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THE BUILDING

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GRONINGEN SYNAGOGUE: A MOVING HISTORY

"Small and not particularly beautiful" was how Groningen's previous synagogue was described. Since 1756 she had been doing modest service in the Kleine Folkingestraat, also known as the Jew Alley. But in 1905 the old shul made way for a trendy and a much more striking successor. She was demolished, followed by building the new shul on the sazme spot. A lot of bickering within the Groningen kehillah (Jewish community) preceded it. Not because of the unusual Moorish style, but because of the costs. Who had to pay for that?

 

Around 1900, approximately 2,700 city-Groninger Jews attended the service in their shul in the Folkingestraat on Sabbath morning or on Jewish holidays. This shabby building from 1756 was too small and ugly: nothing like the Jewish 'church', where you you wanted to be seen and show off a bit. During service, shul was packed, visitors sitting too close to another.

The Jewish Stadjers (city inhabitants), especially the wealthy part with their manufacturers, doctors, lawyers, professors, shopkeepers, merchants, and other socially successful people, wanted to change things for the better. They wanted to compete with the other beautiful houses of worship in the city centre.

At the end of the 19th century, the board of the Jewish Congregation was eager to demolish the old synagogue and have a beautiful new one. The choice for an architect soon fell on the well-known protestant church architect Tjeerd Kuipers (1857-1942) from Friesland. Around 1903 the members of the Jewish Community of Groningen had seen him leading the construction of the Zuiderkerk on Stationsstraat, which is only a couple of hundreds meters away from the synagogue.

 

No understanding of synagogues

Architect Kuipers had designed dozens of churches, but he didn't know much about synagogues. To gain inspiration, he made travelled Germany. In Berlin, Kuipers was impressed by the Moorish or oriental style of, among other things, the synagogue on Oranienburgerstrasse. The building was built at a time when the German Jews wanted to express their Eastern roots in their synagogue architecture. The striking oriental dome on the building and themany horseshoe arches in the exterior walls and interior were said to be "very Jewish" at the time. However, around 1900 the German Jews disregarded this oriental/Moorish fashion in synagogue building, and opted for a more neutral architectural style instead.

A bit oriental, a bit Christian, a bit Jewish and a bit of Groningen

The actual construction of the synagogue did not start without a struggle. The board had to deal with fierce protests from its own rank and file, about the question 'who will pay the bill?'. The Jewish Congregation did't have enough money. But the protests were of no avail: the new synagogue was built in 1906. There is an outstanding comment on the remains of the old synagogue in an advertisement of bailiff Fr. De Boer, Vischmarkt Zz 46 in the Groningen newspaper "Nieuwsblad van het Noorden": 'Beams, Planks, Window frames, Doors and a large batch of Firewood'. The construction of the new synagogue was awarded to contractor M. Meijer in Leeuwarden, for an amount of 52,945 guilders.

 

The new synagogue became a real 'polder shul'. With something oriental, something Christian, something Jewish and something Groningen. The windows in the facade and the towers, the arches on and under the galleries inside: it is obvious that the Groningen synagogue was built in the Moorish style. Characteristic are the horseshoe arches in the windows and around the doors. Kuipers' Christian background and extensive experience with church building also had a major influence on the design of the building. The classic church shape is clearly visible: a short and a long barrel vault that together form a cross, a transept, an apse, a central nave and two side naves. The many stained glass finishes it off completely.

 

Laundry Astra

After the Second World War, the Jewish Congregation could no longer keep its synagogue in its possession. The number of members was too small to pay for the maintenance and heating costs of the enormous building. In 1952 the Jewish Congregation saw no other solution than to sell the synagogue. From then on, services were held in the smaller former youth synagogue in Folkingedwarsstraat.

 

The synagogue became a laundry, dyeing and dry cleaning with the name Astra (star). And that led to the decline of the building. The chic copper chandelier was sold by the Jewish Community and the proceeds were used to sponsor a retirement home in Israel. The Holy Ark with its ornate carvings disappeared without a trace, as did the many rows of dark oak benches. The wrought iron gates of the women's gallery were demolished and removed.

 

The room was filled with washing machines and clothes racks. The vapor from the machines was discharged with pipes that protruded right through the beautiful stained glass. A church of the Apostolic Society was built on the women's gallery. A floor ran from gallery to gallery, creating a church space with room for 350 worshippers. The Moorish arches were bricked up and the walls painted white. A canteen had been built in the gallery under the Star of David.

 

Saved

The laundry closed in 1973: almost every household now had its own washing machine. Nobody wanted to buy the building. The municipality of Groningen did not know what to do with it. Demolition seemed the only option.

 

Then the building was saved by an initiative of Lenny Wolgen-Salomons. After years of vacancy, impoverishment and looting, the soulless and leaking building was restored in 1980 and 1981. At least one miracle happened: during the restoration work, a man walked into the shul with a metal garden fence under his arm. "This fence is from here," he declared. The restorers had the copies of the fence made that adorn the gallery to this day.

 

The rest of the building was given a total makeover in 1981 by the Amsterdam industrial designer Piet Cohen (1935). He designed a completely new interior, including Holy Ark, seating, bima, amud (post) and lighting. The modern, geometric design deliberately forms a strong contrast with the oriental, round style of the rest of the building.

 

Since the restoration, the Groningen synagogue is in full use again. The religious part by the Jewish Community as a shul. The public part by the Folkingestraat Synagoge Foundation, now Synagogue Groningen, as a space for a permanent exhibition about Judaism and Jewish Groningen, temporary exhibitions, guided tours, concerts, education and lectures.

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