How An Attempt To Save a Synagogue in Belgium Led To Jewish-Muslim Cooperation

Arlon synagogueBy Liam Hoare
eJewish Philanthropy

The town of Arlon in the French-speaking part of Belgium, near the border with Luxembourg, is home to a small Jewish community with around fifty members whose roots can be traced back to the twelfth century. Their synagogue, built in the neo-Romanesque style and designed by Albert Jamot, opened its doors in 1865 and survived the campaign of destruction the Second World War brought upon Europe.

But as Rabbi Jean-Claude Jacob explained to me, since October 2014 the synagogue has been closed. Over time, water had seeped into the skeletal structure of the building and it was feared the whole thing would collapse. Services – the synagogue usually used every Shabbat and on high holy days – were moved to a smaller, temporary venue in the meanwhile.

“A few weeks later, I was contacted by Belgian television who announced to me that the Muslim community had issued an appeal for donations for the synagogue,” Rabbi Jacob said. Indeed, through a fundraising campaign launched by the Association des Musulmans d’Arlon, €2,400 were raised towards the repair and restoration of the synagogue.

“I was very touched and amazed at this movement, which although symbolic, demonstrated the good agreement which reigns between religious communities in Arlon,” Rabbi Jacob said.

“Rabbi Jacob had said in a local newspaper that he had become a ‘wandering Jew,’” Dr. Mohamed Bouezmarni, administrator of the Association des Musulmans d’Arlon, told me. “We decided to intervene as we were deeply touched. We know this situation because we have not a mosque either for our Services.”

“The Muslim community has been responsible in its approach and joined the action. There was some reluctance. Some people didn’t understand why we wanted to raise money and help the synagogue while we barely can ensure the rental of our own building. With teaching skills and reminding the values of generosity, sharing, equity and belief in the future that extols our Religion, the last reluctance vanished.

“Everything is a matter of priority. It’s true, we haven’t got a mosque but it is more urgent to help the synagogue that falls apart,” Bouezmarni said.

The total amount needed to restore the synagogue in Arlon is a lot larger than €2,400 – €400,000, in fact. But this example of Jewish-Muslim cooperation attracted attention from media, national and local government, and outside donors. Work on repair of the synagogue is due to begin later this year, with a good chunk of the funding coming from the regional administration in Wallonia.

While the Jewish community of Arlon is indeed small, Rabbi Jacob explained to me that the importance and function of the synagogue there goes beyond worship. Prior to its closure, it was used for cultural events, as a venue where schoolchildren could go on field trips to learn about Judaism, and as an item of Jewish heritage it remains a valued tourist attraction in the town. Saving the synagogue, then, is a civic as well as a Jewish concern.

“We call on all benefactors to continue this movement by donating to the account of the Jewish community of Arlon to save this exceptional building,” Rabbi Jacob said.

What this donation has also done is “reinforce the friendship bonds that already united” the Muslim and Jewish communities in Arlon, Bouezmarni concluded. “Even if we have been ‘living together’ for years, sometimes side by side, this is a new phase; we put a step forward to the ‘act together’. This situation unified us and made us come closer together.”

As the demographics of Europe change in the coming years and decades, cooperation between Jews and Muslims – not just on political issues but on a social, cultural, and religious level – is only going to become more important. To that end, the Conference of European Rabbis – Europe’s main Orthodox rabbinical alliance – has announced the creation of the Muslim-Jewish Leadership Council, in cooperation with Islamic Relief Worldwide and the Islamic Council for the Federal Republic of Germany.

The Muslim-Jewish Leadership Council, its organizers claim, will “enable information exchange about the local and national communities’ needs, concerns, challenges and the day-to-day experience of living a minority religious identity in Europe. The Muslim and Jewish communities share a common heritage, and have been connected by many bridges in the past. The Council will serve to build more bridges between and among these communities in future,” according to a press release.

The new council used its first public statement to call on European leaders to do more to ensure safety and shelter for those refugees leaving the Middle East and north Africa for Europe. Future meetings of the Muslim-Jewish Leadership Council will occur in the winter of this year and the spring of 2016, when how the aims and intentions of the council can be translated into practical progress on interfaith issues will become more apparent.