Religion and society New Synagogues and Jewish Buildings in Germany and Ireland

Ulm Synagogue
Ulm Synagogue | Photo: Yohan Zerdoun

“The Secret of Redemption is Remembrance” (Monument to Ulm’s Jewish community who perished during the Holocaust outside the new Synagogue)

In the night from 9-10 November 1938 – the infamous Kristallnacht (night of broken glass) – over 1000 Jewish synagogues across Germany and Austria were attacked, damaged or burned to the ground. The historic synagogue in Ulm was one of them. Since the end of the Second World War, over 100 new synagogues have been built in Germany. The latest was inaugurated in December 2012 in Ulm by Germany's Federal President Joachim Gauck. Among the 300 invited guests were former Jewish citizens of Ulm, who had fled during the Second World War.

Often located in key urban settings, new synagogues in Germany tend to adopt a decisively contemporary built form, such as Munich’s impressive Ohel Jakob Synagogue (2006) on Sankt-Jakobs-Platz. Designed by architects Rena Wandel-Hoefer and Wolfgang Lorch as a striking travertine stone building with a glass cube on top, the synagogue forms part of a larger ensemble with a Jewish Museum and a Holocaust memorial. In Dresden, a highly contemporary new synagogue and community centre by architects Wandel Hoefer Lorch with Nikolaus Hirsch was built on the same site where Gottfried Semper’s 1840 synagogue had stood for nearly 100 years before it was destroyed during Kristallnacht.

Ulm’s synagogue is also just a stone’s throw from where the original building had stood, with the city authorities providing a free site on historic ‘Weinhof’ square. The city also ran a design competition in partnership with the Israelite religious community of county Baden-Württemberg (IRGW), who provided the funding. Cologne-based architects, kister scheithauer gross (ksg), emerged successfully with a design that “enriched this highly sensitive location in the city of Ulm without detracting from its unique character”, according to the city’s head of construction projects, Alexander Wetzig.

When approaching Ulm’s new synagogue, the simple cubic volume (24-m wide x 16-m deep and 17-m tall) creates a marked contrast to the steep gables that characterise Ulm’s architecture. The light-coloured Dietfurt limestone, which envelops the building, also provides a welcome relief to the darker stone of the Ulmer Münster, which towers over the city. The synagogue’s smooth stone façade is only broken on the south-east by an exquisite corner window with a Star of David pattern. At night this radiates a mesmerising light onto the public space with stars dancing on the pavement.

“The Star of David window and its orientation towards Jerusalem (south-east of Ulm) was one of the post-competition design changes and the outcome of detailed discussions with the Jewish community under Rabbi Shneur Trebnik”, explains architect Susanne Gross. Trebnik represents a steadily growing Jewish community in Ulm of over 450 members. Prior to the Holocaust, Ulm’s Jewish community was 700 people strong and included the young Albert Einstein. Trebnik’s congregation is Jewish Orthodox and as such the design brief called for a dedicated women’s gallery on the upper floor, which is separated via a screen from the main prayer room. “The timber screen can be demounted during non-sacred events, such as concerts, where the formal separation of women and men is not necessary”, illustrates Gross.

The synagogue’s prayer room is undoubtedly the most significant interior space and treated as such architecturally. Entered from the ground floor level, the prayer space has a soaring height and is illuminated by natural light from the Jerusalem window and from a soft roof light. The focal point is the tall Torah, positioned in the south-east corner of the room. A raised platform, comprising a lectern from which the Torah scrolls are unrolled and read, stands in front and is called the Bimah. While, the synagogue appears deceptively small from the outside, it contains a complex inner life of community rooms, offices, a ritual bath (Mikvah) in the basement and a kindergarten on the rooftop. The restraint form reveals only glimpses of the synagogue’s inner life and public interest in guided tours is strong.

In Dublin, plans are underway for extending and upgrading the Irish Jewish Museum, located in a former synagogue in Portobello, in the south city centre. Portobello was once a thriving Jewish quarter, known as ‘Little Jerusalem’ with Jewish kosher butchers, bakeries, grocery stores, tailors and bookshops. Two terraced houses at Nos. 3 and 4 Walworth Road had served as a synagogue since 1916 and were adapted into a museum in 1985, when much of the Jewish population moved to the suburbs. The museum was officially opened by the Irish-born former President of Israel, Dr. Chaim Herzog, who grew up on nearby Bloomfield Avenue. Also around the corner is the fictional home of Leopold Bloom, Joyce’s Jewish protagonist in Ulysses. The museum incorporates the former prayer room and houses a wide range of manuscripts and objects that tell the story of the Jewish community in Ireland. Yet because of “severe congestion and lack of adequate space, much of the rich collection of material has never been on display”, says the museum. The proposed museum, which is currently in the planning process, will comprise archive storage, more exhibition space as well as improved visitor facilities including an audio-visual theatre, a café, shop and garden.