Jews had lived in Speyer for 1,000 years, before being deported and murdered in the Holocaust. A former church has been converted into a new synagogue, which is making the community visible once again.
The design is linked with the building's Christian past
"We are here and we don't want to hide from anybody," said Daniel Nemirovski, who manages the affairs of the organization known as the Jewish Community of Rhineland Palatinate.
Here, on the pastureland not far from the main station in Speyer, is the former home of the Catholic St. Guido Foundation. After it was closed in 1996, it suffered the same fate as an adjacent church. In that same year, new immigrant Jews founded their cultural association.
Frankfurt architect Alfred Jacoby converted the abandoned church into a synagogue for the area's new Jewish population. He finds it particularly appealing to be involved with this re-establishment of Jewish life in the area. "My design has connections with the Christian history of Speyer," he said.
However, the Christian past of the building presented something of a religious problem. "We suspected that burials once took place here," said Nemirovski.
The town's well-preserved ceremonial Jewish bath has been restored for use
Rabbi Zeev Wolf Rubins, who oversees the Jewish community of Speyer, explained that it was once very normal for Christians to bury their dead right next to the church.
"I was very worried abut the Cohanim. They are the Jewish descendents of the priests of the Temple of Jerusalem and they must remain pure and must stay away from the deceased," added Rubins. "For that reason they must not enter a cemetery, even a Jewish one. They themselves are buried in separate fields from other people."
After careful examination, the path that leads down to the synagogue was declared kosher because it could be proved that the graves had been cleared.
"A large rock separates another path from any kind of human remains," said Rubins.
Difficult community life
Until now, the few Jews that belonged to the cultural community have worshipped in an urban office building. "We met there twice every month on either a Friday evening or Saturday morning. On two Saturdays each month, the prayers were held in Luwigshafen," said the group's vice-chairman, Georgi Aschkenasi. "Few of the nearly 80 members come to worship because many of the men with us are old and sick."
Rabbi Rubins visits those who cannot get out to pray every Thursday, and on many Jewish holidays.
With the new synagogue Aschkenasi hopes to be able to establish a stable Minyan - that is the quorum of at least 10 adults needed for a religious ceremony to take place.
Also, another organization, the Jewish Community of Speyer, would like to hold its services in the new synagogue. Its chairman Juliana Korovai remembers that her association was trying to push ahead with a similar project back in 1998. "We hope that this synagogue is open for us," she said.
"We have differences in religious matters," admitted Petter Waldmann, state chairman of the Jewish Community of Rhineland Palatinate, referring to Korovai's group. The local community is not regarded as religious enough. However, manager of the project Nemirovski stressed that the synagogue should be open for all Jews to pray - and for everyone, including non-Jews, to become involved in their community activities. As a sign of reconciliation, the new place of worship will be called Beith Shalom - House of Peace.
The synagogue will also host non-religious activities for the wider community
However, Nemirovski has said he will not give the other organization its own premises in the synagogue.
World heritage, Jewish roots
The town of Speyer has been fighting for years to preserve the traces of its extraordinary Jewish history. The Jewish museum was inaugurated in 2010 next to the restored, medieval Jewish Courtyard and is already a tourist attraction.
The city is contributing a third of the cost of building the synagogue, nearly 3.5 million euros. The Jewish Cultural Community, which has its administration in the new building, and the state of Rhineland Palatinate each also share a third of the costs.
Not only does this new synagogue offer hope for the future. It also stands as a tribute to the town's extraordinary Jewish history, reflected itself in the ruins of the old synagogue, destroyed by the Nazis in 1938. Included is the perfectly preserved ritual bath - the mikvah - which dates back to the 12th century and will soon be restored to fulfill its original function.
In autumn 2012, Speyer, along with Mainz and Worms, are to apply for UNESCO World Heritage status. During the Middle Ages, the three settlements were the most important centers of Jewish life in Germany. It's something that makes all the people of Speyer proud - and something they certainly hope the Jewish community of the region will be able to unite around.
Author: Igal Avidan / rc
Editor: Kate Bowen