Slonim Synagogue restoration project makes Belarusian headlines

Last week, The Together Plan was interviewed by Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty about our project to restore the Great Synagogue of Slonim, Belarus in partnership with the Foundation for Jewish Heritage. Due to the building’s immense historical significance, the restoration project has been attracting the attention of media worldwide, featuring in the Guardian earlier this week. With this interview, the project makes its first appearance on a major news platform in Belarus itself.

The article in the original Belarusian can be found here: https://www.svaboda.org/a/29031958.html

the Slonim Synagogue is among the four most important historic synagogues in Europe. Restoration of the building may begin this year.

The 17th-century Slonim Synagogue is among the four most important historic synagogues in Europe in urgent need of restoration. Its conservation could begin this year, and within the next five years restoration work will take place. UK-Belarusian charity The Together Plan explains how a restored synagogue would promote the revival of Jewish community in Slonim and attract tourists to the city.

For more than 20 years the synagogue has been crumbling.

On 7th February 2018, in the House of Commons of the UK Parliament the question of the Slonim Synagogue was discussed. It has been identified as one of the four most important historic synagogues in Europe, among more than 3 300. Their restoration is currently being planned by the Foundation for Jewish Heritage.

The Synagogue in Slonim has been abandoned for 20 years already.

As reported in the Guardian, historian Simon Schama initiated a survey of all historic synagogues in Europe that still survive, rating them according to their significance. Restoration work is planned for the buildings of greatest historical value. The Slonim Synagogue is among the first.

The Great Synagogue in Slonim was built in 1635–1642 in the Baroque style. Today it is the oldest building in the city. In Soviet times, there was a warehouse of a furniture store; in an annex was a cafe. In the 1990s, the building was acquired by the state – but since then, its condition has only worsened. Located next to the market, the synagogue has suffered as a result of littering and vandalism.

In the last 20 years there has been a number of attempts to restore the synagogue. However, these largely yielded no results and the building continued to deteriorate. Only one construction project, to restore the badly damaged roof, was ever completed.

Artur Livshyts

“There have been attempts to restore the synagogue for a long time, including by the Slonimer Jews in Israel and other organisations, but nothing has changed. The synagogue is falling apart, and nothing is being done.” Artur Livshyts, head of Belarusian charity Dialogue and representative of The Together Plan in Belarus, tells Svaboda.

Dialogue and The Together Plan are engaged in discussions with the local authorities in Slonim on the possible reconstruction of the synagogue. In September 2017, they signed a memorandum of intent with the Slonim District Executive Committee.

“I really liked the attitude of the Slonim authorities to the project and to Jewish matters in general” said Arthur Livshyts. “They have been very active in their support.”

The Slonim Synagogue is one of the oldest in Belarus and is built in the Baroque style. As architect Galina Levina told Svaboda, the Slonim Synagogue provides a valuable insight into the history of religious life, art and architecture in Belarus.

“The Slonim Synagogue absolutely needs to be talked about. Its new rating only confirms this,” Levina said. “For us it has always been one of the most interesting synagogues. It is such a vivid example of the life of Slonim and Belarus throughout the centuries.”

A view of Slonim in the interwar period. Photo: National Library of Poland

Levina notes that the synagogue is noteworthy for the frescoes it contains. In the early 1990s, restorers from the Bastalia creative workshop worked in Slonim, making copies of all the paintings.

“The Slonim synagogue unique because such old painting are preserved here,” restorer Nikolai Zolotukha told Svaboda.

Also involved in the project is a British TV presenter, whose grandfather is from Slonim.

A long-standing interest regarding the Slonim Synagogue exists in the UK. In 2007, a film crew from the BBC visited Slonim to record an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? That episode of the family history programme would feature the famous British TV presenter Natasha Kaplinsky, whose ancestors came from Slonim and who visited with the film crew. Her grandfather was a rabbi in the synagogue until he emigrated in 1929.

Artur Livshyts meeting with the Mayor of Slonim, Oleg Targonski

In 2016, 27 representatives of the Kaplinsky family visited Slonim. Natasha and her uncle Simon Kaplinsky are two of several influential figures in Britain who have given their support to the synagogue revival project in Europe.

