the Jewish community and walk up the stairs.

On the top floor is the second-oldest synagogue in Europe, a structure from the 1300s that survived a horrific earthquake in 1683, two world wars and communism.

Open the ark, however, and there are no Torah scrolls. Look around and notice that the silver ornaments are missing as well.

For nearly six years, the Jewish treasures of Dubrovnik have been held in New York in a dispute that has pitted the Croatian government and Jewish community against a former community leader. It has been a battle that points to a question often raised in Central and Eastern Europe: What should happen to a synagogue when there are no longer Jews to care for it?

"There is bitterness for all of us," says Ivana Burdelez, director of the International Center of Croatian Universities and a major player in the battle for the return of the Torah scrolls.

The scrolls, silver ornaments and covers were flown to New York in 1992 for an exhibition arranged by Yeshiva University. The scrolls were released by the then-head of Dubrovnik Jewish community, Michael Papo.

A year later, Dubrovnik synagogue officials wanted the scrolls and silver returned. But Papo balked. He signed the contract for the Jewish community, he said, and did not believe that the scrolls would be cared for properly in Dubrovnik.

The reason points to a phenomenon familiar in Central Europe. Before World War II, Dubrovnik had several thousand Jews. Today, it has fewer than 50 — most of whom are in their 60s and 70s. There is no minyan or rabbi in the synagogue. The exception is the High Holy Days, when a rabbi is brought from neighboring Hungary.

Papo, who now lives in New York, went further and claimed that intermarriage had ravaged the remains of the Jewish community of Dubrovnik to the point that his successor is not Jewish under halachah (Jewish law). Papo said he fears that Dubrovnik's Torah scrolls would be sold if Jews aren't in control.

Stuck in the middle was Yeshiva University. It was one of the defendants in the lawsuit brought by the Dubrovnik Jewish community and financed by the government in Zagreb.

The concern of the university, which abides by halachah, is that the government would either market the scrolls or use them for a non-sacred purpose, such as an exhibit.

"We are caretakers of these objects," said Rabbi Mitchell Serels, director of Yeshiva University's Sephardic community programs, during a conference on Jews in the Adriatic region held in Dubrovnik this summer. "We do not own them. We'd be very happy to see these objects in a free and democratic Croatia."

Serels' final words were not coincidental. In a devoutly Catholic country with a long history of dictatorship as a former republic of Yugoslavia, many Jews question whether the government in Zagreb can be counted on to preserve a synagogue without Jews.

Other dying communities sent the contents of their synagogues to Israel.

But Edward Serotta, director of the Vienna-based Central Europe Center for Research and Documentation, said this principle is outdated.

"The issue becomes quite an emotional one," he said. "There are more than a few people who feel that all treasures that are not in the U.S. should be packed and shipped off to Israel. I am not of that opinion."

Even tiny Jewish communities deserve to retain their treasures, Serotta said. He pointed to the Dubrovnik archives, which contain invaluable information for scholars studying Jewish life in the Adriatic region during the Middle Ages.

In contrast, about 1,600 Torah scrolls collected by the Nazis during World War II were later recovered and sent to London.

From there, they were distributed to synagogues around the world. The result, Serotta said, is that many Central European synagogues are left without scrolls.

Jerusalem Deputy Mayor David Cassuto agrees.

"Neither Israel nor the Jewish communities in the U.S. has the permission to help extinguish small communities," he said.

The ending for Dubrovnik's Jews, however, appears bittersweet. While they recently won the battle in New York State Supreme Court for the return of the scrolls, Burdelez estimates it will take another $30,000 to take them back to Croatia.

Now the question is how to ensure that they will be preserved.

Dubrovnik was heavily damaged in the Serb shelling of the city in 1992, and international funding is spread thin. Not surprisingly, Croatian officials and Jews are turning to the Jewish community in the United States for help.

Such help would constitute recognition that the Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe have a future, Serotta said.

"Fifty years after the Holocaust it is clear that these Jewish communities, as tiny as they may be, have come out of the shadows and into daily life."