I Will Rebuild You and You Shall be Built…

Official reception for Belgian government leaders in the Great Synagogue of Antwerp.

By: Yaakov Rosenfeld, Ganzach Kiddush Hashem

Tears filled the eyes of the elders of the community in Antwerp, Belgium during the reception held in the Great Synagogue for Belgian government leaders, led by the prime minister and the mayor of Antwerp.

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The construction of the Machzikei HaDaat Great Synagogue, the largest and most beautiful in Belgium, began before WWI, but was halted for several years due to the World War. The synagogue was inaugurated in 1918 and in recent years underwent a thorough renovations costing millions of Euros.

The synagogue is huge and magnificent in its beauty. The great hall has 500 seats, and about the same number in the gallery of the women’s section. Its walls are decorated with special and rare works of art and large magnificent chandeliers hang from its ceilings and spread precious light. The highlight is of course the magnificent Ark of the Covenant, which incorporates stones from the Land of Israel.

Jewish Belgium knew beautiful days between the two world wars, and the terrible Holocaust that “smothered the foundation of Israel” mortally wounded this ancient Jewish community as well. A large part of the members of the community were killed, some escaped, but the traumatic memory that was always engraved in the heart of the survivors of the community was from the intermediate days Passover in the year 5701 when Flemish Nazi rioters broke into the synagogue and disgracefully desecrated it.

The Torahs and the holy books were thrown into the street in disgrace, and the building was vandalized and damaged almost to the ground.

After the Holocaust, the few survivors, “the people who had excaped the sword,” who were broken and torn, returned and began to restore the building. They invested everything they had and what they didn’t have and together they restored the synagogue’s face and shape. The building was suitable for use, but it is difficult to say that it was returned to its original state.

In recent years, the place became neglected, and signs of aging were evident in every corner. The community’s businessmen prepared a plan for renovation, and the Belgian government, due to the symbolism of the building and its history, approved a special budget of millions of Euros for the renovation and restoration of the building.

The renovation work was finished for the High Holidays of 5782 (2021), and the synagogue is once again spectacular in its beauty. The great building has returned to its glory days, as in old times.

This week, on Sunday Iyar 16 (May 7th), a reception was held in the synagogue for the Prime Minister and the leaders of the Belgian government, as a token of recognition and appreciation for standing firmly alongside the Jewish community and its institutions.

Prime Minister Mr. Alexander de Croo was received in the synagogue with respect; he visited and even gave a speech. Ministers and their assistants were present at his side as well as Antwerp mayor and city council members, chiefs of police, and ambassadors of the USA, Great Britain, Hungary, and Germany among other dignitaries.

The leader of the community, Rabbi David Wohl, spoke and he mentioned the head of the Ponevezh Yeshiva, Rabbi Kahaneman, a man of vision and action, who lost nine of his ten children in the Holocaust and never stopped dreaming and building. Rabbi Kahaneman once visited Italy and passed by the foot of the well-known relief at the Titus Gate. He looked at the relief of the image of Titus and fell into tears. Then he cried out from the bottom of his heart:

“Titus, Titus! Where are you today?… You killed and slaughtered us, destroyed the Temple and exiled us. Titus, where are you today? We went through everything but got up and rebuilt. Judaism is alive and vibrant, and you? And your legacy?…”

The Prime Minister made a speech; he stopped from time to time due to the applause of the audience. The prime minister surely deserves a handsome reward for his speech, as his words touched hearts and sparked great emotion.

In his words, he told about a Jewish boy in Ukraine, during World War II, who, just before his family was expelled from their home, managed to bury his father’s Kiddush cup in the ground. His whole family went to the stake, but the little boy was saved. He managed to reach his home and dig there and found the cup… the boy took the cup and immigrated to the USA with him, and since then it accompanied him all his life. He used the cup on Shabbat and holidays, at celebrations and events. The cup always accompanied him.

How much this trophy symbolizes the Jewish people, the Prime Minister declared. How many times have they been buried and stepped on, and here they are alive and well, and their stature is upright, all strong and immense, joyous and full of vitality! The country of Belgium will continue to be a warm home for its Jewish residents!

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The prime minister was honoured by lighting a candle in the “Golden Menorah”, then Rabbi Rabbi Moshe Ellach, one of the elders of the community, approached him and told him that he himself was present during the intermediate days of Passover when the Nazis desecrated the synagogue and destroyed every good part of it. He witnessed all that happening, and now he is here, an elderly Jew who was able to shake off the ashes and rebuild.

The prime minister stood up excitedly, shook his hands and greeted him warmly.

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After the moving speeches given by the mayor and the representatives of the government and the community, Rabbi Shraga Feivel Zimmerman, a rabbi from London, spoke and said:

“I am here on behalf of my father, a native of Antwerp who was expelled from the city by the Nazis, and since then has not been able to return. In his words, he called on the heads of government: I stand here in his name and on his mission to ask that you continue to support the Jewish community so that it can be built and prosper, and continue to protect the members of the community from cases of antisemitism and hatred.”

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Photos courtesy of i velt and the JDN website