Simon Kaplinsky, Natasha’s uncle, is an influential civil engineer in Britain and is participating in the project for the restoration of the synagogue. He was one of the signatories of the memorandum with the Slonim authorities, having reviewed the technical documentation for the synagogue.

Artur Livshyts and Jonathan Clingman of The Together Plan believe that the synagogue’s planned restoration has already attracted a lot of attention to Slonim in the UK

However, the decision to identify the Slonim Synagogue as a priority for reconstruction had nothing to do with the Kaplinsky family.

“There was an independent study,” says Artur Livshyts. “The Kaplinskys’ story did not affect the decision. But it has turned out well that such influential people are participating in the project. “

The restoration of the synagogue could lead to the revival of Jewish community in Slonim.

What can a restored synagogue offer Slonim? Artur Livshyts believes that Slonim stands to benefit from the attention it now has in the UK. According to Artur, the city’s participation in this project could lead to a growth in tourism. It will also attract invtestment, including by those living in Slonim. One famous resident of Slonim was Michael Marks. After emigrating to the UK, he co-founded the well-known retail chain Marks & Spencer.

As well TV host Natasha Kaplinsky, Michael Marks, co-founder of British retail chain Marks & Spencer, hails from Slonim

The project has already generated interest in Judaism in Slonim. Before the Second World War, Jews accounted for 80% of the population of Slonim. Now, according to the census, there are only a few dozen among the city’s 50 thousand inhabitants. According to The Together Plan, once the synagogue’s restoration is underway, a Jewish community may reemerge in the city.

“We want to support such an initiative,” says Artur Livshyts. “There are a number of people in Slonim who with the support of the authorities have come forward to express their interest.”

As early as the summer of 2018, an international Jewish youth symposium will be held in Slonim, which will be dedicated, among other things, to the architectural heritage.

“We will continue to work on the project, even if a community does not appear in Slonim, but we would be glad to see the Jewish population of Slonim become more active,” added Artur Livshyts.

The first step: conservation of the synagogue in 2018

The plan for the restoration of the synagogues was announced at an event in the House of Commons of the UK Parliament. Influential politicians, scientists and celebrities participated in the event. Although many Members of Parliament have expressed support, Government funding for the project is not expected. A plan of action has been worked out for each synagogue.

Volunteers clearing the grounds of the synagogue in Slonim, 2017

The first stage of the restoration of the Slonim Synagogue has already been completed. At the end of 2017, the state of the building was assessed and urgent repairs identified. External structural supports will need to be erected to prevent the building’s imminent collapse.

“We hope to begin this conservation work within the year,” said Artur Livshyts. “I estimate that it will cost between 100 and 120 thousand dolllars. This is an achievable sum for such a large building. “

Now the search for funding for conservation begins. Asked when the synagogue will be completely restored, Livshyts does not give a precise answer, instead saying that this is a long-term project that will take at least five years. The final cost of the work is unknown, but we are talking about “millions of dollars”.

“I would not rush to give predictions. We need to take things one step at a time. These are not empty promises: we are working hard to realise these plans,” says Livshyts.

The Together Plan joins Minsk Ghetto survivors – and the families that saved them – to mark International Holocaust Memorial Day in Porechye

During the darkest years of the Holocaust, the small village of Porechye, south of Minsk, became home to forty Jewish children fleeing the Minsk Ghetto, whom the villagers adopted into their families at enormous risk to their own lives.

Today, in the run-up to International Holocaust Memorial Day, representatives of The Together Plan joined a commemorative delegation at Porechye for a ceremony of speeches, wreath-laying, and a recitation of the Kaddish in remembrance of the countless individuals who (unlike the Porechye children) did not survive. In attendance was the German deputy ambassador, Anja Luther; Chair of the Minsk Ghetto Survivors’ Association Frida Reisman; Maya Krapina, one of the Porechye children; two inhabitants of Porechye and Righteous among the Nations; and Ekaterina Kosmolskaya, director of the district’s Department for Culture.

Braving freezing conditions, the 40-strong delegation gathered at a roadside monument, before continuing to a nearby town, where we were joined by local schoolchildren. ‘I ask that the village of Porechye be known as the village of kindness, for nowhere else have I met such selfless individuals as in Porechye,’ said Ms Reisman. ‘When we arrived here, though just eight years old, we had become like old men and women,’ she added, now aged 83 and ablaze with life. The Together Plan provides support to the Minsk Ghetto Survivors’ Association in organising social  events and festival celebrations, as well as through our Aid Together humanitarian aid project.

