A Jewish heritage organisation has bought a disused but architecturally significant 145-year old synagogue in the Welsh valleys, with plans to turn it into a museum of Welsh Jewry.
The Foundation for Jewish Heritage, based in London and led by Founder and Chief Executive Michael Mail, announced that it had bought Merthyr Tydfil Synagogue on Thursday, more than a year after first declaring an interest.
“We are delighted to have bought the former Merthyr Tydfil synagogue, which is currently in a very poor state,” said Mail.
“The building is a nationally-recognised historic site which we want to use to tell a unique national story of the Welsh Jewish community. In restoring the building, we want it to once again play a meaningful role in the life of Merthyr.”
A Grade II stone structure completed in 1872 and designed in Gothic Revival style, it is the oldest purpose-built synagogue still standing in Wales and is considered “architecturally one of the most important synagogues in the UK today”.
Merthyr Tydfil was the industrial powerhouse of Wales in the 19th century, and its largest town. There has been a Jewish presence there since the 1830s and the Foundation said the shul “reflected a community that was growing and prospering,” with more than 400 members in the early 20th century.
However, as the town’s fortunes changed, the Jewish community of Merthyr dwindled, and in 1983 the synagogue was sold. It was used for various purposes, but since 2006 it has lain empty, except for a colony of bats.
“Its condition has deteriorated and the fabric of the building has been compromised with a gaping hole in the roof and broken windows,” the Foundation said last year.
In its annual report, filed at the end of September 2018, it said the site had “become our current special focus”, along with the Great Synagogue in Slonim Belarus and the Etz Hayim synagogue in Izmir Turkey.
After the Merthyr synagogue was put up for sale, the Foundation canvassed views on the creation of a “Welsh Jewish heritage centre that would recognise, celebrate and educate about the 250-year history of the Jewish community in Wales”.
It said the idea was “well received by the Merthyr Municipality” and local Jewish and heritage communities in Wales, and a feasibility study was undertaken, considering issues such as future funding, including the possibility of a Heritage Lottery Fund bid.
The Foundation, which claims Sir Simon Schama among its trustees, would not be drawn on the purchase price, and was now seeking funding for the restoration work.
It hopes to work with a team in South Wales currently creating an oral history of Welsh life of yesteryear, and a team led by Prof Nathan Abrams at the University of Bangor, which is fundraising to preserve and showcase Jewish life in North Wales.