150 Years Old and 20 Years New




I had the privilege of visiting the off-the-map Jewish community of Giessen last week; Giessen is a small German town, located an hour outside Frankfurt.

As I come from such a community myself, Harrogate in Yorkshire, England, I could closely relate to the struggles for existence where the entire Jewish community is measured in lower three figures.

My guide was Mr Dov Aviv, who is Chairman of the Giessen Jewish Community.

Dov himself originally hails from Jaffa, Israel, and has lived in Giessen for around 30 years. He originally moved to Giessen to take a degree at Giessen University in Veterinary Medicine - at the time there were no equivalent courses in Israel  - later switching to dentistry, which he still practices in the town.

The Jewish community numbers around 400 people, of whom the overwhelming majority (90%) emigrated from the Soviet Union after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The community center is a small campus of buildings consisting of a synagogue, an events hall, administrative offices, a student housing facility (like Hillel House), a mikve and a small museum.

The highlight is undoubtedly the synagogue, which is 150 years old, and 20 years new.

After a history stretching back to the 12th Century, almost the whole Jewish population, at its peak around 1200 people, was murdered by the Nazis or fled the country. The Jewish community buildings of Giessen were all destroyed either in Kristalnacht or during the War itself.

A local researcher discovered a rare surviving synagogue in Wohra (also known as Gem√ľnden an der Wohra), about 100 km from Giessen, which was found in a state of disrepair and used by the neighbour as a storehouse.

This attractive wood and stone construction apparently dated back to the 1860's.

The Giessen community obtained the permission of the 'caretaker' neighbour in Wohra, and of the sole identified survivor from the Jewish community from Wohra, then living in Israel, and then dismantled the building stone by stone, transported it, and lovingly rebuilt it in Giessen.

 

The synagogue furniture is a reproduction of the original furniture which had been found still in the building in Worha, but had barely survived and was unusable.

There are three sifrei Torah. The synagogue holds services on Shabbat and achieves a regular minyan, with a little cajoling and encouragement from Mr Aviv and his colleagues. They do not have a permanent rabbi, but rather bring in rabbonim/service leaders from Frankfurt each week.

The "ezrat nashim" Women's Gallery
Outside the shul is a decorative plaque in memory of the victims of the Nazis from Wohra. It is a moving tribute at the relocated and renewed synogogue.
Memorial Plaque to Wohra's Victims of the Nazis
The walls of the community center displayed photos from some of the many community activities, which include parties & celebrations of Purim, Hanuka and the main Jewish festivals. I was touched to see the number of kids participating in these activities and also the weekly "cheder" classes every Sunday.

The achievements of the Giessen Jewish community are incredible - literally rebuilding from the destroyed community and creating a viable and often thriving new community.

Giessen so reminded me of my home town of Harrogate, where my father and his colleagues have kept the struggling small Jewish community going for decades, against all odds - and with so many accomplishments to be rightly proud of.

Mr Dov Aviv in the Giessen Jewish Community Hall
 


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