The Jewish people's personal belongings are scattered all over the world: It has synagogues, prayer books, tombstones and cemeteries in various countries. Jews no longer reside in some of these places, and all they left behind is slowly disintegrating.
The "Journey to Jewish Heritage" project, initiated by Beit Avi Chai and the Zalman Shazar Center, aims to locate and document the remnants of Jewish life. Budgetary constraints now threaten the project's existence, and if it is shut down, an entire world will be lost with it.
"We may be losing out last chance to document important evidence of Jewish existence in the Diaspora," said Hannah Holland, the project's director. "We are talking about disappearing communities – some of them diminished because of the Holocaust, some of them because of emigration. When we visit these places, we are met with remains of a splendid past and try to salvage last pieces of evidence of what once was, but now is gone.
Wall painting uncovered in Chernivtsi synagogue (Photo: Avital Vibran)
"Beyond that, the program also gives students from Israel the opportunity to take part in a very moving encounter with people and places that are part of their people's history. Students of all different backgrounds take part in this project – religious, secular, new immigrants, old immigrants, Israel-born. They come from a variety of academic fields: Architecture, painting, photography, history, and more.
Uncovering ancient tombstone in Greece (Photo: Tomer Appelbaum)
"After the training they receive with us, they go to document the disappearing communities and this gives them the rare opportunity to create a very strong connection to their people. They are given the chance to feel rare books with their own hands, to touch tombstones, to enter ancient synagogues – and this chance will be lost."
Time is an important factor in the journey that Holland takes with the students. Time is not kind to the memories, and it eats away at them and breaks them to pieces. Each year, less is left.
"What we find today is not what could be found 10 years ago," Holland said. "Last summer we uncovered a beautiful wall painting in a synagogue in Chernivtsi, which is now in the hands of the Evangelical Church. This painting is no longer there. Our documentation is the only documentation of it.
"The same applies to tombstones. In one of the places we found a tombstone from the 15th century, and in another place a student uncovered his grandmother's tombstone by chance. In Georgia, we documented an ancient synagogue that may not still be standing. This project, in many cases, is the last chance."
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