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Friday, June 13, 2008
Brussels Synagogue Named Great Synagogue of Europe
By Samuel Gruber
The Great Synagogue of Brussels, Belgium, on the Rue de la Regence, was renamed the Great Synagogue of Europe in a ceremony hosted by the Conference of European Rabbis and the Communaute Israelite de Bruxelles on June 4, 2008.  The massive building, designed by architect Desire DeKeyser in 1878, rises cliff-like from the street, and projects a sense of stability and entitlement – of the sort the Belgium's Jews aspired to in the late 19th century.  The location is significant, since the street is also the site of the nearby Palace of Justice at one end (which may explain the towering Decalogue atop synagogue façade) and the Museum of Fine Arts at the other, together with the Roman Catholic church of Notre Dame des Sablons and a prominent Protestant church.  The Jewish consistoire (official community) wanted its synagogue to part of this public architectural ensemble.  The heavy Romanesque-style building epitomizes that type of over-large synagogue construction of the post-Emancipation era that has come to be referred to as a "Cathedral Synagogue," because of its size, its architectural style, and because it's builders presumed that it would be the authoritative center for the city's Jews just as a Catholic cathedral, seat of the local bishop, retains preeminent religious authority in any Catholic diocese.  Now, presumably, the Brussels' Jewish community hopes to revive the oft-neglected buildings prestige by elevating to Europe-wide status.

The synagogue in Brussels is certainly worth a visit.  The 25-meter high interior is inspiring.  Tall and narrow, the interior includes two levels of galleries, and an organ loft even higher up. The stained glass windows and colored stenciled wall decoration in the raised apse are stunning.  The extensive dark woodwork is highlighted with golden Hebrew letters of inscriptions, and the brilliant sheen of gilded torcheres and a giant Hanukkah menorah.  The interior is one of the best preserved in Europe to demonstrate the lavish taste and awe-inspiring expectations of prosperous Jewish communities of late 19th century Europe.

ISJM hopes that the new designation of the synagogue will not encourage any contemporary changes to its historic appearance.

Click here for the press release from the Conference of European Rabbis

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