Exciting plans for a heritage centre in an historic synagogue in Wales




Plans to restore and repurpose an historic synagogue in Wales are attracting great interest. Around 500 people attended a special Open Day to find out more about the proposal to create a Welsh Jewish Heritage Centre in the striking Victorian Synagogue in Merthyr Tydfil.

The Foundation for Jewish Heritage stepped in to rescue the empty and deteriorating site in 2019, when it purchased the building and carried out urgent repairs. Now the Foundation is developing plans to give it a new lease of life with support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund Wales, the Welsh Government and Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council.

Merthyr Tydfil Synagogue was built in the 1870s and is the oldest purpose-built synagogue surviving in Wales. The Jewish community grew during Merthyr’s boom years as an industrial centre during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Jewish shops and businesses catered to the relatively well-paid workforce, and Jews were prominent in the civic life of the town. By the 1870s, the community was able to commission a splendid new synagogue.

When the synagogue opened in June 1877, the local newspaper reported on ‘one of the most interesting ceremonies … ever witnessed here’ and described the building as ‘one of the finest and boldest looking buildings in the town’.

A small Jewish community continued to thrive in Merthyr until a combination of post-industrial economic decline and the migration of young Jews to larger cities led to its demise. The synagogue closed its doors to worshippers in 1983. It had various short-term uses, including as a gym, before being permanently closed in 2004.

At the Open Day, visitors were able to see inside the synagogue for the first time in 20 years. Many were local people who fondly remembered Jewish personalities from the town’s history. Others came from further afield. One visitor from London, Yudi Cohen, is a Cantor (someone who leads the congregation in prayer) and he gave an impromptu and moving rendition of ‘Hashivenu’ in the synagogue. His grandfather had himself been a Cantor in the Merthyr synagogue in the 1950s.

Visitors also had the opportunity to meet the professional team driving the Welsh Jewish Heritage Centre project, view architect’s plans, and examine fascinating artefacts associated with the former Jewish community.

Many of those who attended brought their own memories, and memorabilia, associated with Jewish life in Wales, and these were recorded by members of the team, as were general comments and feedback on the project itself.

Special visitors included local MP Gerald Jones, Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council Leader Geraint Thomas, National Lottery Heritage Fund Wales Director Andrew White, Rabbi Rose from the Cardiff Jewish community, and various representatives of local Merthyr organisations and families who had once been members of the congregation.

The event concluded with a band playing rousing traditional klezmer music which had participants dancing!

Dame Helen Hyde DBE, Chair of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, commented, ‘It was a very special occasion that demonstrated the huge level of interest in the project. We received lots of good information and feedback that will help to shape the future of the project. The excitement in the room was palpable!’

Michael Mail, Chief Executive of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, added, ‘The numbers coming through the door surprised us all. And the stories that people brought with them of being Jewish in Wales, or their experience of the Jewish community, were fascinating and often moving. We felt very encouraged that the project was truly widely welcomed and will be widely supported.’

For more information about the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, including the Merthyr Tydfil project, visit www.foundationforjewishheritage.com.


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