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Discussions Begin to Save Synagogue in Gherla
By Samuel D. Gruber
ISJM, September 7, 2008

The almost century-old synagogue in Gherla (built 1911?), Romania is empty and at great risk. Discussions have begun, however, between descendants of Jews from Gherla, local authorities, and the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania (FedRom) to preserve the synagogue, possibly as a town library. As there is only one Jew left in Gherla, some new use needs to found for the building if it is to escape eventual collapse or demolition. The nearest active Jewish community is in Dej.According to Washington, DC, resident Mike Klein, there is a loosely organized group of about 40 families that originated from Gherla who now live in Israel, USA, Canada, and Australia and are coordinating an effort to save the building. The best hope for the former synagogue is that it be transformed into a municipal library. Gherla needs a local library and the impressive synagogue, if properly modified, could provide adequate space, as well as meeting, conference and exhibition space. At the urging of Mr. Klein and his group, municipal authorities have begun discussion with FedRom, which owns the building. The two sides seem to agree in principal about a transfer of the building based on a formula previously employed by FedRom for other redundant but architectural distinctive synagogue.

Recent pictures of the Gherla synagogue and Jewish cemetery by Mike Klein.

As in all such cases, initial success will depend money. Neither the municipality nor FedRom claim to have the minimum of $US 200,000 needed to conserve and adapt the building. Until a plan for preservation and adaptive reuse is prepared, the exact work needed (and costs) will be unknown. As I recently wrote, there have been some other projects in Romania where synagogues have been put to different use where synagogues have been put to different use. If you would like to learn more about this project, or to assist in conception and funding, please contact ISJM.

Any adaptive reuse at Gherla should also include a memorial to the Holocaust victims from the city. 1,600 people were sent to Auschwitz from the Gherla ghetto and most did not return. In the words of Mr. Klein, "All four of my grandparents, many aunts, uncles and cousins were sent to the gas chambers from here. I think that we have a duty to preserve the place where they prayed. When I visited the city with my sons they were very impressed to see the synagogue where both myself and my father had our Bar-Mitzvah ceremonies. I hope that I will be able to take my grand-children and they can take their grand children to our place of origin."

Gherla itself is an interesting place. It appears to be the first city in Romania built based on an orthogonal grid-plan when Gherla was rebuilt by Armenians allowed to settle there in the 17th century. Jews were given rights to settle in the early part of the 19th century. By the early 20th century when the present building was erected, Jews represented about 12-15% of the city population. The street where the synagogue is located is part of a historical heritage district, but according to Mr. Klein the synagogue itself has not been designated a historic site.

Synagogues in Southern Transylvania (Romania) & Updates on Romanian Jewish Heritage Preservation Projects
By Samuel D. Gruber
ISJM, August 27, 2008

On the weekend of Aug. 22-23, the "Proetnica" interethnic festival in Sighisoara, Romania featured an exhibit of photographs of synagogues in southern Transylvania, taken by Christian Binder and organized by Julie Dawson. The exhibit was held in the synagogue in Sighisoara, at Str. Tache Ionescu 13.   Ms. Dawson and Mr. Binder have posted many of these fine evocative photographs at:  The two hope this documentation project will continue.  ISJM is looking to organize advisers and sponsors for the project.

Ms. Dawson wrote that the exhibit "attempts to capture the interesting transitional stage in which Romania now finds itself – with the entrance of outside, foreign investors and NGOs, some synagogues have been or are being restored and turned into cultural centers or finding other alternative uses. Others remain abandoned, often assuming a central location in the town's centre, an evocative, stubborn reminder of recent past – and of today's reluctance to address Romania's troubled relationship with this history. The questions are numerous – what will become of these buildings now that they can be used again? Will their respective towns take responsibility for their upkeep, how can they be integrated into a long-term plan for urban or rural renewal? And how can the countless still decrepit synagogues, many of significant historical and architectural value, be incorporated into a systematic and far-reaching plan for commemorating and celebrating a culture formerly a vibrant part of Romania's multi-cultural existence?"

I have recently reviewed the status of Jewish monuments – mostly cemeteries - in a draft report for the US Commission for the Preservation of America's Heritage Abroad. As the report is further edited, I welcome more news about developments concerning Jewish Heritage sites in Romania, especially updates about on-going projects. I also especially refer readers to the latest edition of Ruth Ellen Gruber's  Jewish Heritage Travel – still the best guidebook to Jewish sites in Romania (and elsewhere).

