Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. I, Nos. 3-4 / Winter 1997-98
Dubrovnik Synagogue

Dubrovnik Synagogue Reopened After Repairs

The historic synagogue of Dubrovnik (Croatia), destabilized by an earthquake in 1979 and then further damaged during the shelling of the city in 1991, reopened for services on Rosh Hoshanah. According to reports to ISJM, the structural problems of the building have been fixed, the downstairs community office is redone and modernized, and the 16th-century upstairs sanctuary has been restored.

The synagogue is one of the most cherished sites of Sephardic culture in the world. The combination of a 13th-century Gothic house with a 16th-century Sephardic synagogue interior makes this a special place to contemplate the diverse influences on and expressions of European Judaism. Photo-journalist Edward Serotta, who attended the reopening and who has long been familiar with building sent ISJM the following report: "The floors have been sanded and shellacked, the wall benches repainted with woody-effect, all have been painted, the tile work in the stair-hall has been replaced or relaid, the community rooms have been made very nice, with a toilet and tiny kitchen added. The Baroque ark was left untouched and looks fine. Finally, the beautiful blue ceiling with its stars was handsomely repainted. Not exactly as it was, but awfully close."

According to the Rebuild Dubrovnik Foundation, the synagogue has been returned to its "original appearance" - presumably as its looked prior to the recent damage, combining decorative elements from the 16th to the 19th centuries set within the walls of the 13th-century house in which the synagogue was established.

The Washington-based Rebuild Dubrovnik Foundation, founded in 1992 by the American Society of Travel Agents and the ATLAS Travel Agency of Croatia, raised funds for the work - they were aided by Otto and Jeanne Ruesch of Ruesch International of Washington who raised approximately $30,000. ISJM has written to the Jewish Community of Dubrovnik and the Rebuild Dubrovnik Foundation for further details concerning the restoration.

Speaking at the special ceremony to reopen the synagogue were Dr. Bruno Horovic, the President of the present-day Dubrovnik Community which numbers only about 40 Jews: Dr. Slobodan Lang the advisor for Humanitarian Affairs to Croatian President Tudjman; Yechaial bar-Chaim on behalf of the Joint Distribution Committee: Dr. Ognjen Kraus, the President of the Zagreb Jewish Community: and Mr. Ruesch.

Yechiel Bar-Chaim, JDC Country Director for the Countries of the Former Yugoslavia, reports that as a special feature of this year's Rosh Hashana in Dubrovnik, visiting Rabbi Kotel Dadon held a Tashlich service on a fishermen's quay under the shadow of one of Dubrovnik's massive medieval fortresses. "We stood and symbolically emptied our pockets of our sins into the Sea. My guess is that the Eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea has not seen such a service for at least fifty years, if then."

Croatian Television featured the synagogue rededication on all the evening news programs and showed a special Panorama Television documentary on the renovation the following week. At the lunch organized by the Community following the ceremony, U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith lauded the role of private ecumenical generosity in restoring the synagogue.

The Croatian Government is eager to revive international tourism to Dubrovnik and to improve its image in the international Jewish community which has frequently been critical of President Tudjman. Embracing the Dubrovnik restoration helps serve these ends. Indeed, charter flights from Israel now bring up to 250 tourists to the area every week during the summer season. Within Europe, along with the restored Jewish monuments in Venice and Prague, the Dubrovnik synagogue offers a strong example of the potential of Jewish cultural tourism.

The Toletino House, historically linked to the synagogue and Dubrovnik's Jewish community, is immediately adjacent to the synagogue building and remains gutted, awaiting rehabilitation. The house has long been mentioned as a likely site for a Jewish museum to house the rich collection of Judaica which belongs to the Jewish Community The future of this collection, exhibited in 1994 at Yeshiva University Museum, remains uncertain as two factions of the Dubrovnik Jewish Community wage a legal fight over the proper disposition of the collection. ISJM hopes that the reopening of the synagogue and the continuing peace in Dubrovnik will allow for the return and exhibition of the Judaica Collection (which remains in storage at Yeshiva University Museum) to its historic home.

The Dubrovnik Jewish community was founded by Spanish Jews and flourished especially after 1492. They were allowed to live inside the walls in 1538, but in 1546 a ghetto was established along a small street, today's Judioska St, (formerly Via del Ghetto). Two more streets were added to the Ghetto in 1587.
-- Samuel Gruber

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Updated: 23-Jul-98