After the commemoration, the delegation retired to a cafe for refreshments. Today, the traditional Jewish toast ‘L’chaim’ – ‘to life’, today of all days so fragile yet so precious – felt particularly poignant.

Minsk Ghetto Survivors’ Association chair Frida Reisman comes to London  

The Together Plan invited and facilitated the visit of Frida Reisman, chair of the Minsk Ghetto Survivors’ Association, to London this week.  At 82 years, this was Frida’s first visit to the UK, and it has been a delight for our London office team and volunteers to spend time with her.

We have been working with Frida and the Association for around four years, during which time we have worked to ease the loneliness of many individuals who still live on the territory that was once the ghetto, bringing the Yiddish music and culture of their youth to them once again and putting on special Shabbat services connecting the younger generation with this most treasured and important group.  Our 2017 Mitzvah Day programme in Belarus involved bringing challot, and company, to survivors living on their own.  We have also provided a significant quantity of humanitarian aid to many of the survivors and their families, many of whom are economically vulnerable.  Ours is the only project of its kind, as we involve the survivors we work with in the distribution of the aid.  This grants them agency and ensures they feel valued as facilitators rather than just beneficiaries.

We are extremely grateful that Frida took the time and made such an effort to come to London and speak at our Friends’ Scheme launch.  Frida also attended synagogue and a special Friday night dinner at The Together Plan’s London headquarters, where she thanked The Together Plan for creating Jewish life (and Jewish food!) both in the UK and in Belarus.  She affirmed that ‘we, the Minsk Ghetto survivors, no longer feel forgotten, thanks to The Together Plan.’

Mitzvah Day in Belarus a resounding success!

The Together Plan once again brought Mitzvah Day International, the UK Jewish social action and tzedakah day, to our partner communities in Belarus.

This year we facilitated our largest ever number of social action initiatives, with activities happening simultaneously in Polotsk, Brest, Minsk, Slonim, Slutsk and Mogilev.  In Slonim the communities laid flowers at the memorial to the victims of the Slonim Ghetto liquidation, and cleared rubbish and leaves from around the ruins of the Slonim Synagogue, alongside medical students from the city as well as our office team from Minsk, with the Israeli ambassador in attendance.  In addition, The Together Plan visited the most vulnerable members of our communities, the elderly and infirm, delivering challot and other items.

At The Together Plan we believe that it is not enough simply to describe our UK annual social action day to communities in Belarus.  Instead it is incumbent on us to empower our partner communities to feel independent and active, participate in tikkun olam (repairing the world) and do mitzvot in their own communities.  This is a transformative process to witness, especially after the years of reliance on external agencies which fostered a culture of dependance.  In their newly found self-sustainability, these communities are now encouraging their members to be a part of the community capacity building that is so sorely needed.

The Together Plan in Minsk celebrates with new mothers

Last week, The Together Plan in Minsk joined representatives of charities and local government to celebrate with new mothers on Minsk Day, an annual city-wide celebration. The Together Plan Co-director Artur Livshyts, representing Dialog – a Minsk-based NGO and partner of The Together Plan which Artur chairs – joined one delegation visiting maternity wards to welcome the city’s newest residents – some 39 children who were born on Minsk Day itself.

The new mothers received donated clothes, toys and disposable nappies – an expensive luxury in Belarus that relieves the significant extra burden that washing and sterilising reusable nappies imposes – for their babies. The Deputy Mayor of Minsk, Igor Yurkevich, also took part in the celebrations, which was featured prominently by Minsk city media, as did Natalia Kravchenko, Director of the Minsk Association of Families with Many Children. The Association is a longstanding and valued partner in The Together Plan’s humanitarian aid project, Aid Together, so we are delighted by the success of this joint event.

Polotsk Jewish Community to feature on TV

The Jewish Community of Polotsk, Belarus, is to feature in a TV series produced by a national television company, which we understand will be broadcast in early 2018. Each episode explores the genealogy of a celebrity guest, uncovering sometimes fascinating stories from their family history – including, in one case, a relative who was a teacher of Torah in Polotsk more than a century ago!

