France to rescue Europe’s ‘oldest Jewish building’

(JTA) – French authorities allocated approximately half a million dollars toward the preservation of what is believed to be Europe’s oldest known Jewish building.

Restoration works are to begin in October to save the damaged parts of the Sublime House, which some historians believe was the seat of a 12th century yeshiva in the city of Rouen 70 miles northwest of Paris, the newspaper Tendance Ouest on Wednesday reported.

Discovered by accident in 1976 under the parking lot of Rouen’s courthouse, the building was dedicated in 1980 and celebrated by Jewish community representatives as one of the most significant archaeological finds ever made about French Jewry because it shows how ancient the community is. The European Association for the Preservation and Promotion of Jewish Culture and Heritage describes it as “the oldest presently known Jewish building in Europe.”

The building – whose floor space is 1,615 square feet and whose walls feature Hebrew inscriptions reading “May the Torah Reign forever” and “This house is sublime” – was closed to the public in 2001 over fears that terrorists might target the building or try to blow up the courthouse above it, according to Tendance Ouest.

The site was reopened for visits in 2009, but humidity and poor ventilation took their toll on the structure, requiring urgent intervention if the building is to remain standing, according to the paper. The total cost of the restoration is estimated at $867,000, with 65 per cent of the funding coming from the French government and the local municipality. The remainder is slated to come from grants and donations.

Built just after the First Crusade in the heart of the Jewish Quarter of Rouen, the building is a testament to the spiritual and material wealth of the Jewish community of France, for which Rouen was a major hub. Around 5,000 Jewish people are believed to have lived in the quarter right in the heart of town, until the expulsion of the Jews from France in 1309.

The building’s exact function is, however, disputed. Some archeologists believe it was a private residence of affluent Jews, while others theorize it was a synagogue, according to the website of France’s Fondation Patrimoine – a non-governmental organization that helps promote conservation projects.

In June, Fondation Patrimoine launched a fundraising campaign to augment and contribute to the Sublime House’s restoration project. The group has so far collected $37,000 in donations for the project out of its target sum of $55,000 being collected by the group.

The reopening of the Sublime House is planned for 2017.

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