Preservationists fret over future of Alsace synagogues

STRASBOURG, France — A page in Jewish history may soon be erased in Alsace — a rich, historic province that once provided most of the chief rabbis and scholars of the French Jewish community.

Within the next five years, some 20 to 30 synagogues in the region could be demolished.

Or, if not torn down, they could become — as some already have — a Christian parish hall and gym, a storehouse for firefighting equipment, a garage, a cinema or a private home.

Indeed, the oldest synagogue in Alsace, built around 1290 in Rouffach, is home to an architect.

No other synagogues in the area should suffer a similar fate, said Catherine Lehmann, the public relations director of Jewish Heritage of Alsace.

Lehmann not only spearheaded the drive to save synagogues, ritual baths and cemeteries in wine-producing Alsace, but is also a driving force behind what this fall will be the fourth "European Day of Jewish Culture" in 20 to 25 European countries.

Some progress has been made toward preserving Jewish sites, however.

Synagogues in Pfaffenhoffen and Struth, along with a mikvah in Diemeringen, have been restored. And in Pfaffenhoffen, a community center is now located in its 18th-century synagogue. The ark, a matzah oven, a mikvah and a communal room have been preserved, and information is available about the history of the building and the Jewish community that once existed there.

What happens in Alsace, said Lehmann, could be a harbinger for other diaspora communities where demographic changes have left an area all but bereft of Jews.

During the last century, most rural Jews in the region moved to Strasbourg, where there is a strong and active Jewish community. Nearly all of Alsace's 15,000 Jews now reside in Strasbourg, the capital of the province, whose rural areas once were filled with Jewish bankers, cattle- and horse traders, wine merchants and a rich Ashkenazi heritage.

How did so many synagogues end up in Alsace? Most French Jews lived in the province when, in 1791, France became the first country in Europe to grant Jews citizenship. Between then and 1914, some 176 synagogues were built in the province out of 256 for all France.

The old, dilapidated synagogues remain in villages such as Benfeld and Westhofen, which now have only a handful of elderly Jews.

Preservation efforts are becoming increasingly necessary as the synagogues fall into further disrepair.

The rise of anti-Semitism in France during the past year has also provided a spur to such efforts, according to Lehmann. "To open our doors and to be proud of our heritage is, for me, a way of fighting anti-Semitism," she said.

Some of the synagogues have been turned into Jewish museums, such as the Alsatian-Jewish Museum in Bouxwiller. It was saved from the wrecking ball, which had been slated so the land to be cleared for a supermarket parking lot.

And just a few months ago, a former synagogue in Hochfelden opened as an art museum. The museum, which was bought by a cultural association, will house collections of local archeology, history, art and popular traditions. But with the bimah and Ark still very much visible in central positions, visitors will know that the building once was a Jewish house of worship.

Lehmann would like the region's synagogues to become cultural institutions such as museums, libraries or music halls, not farmhouses.

"We would keep the signs of Jewish heritage visible, outside and inside," she said.