The Polotsk Community was able to provide an insight into Jewish life in Polotsk during the Russian Empire, as well as showcasing the best of modern Jewish life including a session of Sunday School. With a background in working with children herself, our celebrity guest (whose identity we’re required to keep secret for now!) was very taken with the project. The crew also filmed the Jewish cemetery of Bobynichi, near Polotsk, which the community works to maintain. We are thrilled that the visit was such a success and that Polotsk and The Together Plan are to appear on such a prestigious platform. Watch this space for more updates, including where you can watch the programme once it airs.

Minsk Ghetto survivors make national TV in Belarus

The Minsk Ghetto Survivors’ Association – a longstanding partner of The Together Plan – made Belarusian TV last week, as cameramen visited an event attended by the British Ambassador to Belarus, Fionna Gibb. The country’s national TV is producing a documentary charting a day in the life of the British Ambassador, and Ambassador Gibb selected our work with survivors of the notoriously brutal Minsk Ghetto as one of her activities to be featured on the programme.

Through The Together Plan, a close relationship has been forged between the British Embassy and the Ghetto survivors. As well as the Ambassador’s attendance at WWII and Holocaust commemoration events, this friendship has seen the Ghetto survivors, now in their seventies and eighties, invited to social events at the Embassy, including most recently the Queen’s official birthday celebrations which took place last month.

The programme is due to be aired tomorrow, and we are very excited to see it!

Slutsk Jewish headstones moved to safe location

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The Together Plan’s operation to rescue headstones from the dismantled Jewish cemetery of Slutsk, Belarus has reached a new milestone, with the recovered headstones transported to a safe enclosure for storage and cleaning. Protected from loss and damage, we have been able to count the headstones for the first time – and no fewer than 198 precious monuments to Slutsk’s lost Jewish heritage have been unearthed and rescued, as well as a number of smaller fragments.

Now, The Together Plan and the project’s sponsors, the Zeliger Foundation – named for a Jewish citizen of Bobruisk who risked his freedom to preserve the memory of the Holocaust in his hometown, whose relatives are now continuing his work – can begin to plan the project’s second phase. Culminating in the building of a memorial, we plan to create a varied programme of activities for community members of all ages, helping to engage them with their Jewish identity and their community and transforming memory of the past into a vibrant future for the community.

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Photos of Shavuot celebrations in the Polotsk Jewish Community, Belarus

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Members of the Polotsk Jewish Community last week celebrated the festival of Shavuot, which took place on Thursday. Through a series of activities combining education about the meaning and traditions of the festival with fun and enjoyable activities, Polotsk’s festivities put a smile on the faces of everyone present.

Celebrations like these are the product of a longstanding relationship between the Polotsk Community and The Together Plan. Jointly with Finchley Reform Synagogue in London they founded Youth for Youth, a project to build links between young adults around the world and encourage collaboration and the exchange of ideas. Six years, five international summer camps and countless festivals later, Polotsk have gained the skills required to plan and run engaging activities such as these celebrations, which would have been inconceivable just a few years ago.

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Photos of International Women’s Day Celebrations in Minsk

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Last week, members of Minsk’s Jewish community of all ages gathered for festivities, music and dancing in commemoration of International Women’s day. The Together Plan team in Minsk laid on food, drinks and two musicians for the celebrations, which were thoroughly enjoyed by all.

Among the attendees were several survivors of the Minsk Ghetto, including the chairwoman of the Ghetto Survivors’ Association, Frida Reisman. The Together Plan has been working with the community of Ghetto survivors, providing material support and helping them to organise social activities and Jewish events for the community.

The Minsk Ghetto was notorious as one of Europe’s most brutal, where the use of poison gas to kill Jews was first tested, and where German soldiers would routinely raid the Ghetto and murder its inhabitants for sport. Many of the Ghetto survivors now put great effort into educating younger generations about the Holocaust, helping people to comprehend and memorialise it in a bid to prevent anything similar from happening today. Frida and her fellow survivors and righteous gentiles are truly inspirational women, thoroughly deserving of the recognition – not to mention friendship – shown to them last week.

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