10 Commandments of Jewish Heritage – Part 1

by Sally Berkovic

15 Jul 10 Commandments of Jewish Heritage – Part 1

The 10 commandments, received on Shavuot, are conceptually divided as commandments between God and Man (e.g. loving God, obeying God) and those between Man and Man (e.g. not to kill, steal or commit adultery) Another term for God is Makom, literally ‘place’ and this essay offers a complementary set of 10 commandments that are between the Place and Man, and between Man and Man (and of course, Woman).

Jewish heritage refers to everything that touches upon Jewish life, culture, art, ritual, history and literature, everything that touches upon Jewish space and Jewish time. A Jewish language, a Jewish building, the Sabbath, the rise of Zionism, Sephardi wedding dress, cantorial music, your grandmother’s Passover plate, an illuminated manuscript, and in our digital age, Jewish websites are all part of a broad definition of Jewish heritage.

This essay introduces a set of 10 commandments – and like any Jewish text, could and should be debated, argued and developed further. These thoughts are based on my experience as CEO of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe and as such, tend to focus on Jewish heritage in Europe, but with the obvious exceptions of Holocaust-related memorials, could be applied and adapted to other countries.

I would also like to acknowledge the stellar work of specialists in the field who have dedicated their professional lives to preserving Jewish heritage and disseminating information about the challenges of maintaining Jewish heritage. I fear they will scoff at the way I have merely touched the surface of the topics raised, but these ‘commandments’ are construed to introduce readers to the breadth and complexity of the issues, rather than focus in depth on any one particular area.

1. Thou shalt not treat every old, derelict synagogue as sacrosanct

Throughout Europe, there are empty synagogues, abandoned by their communities through death, dislocation or disinterest. For example, the ruins of synagogues destroyed during the Holocaust are a poignant reminder of the communities that were destroyed, while the abandoned and locked synagogues throughout the United Kingdom speak to the centralisation of Jewish life in London. Caring for a synagogue – a commandment between Place and Man – requires manpower and funds. A synagogue is known as a Beit Knesset – a house of gathering for the community – but if there is no community, then who is it for? It is also referred to as a Beit Tefillah – a house of prayer – but if there is no-one who knows how to conduct the services, if the Sifrei Torah are not kosher, and if no-one is coming to pray, then what is the purpose of the synagogue? Sometimes a synagogue can be transformed – in Poland, the restoration of the White Stork synagogue in Wroclaw (formerly Breslau) is now used as a popular concert venue, has galvanised the tiny Jewish community and helped the local community learn more about its Jewish history.

In Turkey, an ambitious project to restore nine synagogues in the old city of Izmir is intended to contribute to the regeneration of the area, highlight the diversity of Jewish life that dominated that area and ultimately attract tourist funds. The Center for Jewish Art, based in Jerusalem, continues to build a wonderful resource documenting Jewish buildings – for example, its project on wooden synagogues in Lithuania is fascinating. The complexities of synagogue renovation, the ongoing issues of maintenance and the spiralling costs of these projects mean that difficult, and often unpopular, decisions need to be made regarding synagogue survival.


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Synagouge in Bratislava


2. Thou shalt draw on the stores of knowledge contained in Jewish cemeteries and be programmatic about their ongoing preservation

Cemeteries are replete with the sorrows and achievements of the people that lie within; mass graves are the final indignity where individuality is erased and burial rites are denied. Barely a week goes by without news of another vandalised cemetery in Europe and usually, the host country is quick to condemn such attacks, and paying for the cleaning and restoration of any desecration. At the same time, there is a steady stream of visitors to celebrity cemeteries such as the Chatam Sofer memorial, and the burial site of the Maharal of Prague, the creator of the infamous Golem. Religious pilgrimages to Uman and Lizhensk are popular for men, while women are particularly interested in Krakow’s memorial site for Sara Schneirer, the founder of the Beit Ya’akov network of schools for girls that revolutionised Jewish education for women.

However, there are still hundreds, if not thousands of unmarked cemeteries without fencing or appropriate signage, strewn with overgrown weeds and filled with faded or chipped tombstones. One initiative in Poland to ‘adopt-a-cemetery’ was launched and it will be interesting to see how that develops. Cemeteries without advocates fall prey to the property developers who want the land to build upon and without legal representation or communities to defend the cemetery, it may prove difficult to prevent their use for other purposes.

Cemeteries are also a source of rich information about and genealogists think nothing of spending Sundays wandering through cemeteries collecting family history data that is eventually shared online. Ruth Ellen Gruber has done fascinating work documenting the iconography of Jewish headstones – candlesticksonstone.wordpress.com while at www.billiongraves.com, you can collect photos of the headstones in your local cemetery with their phone app and upload the photos to their site which then becomes part of a vast global resource.

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Graves in the Váci Road Cemetery (Budapest) around 1900 (Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives)


To be continued

Sally Berkovic is the CEO of the Rothschild Foundation (Hanadiv) Europe

The essay was first published in eJewish Philanthropy.

The opening image is a Torah pointer from the collection of the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives.