Rykestrasse Synagogue in Berlin

Friday, 13 October 2023 - 11:00 am (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: General, Berlin
Reading Time:  10 minutes

Nave © Mazbln/cc-by-sa-3.0

Nave © Mazbln/cc-by-sa-3.0

Rykestrasse Synagogue, Germany’s largest synagogue, is located in the Prenzlauer Berg neighbourhood in the Pankow borough of Berlin. Johann Hoeniger built the synagogue in 1903/1904. It was inaugurated on 4 September 1904, in time for the holidays of and around Rosh Hashanah. The synagogue stands off the street alignment and is reached by a thoroughfare in the pertaining front building.

Berlin’s Jewish Community (German: Jüdische Gemeinde zu Berlin), comprising the bulk of Jewish faithful of mainstream (also called liberal, in today’s English terminology ‘conservative’), Orthodox and Reform affiliation, grew strongly in membership in the second half of the 19th century. With the expansion of Berlin into new neighbourhoods, the need of additional synagogues within a walking distance became urgent. However, the Jewish community could not fulfill all the claims for additional premises, so many private synagogues (Vereinssynagogen, literally synagogues of registered associations) emerged scattered over the city. Most Jews in Prenzlauer Berg, however, could not afford to establish a Vereinssynagoge with their own funds. So in 1902 Jüdische Gemeinde zu Berlin bought the site in Rykestraße and its building master Johann Hoeniger (1850–1913) was commissioned to design and supervise the building of this new synagogue. Construction started in 1903, and at noon on Sunday, 4 September 1904, the synagogue was inaugurated with Handel‘s prelude in D major and the Ma Tovu prayer led by cantor David Stabinski (1857–1919), Rabbi Josef Eschelbacher (1848–1916, illuminating the ner tamid) and Rabbi Adolf Rosenzweig (1850–1918) preaching. Almost the complete board (Vorstand) of Jüdische Gemeinde zu Berlin and many members of the elected assembly of representatives (Repräsentantenversammlung) attended the ceremony, while the city of Berlin sent its school councillor Carl Michaelis and Paul Langerhans, president of the city parliament. In the afternoon of the same day, Berlin’s other Jewish community Israelitische Synagogengemeinde Adass Jisroel, solely comprising Orthodox members, opened its own synagogue in Artilleriestraße, today’s Tucholskystraße. Five days later on the eve of Rosh haShana the Rykestraße Synagogue was first time used for its actual religious purpose. With its members of different Jewish affiliations, the Jüdische Gemeinde zu Berlin also offered services in its different synagogues following different ceremonial styles. Some followed old style (Alter Ritus), such as the Old Synagogue on Heidereutergasse 4, especially for the members clinging to the so-called intra-community orthodoxy (Gemeindeorthodoxie, as opposed to seceded orthodoxy [Austrittsorthodoxie], the proponents of which had seceded from Jüdische Gemeinde zu Berlin establishing Adass Jisroel in 1869). Other synagogues applied the new style (Neuer Ritus), often including organ music, (mixed) choirs and additional songs sung in German language. Each synagogue of Jüdische Gemeinde zu Berlin had its own elected Synagogenvorstand (board of gabba’im), which developed synagogal minhagim including their own peculiarities. Rykestraße Synagogue adopted a compromise minhag close to Alter Ritus. Thus rabbis of mainstream and Orthodox affiliation served the congregants.

The upcoming Nazi dictatorship with its anti-Semitic discrimination, invidiousnesses, persecutions, and atrocities changed the lives of German Jewry so thoroughly that disputes on style and traditions fell silent. After the new Nazi government had widely banned Jewish performers, artists and scientists from public stages and lecterns, Rykestraße Synagogue opened for their concerts and lectures organised by Kulturbund Deutscher Juden or benefit performances by Jüdisches Winterhilfswerk (Jewish winter aid endowment) in favour of poor Jews, who had been excluded from government benefits. On 16 February 1934, the synagogue choir under Kurt Burchard (1877–1942, Auschwitz) enacted for the first time the new Friday night liturgy that had been composed by Jakob Dymont (1881–1956), choirmaster at Adass Jisroel synagogue. Dymont composed it along the melodies of chazzanut following the nussach. Also Dymont’s Shabbat morning liturgy was presented in the synagogue. For the 30th anniversary of the synagogue, Rudolf Melnitz reported in Israelitisches Familienblatt that the synagogue had attracted more people and that, with Orthodox and mainstream rabbis officiating, Rykestraße congregation enjoyed a unique richness. The synagogue did not burn during the November Pogrom, then euphemised as “Kristallnacht” (Night of Broken Glass) on 9 November 1938, when Nazis attacked in well organised pogroms synagogues and Jewish businesses. Instead the Nazis ordered – as in other comparable sites too – a “mere” vandalisation and destruction of furnishings, since the synagogue is located within a block of residential buildings. A fire ignited and burning torah scrolls and smashed furniture was soon extinguished before spreading to the actual building. Many windows had been destroyed. Rabbis and other male congregants were arrested and taken to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Jüdische Gemeinde zu Berlin mended the synagogue, one of the few little-destroyed ones in Berlin, and reopened it on the eve of Pessach 1939 (3 April). Regular Jewish ceremonies could be held until, on 12 April 1940, Jüdisches Nachrichtenblatt announced that services would not held be any more in Rykestraße and in the also reopened New Synagogue until further notice. That was the usual way in which Nazi prohibitions were publicised. The Jewish school in the front building was forced to close in 1941. However, the Jewish community formally remained proprietor of the site. In May 1942 the borough of Prenzlauer Berg declared its will to acquire the site paying the ridiculous sum of 191,860 reichsmark (ℛℳ), and effectively on 1 September 1944 the site was conveyanced to the borough. When on 6 May 1943 the Jewish community applied at the Gestapo for a sale permission, since all its property was under custodianship as were any sales proceeds, it named the Heeresstandortverwaltung I Berlin (German Army garrison administration no. I) as the tenant of the entire site, except for two little apartments in the front building still rented out to residential tenants. The oft-mentioned usage of the synagogue by the Wehrmacht as a horse barn is unproven and unlikely. There were no premises and remainders found in the synagogue indicating that usage. Instead it is reported that furniture was stored in the prayer hall. The furnishings (chandeliers, lustres, menorot, ner tamid, cupper coverings of doors) of the synagogue made from non-ferrous metal, which was scarce and much needed for war production, were not dismantled.

© Mark Ahsmann/cc-by-sa-3.0 Nave © Mazbln/cc-by-sa-3.0 Stained glass rose window © Mazbln/cc-by-sa-3.0 The lectern for preaches © Mazbln/cc-by-sa-3.0 West side © Mazbln/cc-by-sa-3.0 Entrance © Mazbln/cc-by-sa-3.0 © Helge Høifødt/cc-by-sa-4.0
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Stained glass rose window © Mazbln/cc-by-sa-3.0
The prayer hall lacked most of its benches, and the aron kodesh was screened off by a raw provisional wall built after April 1940. Sanitary installations had been dismantled and the destroyed windows exposed the interior to the impact of weather. Erich Nehlhans (1899–1950, Soviet Gulag), who survived the Shoah living underground, the new president of Jüdische Gemeinde zu Berlin much promoted the reopening of Rykestraße Synagogue. He informed the city council that on Friday, 13 July 1945, the first shabbat ceremony was held, also attended by Soviet City Commander Nikolai Berzarin, however using the better preserved and smaller weekday prayer hall. On 29 July 1945 Rabbi Martin Riesenburger could celebrate the first Jewish wedding there since the closure of the synagogue in 1940. Jewish displaced persons, who survived the Shoa and were stranded in Berlin, used to live in the front building. The great prayer hall was provisionally refurnished with benches. A new central bimah replaced the original one located directly in front of the aron qodesh and thus also screened off by the wall. Services were held on Rosh Hashana 1945 and Pessach 1946, before another closure for a more serious refurbish 1946/1947.

On 12 September 2004, the centenary of Rykestrasse synagogue was solemnly celebrated, cantor Jochen Fahlenkamp singing “Adoshem Malach” by former Rykestrasse choir conductor and composer Jakob Dymont (1860–1956). The synagogue’s interior, which now seats up to 1,074 people, originally sat 2,000. After more than a year of work to restore its prewar splendor, it was rededicated on 31 August 2007, this time as an Orthodox synagogue, with separate seating and an Orthodox Minyan. The inauguration saw rabbis bringing the Torah to the synagogue, in a ceremony witnessed by political leaders and Holocaust survivors from around the world. “It is now the most beautiful synagogue in Germany,” the cultural affairs director of the Jüdische Gemeinde zu Berlin, Peter Sauerbaum, said. Today, Berlin has the largest Jewish Community in Germany, with 12,000 registered members and eight synagogues.

Public tours through the Rykestrasse Synagogue are available on Thursdays between 14:00 and 18:00 and Sundays between 11:00 and 16:00. Tours are offered in German; an English tour starts at 16:00 on Thursdays. Entry is permitted until 17:30 pm and no entry is permitted at any other time. Services are held on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. The Synagogue can easily be accessed by public transport through the underground line U2 (stations Senefelderplatz and Eberswalder Strasse) and the tramway line M2 (stations Knaackstrasse and Marienburger Strasse).

Read more on jg-berlin.org – Rykestrasse Synagogue, visitberlin.de – Synagoge Rykestraße and Wikipedia Rykestrasse Synagogue (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State - Weather report by weather.com - Global Passport Power Rank - Travel Risk Map - Democracy Index - GDP according to IMF, UN, and World Bank - Global Competitiveness Report - Corruption Perceptions Index - Press Freedom Index - World Justice Project - Rule of Law Index - UN Human Development Index - Global Peace Index - Travel & Tourism Competitiveness Index). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.




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