Hidden in the former Jewish quarter of Iaşi near its historic center, the Great Synagogue is a remnant of a time well before the Holocaust, when more than half of the city’s population was Jewish. It was built in the late seventeenth century from brick and stone, with a fresco decorated interior. The beautiful sanctuary has always been the highlight of the building, with a large, wooden aron kodesh, or torah ark, as its centerpiece.
The synagogue has undergone various reconstructions and restorations over the centuries, along with enduring the effects of a natural disaster, religious intolerance, and political abuse in the course of its history. The garden that originally encircled the synagogue is long gone. After a consolidation project was halted in 2008, the Great Synagogue of Iaşi sat covered by scaffolding with no waterproofing mechanisms in place to protect it. Inclusion on the 2014 World Monuments Watch aimed to generate greater awareness about the importance of the building and the precarious state of deterioration it faced.
The Watch as catalyst for action
Inclusion on the Watch and the celebration of Watch Day, a public engagement event supported by WMF, in June 2014 helped garner much-needed support for the Great Synagogue. Close to 200 participants enjoyed guided tours of the building, traditional Jewish music performances, and arts and crafts activities that focused on the synagogue for school children. Months later, the Ministry of Culture resumed conservation works on the synagogue, spurred by the government’s financial commitment to the project and pressure from the Federation of Jewish Communities in Romania (FEDROM). In the summer of 2015, the scaffolding that had covered the synagogue for almost a decade was removed, finally revealing the restored façade and roof.
Also in 2015, WMF collaborated with FEDROM thanks to generous support from the David Berg Foundation and WMF’s Jewish Heritage Program Endowment to support the emergency stabilization of the nineteenth-century wooden aron kodesh, which was in an advanced state of decay. A restoration team carefully dismantled the aron kodesh and treated all the sculptured wooden elements against biological infestation including insects and mold. Where necessary, the team performed pre-consolidation of the detached polychrome layers prior to removal and treatment of the elements.
During a second phase of work from 2016 through spring 2018, supported by the Robert W. Wilson Challenge to Conserve Our Heritage, the restoration team carried out the remaining conservation work, including the treatment of the wall, and the reinstallation of the aron kodesh.
The restoration work ensures that this historic, religious, architectural, and artistic site will be recognized once more for its remarkable value.