From the draft report, here is information about recent care for synagogues:

"For the most part those Romanian synagogues that survived World War II, have subsequently survived in relatively good condition. Since 1990, however, several synagogues have been sold by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania since the buildings were no longer needed for worship, and they were too costly to maintain. Long years of use during the Ceacescu regime also were years of deferred maintenance. Now many of the synagogue buildings, especially those large structures built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, cost tens of thousands of dollars annually to maintain, and millions of dollars to fully restore.

The Government of Romania and the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania (FedRom) developed the "Action Plan for the Protection of the Jewish Heritage," which was adopted by the Romanian Government. Through this initiative, there will be some government involvement in the protection and restoration of Jewish historic sites, particularly those that have been listed as national historic monuments. Several synagogues fall into this category.

In Cluj, the "Moshe Carmilly "Institute for Hebrew and Jewish History, a department of Babes-Bolyai University, is housed in the former 'Shas-Hevrah' Synagogue. The building, erected in 1922, was in use as a synagogue into the early 1990s. It then closed, was used as a furniture warehouse, and now houses the Institute.

In a few cases in the 1990s, before the adoption of the "Action Plan," synagogues were purchased and then demolished or substantially altered by the buyers. The synagogue in Reghin was bought and transformed into a shoe store, and in Bucharest, the "Vointa" Temple on Dacia Avenue was demolished, even though it was a listed national monument.

The most visible projects for synagogue restoration include the initiative of the Jewish Architectural Heritage Foundation, founded by American Adam Wapniak, which has joined with local organizations in Simleu Silvaniei in Transylvania to restore the former synagogue and to create a permanent museum and educational center.The Northern Transylvania Holocaust Memorial Museum, housed in the former synagogue, was opened in July 2006.

In Arad, there a project has been presented by the Jewish Community of Arad and building conservator Matuz Andrei to restore the 1834 synagogue in that city. Other projects have been sponsored by the Federation of Jewish Communities in Oradea and Piatra Neamt.

According to FedRom, unused synagogues can be rented or sold under certain conditions, and approximately half the countries synagogue buildings are now in this category. An essential condition of all rental or sale agreements is that the new owner does not use the synagogue for worship by another religion. Icons, crosses or Bibles cannot be sold or manufactured in a Jewish place of cult. This policy sets Romania apart from the situation in other countries where synagogue buildings survived the Holocaust, but Jewish communities did not, and where former synagogues now serve as churches or mosques.

According to FedRom, "a synagogue can be demolished, but a Christian church cannot be erected in its place."

"A synagogue is compatible with a furniture warehouse as long as it is not turned into a Christian church or into a brothel", says Aristide Streja, custodian at the Great Synagogue in Bucharest. "First of all, the Christians wouldn't accept it; second of all, the Jews wouldn't agree. Even with furniture inside the synagogue, the religious signs are kept. The Christians would take the place, but they would not keep it the way it is", claims Aristide Streja. Quoted in "Synagogues for Sale: The Romanian Jewish Community has found a new use for the places of prayer,".

The Jewish Community also enters into contracts where the beneficiary does not pay rent, but is committed to renovate the building. This is the situation in Tarnaveni where the synagogue has been rented to the "Tarnava Mica" Cultural Foundation, and in Timisoara where since 2005 the synagogue has been rented to the Philharmonic Society. The Society has received some funding for the restoration of the building, including an initial grant from the World Monuments Fund to develop the restoration plan.

According to FedRom: "In Oradea, all three synagogues are rented: one serves as a carpentry workshop and the other two - as warehouses. In Bucharest, one synagogue out of six functions as a liquor and bread warehouse for the Jewish community. Some places of cult reach the final solution: they are sold or demolished."

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Radauti (Radautz) Jewish Heritage Documented and Posted On-Line

Descendants of the Jews of Radautz in Bukovina, (now Radauti, Romania) have banded together to work with the local Jewish Community and the Federation of Jewish Communities of Romania to document the town's Jewish heritage –including all of the gravestones in the cemetery - and to make this information available on-line.


Since 2005, the group has amassed thousands of photos of the cemetery gravestones and epitaphs, and these have now been listed in an online database.

Last year there were tensions between the "outsiders" and the local Jewish community which produced a flurry of accusations that spilled into the local media.  Now, however, misunderstandings seem to be resolved, and both groups are united in their commitment to maintain the historic cemetery and to develop a restoration program for the synagogue, which is, overall, still in good condition.

Click here for a slideshow of the synagogue showing where repairs are needed.  It was built in 1879.    

The synagogue, which is listed as a protected historic site, has recently been included in the "Action Plan for the Protection of the Jewish Heritage" adopted by the Romanian Government. A good portion of the costs for restoration, for which planning began in 2007, will be covered from this source. Additional funding for the project will certainly be needed.

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Synagogue in Orastie
Photo of the interior Ark wall in the Orastie Synagogue

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