World's 3rd-largest synagogue returns to Jews

Ten years of efforts bear fruit on behalf of Czech synagogue-turned-museum in city of Pilsen.

Hillel Fendel,

Great Synagogue of Pilsen, Czech Republic
Great Synagogue of Pilsen, Czech Republic
Miaow Miaow/via Wikimedia Commons

The city fathers of Pilsen, Czech Republic, have agreed to close the museum and concert hall that have operated in the city's famous synagogue, and to restore the structure to the Jewish community. The decision follows more than ten years of lobbying efforts by representatives of the dwindling Jewish community.

The Great Synagogue is known as the second-largest in Europe and the third-largest in the world. It stands in the fourth-largest Czech city, population 170,000.

The structure – an interesting mix of Russian, Arabic and Indian styles, with impressive sculpted art on the Holy Ark – was completed in 1893. The Jewish community in Pilsen at the time numbered approximately 2,000. The synagogue was in continuous use until 1973, except for the Holocaust years.

Its original construction plan called for two flanking 65-meter towers – but the city rejected it, most likely due to the fact that the nearby Cathedral of St. Bartholomew was of that approximate height. Another plan with towers only 45 meters high was quickly accepted and executed in its place.

The synagogue was closed down by the Communist rulers in 1973, and fell into disrepair. Restoration was undertaken from 1995–98, and the building was reopened as a concert hall and art museum.

The number of Jews in the city has since dwindled to just a few dozen, and they have prayed in a side room on occasion. The remaining Jews hope to hold High Holiday prayer services in the main sanctuary this coming Rosh HaShanah, just three weeks from now.

Just last week, Czech-Israeli relations were in the news when the Czech Republic canceled a short-lived directive to stop noting Jerusalem as Israel's capital in school atlases. Israel's Foreign Ministry, as well as Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, had protested the original decision and announced their satisfaction at its rescinding.




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