a personal triumph and a service to generations of Jews past, present and
future, Rivka and Ben-Zion Dorfman have succeeded in documenting European
synagogues and communities. Synagogues Without Jews and the Communities
that Built and Used ThemNational Jewish Book Award for the
year 2000. won the
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The project is the
culmination of five years of research by a couple who have been married
for over 50 years, lived on two continents where they built separate careers
and raised their two daughters. As retirees, they worked together for the
first time on an idea that became a passion. For a couple who’d always been
very independent of each other, they suddenly found themselves together 24/7.
Rivka earned an M.A. in Ancient Semitic Languages and Art of The Ancient
Near East at Columbia University and studied art history and Jewish art at
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “I’m an educator and Ben-Zion is a
geneticist. Ben-Zion put the project together on a scientific basis,” says
“It was a period of fulfillment and
creativity. Even though there were tensions it was the best period of our
life,” says Rivka. “We’ve gained so much. Jews and non-Jews whom we met and
the local volunteers all added another dimension to the book.”
When they began the project, which
extended over a five-year research period, their aim was to show that synagogues,
including their art and architecture are an important aspect of Jewish culture.
The project evolved over a five-year
research period, during which they traveled to Europe for a total of 54 weeks.
On their visits they collected information and photographed 350 synagogue
buildings. During that time, they built an archive of 20,000 pictures. According
to Rivka Dorfman, “Our attention was on buildings that had been a synagogue
at a given time. We recognized that we had a valuable archive of synagogue
histories and knew it should be published,” continued Rivka.
In fact, their hunch was correct and
prior to publishing the book, the Dorfmans wrote a comprehensive article for
the Encyclopedia Judaica with over 100 photographs and texts. They
also developed an exhibition that was displayed in Yad Va’shem, from
1994 to 1995; at the World Jewish Congress in 1996; and in the Knesset in
“We realized that we needed to put
our findings in a book,” says Ben-Zion.
As originally conceived, the Dorfmans
planned to study only the art and architecture of the synagogues. But as
the project evolved “we realized that the nishama (the soul) was missing.
That was when we began to research the communities. We made a point of finding
the small villages and towns, continues Rivka. “We were amazed that Jews
had lived in so many places.”
They found many buildings still standing
in various degrees of desecration and ruin. The Hebrew descriptions on and
in the buildings helped the Dorfmans to understand what the central hopes
and beliefs were to each kehillah (community).
“We were received in a very friendly
way,” says Ben-Zion. “People (in the communities) often went to find someone
who spoke German where there was no other common language. Volunteers in
Jerusalem, who’d lived in the countries we’d visited were willing to transcribe
or translate interviews.” At times when communication was an issue, the Dorfmans
gave villagers questionnaires to complete, which they brought back to Jerusalem
“In many places we found Jews remaining,”
said Ben-Zion. “Most of the people were courteous and friendly. The older
people had no trouble identifying the synagogue even if the building had
been taken over to be a storeroom.”
entered a new town, “We found a synagogue and could identify it was we were
driving by. The architecture was often distinctive and the structure was
in or close to the town square,” said Ben-Zion.
“We were amazed at how many people
who we met on the street had a Jewish ancestor,” says Rivka. It gave the
Dorfmans a sense of the widespread assimilation and intermarriage.
Aside from townspeople, the Dorfmans
met with mayors, museum curators, and many others. Via word of mouth and
validated through University letters attesting to the fact that they were
recognized researchers, the couple found many doors opened to them. They found
their work was appreciated on a local level as well. They were consulted
on issues that arose with regards to synagogues that were being restored
to historic conditions.
“In the town of Novibijov, the man
who runs the museum is a scholar,” recalls Ben-Zion. “He’d studied the Jewish
cemetery and is know trying to learn Hebrew so that he can read the tombstones.”
In a small ghetto in the town of Kosovohora
there was a synagogue in an advanced state of desecration. The people who’d
moved into the “Jewish homes” around the synagogue were concerned with the
research. When the Jews were deported they’d moved into the houses. They
remembered a great deal including which family lived in each home and the
family business. Additionally, they maintained the Jewish cemetery.
“Very few Jews came to visit many
of these towns since the Holocaust. Some people hosted us overnight. They
were very generous,” continues Rivka.
After talking with the Dorfmans it
is no surprise that they found others to be generous. The couple, who were
married in 1945, speaks with such warmth and enthusiasm, that it is hard
not to get excited and want to join in their work.
In fact while they were on a recent
lecture tour in the US, where they gave 40 lectures in 29 cities over a five-month
period, two women elected to make career changes to study Jewish art, on
an academic level. That news “gave us great satisfaction,” said Rivka with