A dilapidated Bulgarian synagogue becomes a cultural center – and lifeline for a dwindling community

VIDIN, Bulgaria (JTA) – For 40 years the central synagogue in this port city has resembled the city’s Jewish population – barely existing and rapidly aging.

Built in the 19th century, the synagogue is literally a shell of itself. Vines creep up the sides of the stone walls and the intricate painted designs on the building’s pillars have faded through the years of weathering. One of the domes is completely missing, the result of a World War II bomb. The roof over the sanctuary is also missing – not that the city’s Jews have any use for it. With about a dozen members, the Jews of Vidin can hardly have one minjan.

But over the next six months, the synagogue will undergo a massive transformation and be given a new life as a $ 6 million cultural center and community center – for both Jews and non-Jews.

The municipality of Vidin hopes that the project can do more than restore an old building. The city is embedded in an arch in the Danube, part of a small piece of northwestern Bulgaria that protrudes into a gap between Romania and Serbia. It is also located in the poorest region of the European Union and it is no coincidence that it is one of the fastest shrinking population centers on the continent. (Bulgaria itself bears the ignoble title the fastest shrinking country in the world.)

It was not always like this.

When the synagogue was built in 1894, Vidin experienced rapid industrialization. The Austrian architect Friedrich Grünanger designed the synagogue as a majestic monument: the two-story building was visible from afar at every corner with a turret. Delicate stained glass and intricate wall paintings covered the interior.

Grünanger emulated his efforts the Great Synagogue in Vienna in the hope that one day Vidin would become as big and powerful as the Austrian capital. Back then was the Jewish community around 1,500 people counted, or about 10% of the population of Vidin. On the eve of World War II, the number had grown to a quarter, or about 2,000 Jews. The Jewish community of Vidin made up about 5% of the total Jewish population of Bulgaria. Sofia, the capital, was home to 50%.

The exterior of the synagogue in Vidin has the outlines of windows in the shape of the Ten Commandments. It was designed by the famous Austrian architect Friedrich Grünanger. (Jonah Goldman Kay)

Unlike its neighbors, Bulgaria did not deport its Jews during the Holocaust (although it did deport the Jewish population of neighboring Macedonia, which occupied the country during the war). However, after the establishment of Israel in 1948, Bulgaria strongly encouraged its Jewish population to immigrate to the new Jewish state. Most of the Jews of Vidin agreed and went to Israel, leaving behind their war-torn synagogue. Until 1949, there were only 17 Jewish families in Vidin, many of them married and assimilated into the population.

Today that number has decreased even further. Rosa Marinova, president of Vidin’s Jewish Community Organization, estimates that there are around a dozen Jews in the city, half of whom attend community events on a regular basis.

“We no longer have a synagogue,” said Marinova. “We’re going to meet on Rosh Hashanah and some other holidays and do something small, but it’s not formal.”

A few years ago, Vidin erected a small memorial in the city’s central park to commemorate his once lively Jewish community.

With no rabbis and no one to use the room, the battered synagogue fell into disrepair. In the 1980s, the city tried to renovate the synagogue with the help of the Bulgarian Ministry of Culture and the National Monument Institute. But the fall of communism thwarted this plan and left the synagogue without a roof.

Completely abandoned and abandoned by the elements, the already dilapidated synagogue fell into complete disrepair. Grass grew over the tile floor, the iconic metal pillars rusted, and the walls were covered in graffiti from local teenagers. Though the synagogue was returned to the Bulgarian Jewish community in the mid-2000s, the few remaining members had no use for the fluctuating structure.

“We have heard for years how we should try to restore this synagogue as it is considered to be one of the most beautiful in Bulgaria,” said Maxim Delchev, director of education at Shalom, the umbrella organization of the Jewish community in Bulgaria. “But to be honest, we couldn’t put a lot of money into a synagogue in a city that probably won’t have a Jewish community in 20 years.”

When the Vidin community approached Shalom in 2017 with a proposal to convert the synagogue into a cultural center, the Jewish organization was concerned but excited. After all, she had just got the synagogue back, and the city had already proven itself to be a negligent steward of the property. However, the fact that the city took the initiative and had a concrete plan to restore the synagogue gave Shalom hope. The same goes for the $ 6 million in EU funding made available for the project, part of a larger $ 1.6 billion project aimed at accelerating development in Bulgaria.

Shelly Vladeva, left, and Rosa Marinova are members of the dwindling Jewish community of Vidin, Bulgaria, now less than a dozen. (Jonah Goldman Kay)

For many in Vidin, the rebuilding of the local synagogue is the last chance to create a tourist destination that will revive the ailing region.

“Although it is no longer used for religious practices, it will be given a new life as a cultural space,” said Yordan Tsenov, the project’s architect.

All over Europe, small towns and cities have turned dilapidated synagogues into cultural spaces, museums, and even turned them into Restaurants, via adaptive reuse. As a rule, these rooms are not exclusively designed to be Jewish. While the Vidin Community shows a genuine interest in preserving Vidin’s Jewish history, it also sees a unique opportunity to bring foreigners – Jews and non-Jews – to the city.

Over the next few years, the plan is slowly taking shape. The Jules Pascin Cultural Center, named after a Jewish artist from Vidin, will house a museum, a performance room, a library and a café. There are also plans to set up a permanent exhibition on the history of the Jewish community here.

Tsenov said that although the synagogue will no longer be a functioning synagogue, the city plans to restore most of the original architectural features. Most of the early work involved stabilizing the original structure, including laying a new foundation and backfilling the hollow metal supports with concrete.

In late June, Vidin hosted a groundbreaking event with the mayor and several Jews from the community. start of building Last month, and the center is expected to open by the end of 2022 provided there are no delays.

“It’s a wonderful building and an important part of our city’s history,” said Shelley Vladeva, another member of the Jewish community. “Everyone in Vidin – Jews and Gentiles – wants it restored.”

Even after the opening, the Jewish community has no plans to use the synagogue for church services. Members will continue to hold Shabbat dinners, Rosh Hashanah services, and Passover seder in their new common room, a small room near the city’s monument to the Jewish community. It’s much more humble than the synagogue, but it suits their community a lot better.

Plus, Vladeva adds with a smile, it’s next to the park.

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