Jews in lockdown around the world are being invited to take a newly-available 3D tour of the magnificent 16th century Great Synagogue of Vilna in the Lithuanian capital.
Once one of the wonders of the Jewish world, the synagogue was the beating heart of European Judaism for millennia, able to accommodate 5,000 worshippers, but was badly damaged during the war before being destroyed by the Soviets.
Those who are house-bound because of the coronavirus pandemic can now “visit” the famous synagogue online after researchers recreated the site’s complex, courtyard and interior in three dimensions using photos, drawings and accounts.
The virtual tour of the seat of European Jewry’s intellectual, spiritual and political capital was launched this week to mark the 300th birth anniversary of Vilna Gaon Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, one of the most influential figures in rabbinic study in the Middle Ages.
“In these days of limited travel possibilities, this new project, placed entirely in virtual space, offers a possibility to explore the famous synagogue from any corner of the world,” said organisers at Historical Vilnius.
“It reveals realistic footage of this important historical site, which marks yet another crucial milestone in preserving Lithuania’s Jewish heritage.”
The synagogue was originally built across five floors, two of which were below ground level, and could host up to 5,000 worshipers – far more than other similar structures at the time.
A team of archaeologists from the United States, Israel and Lithuania have been working at the site for nine years, and there are plans for a Jewish Holocaust memorial centre at the site by 2023, when Vilnius celebrates its 700th birthday.
Before World War II, there were 135 synagogues in and around the city but the Great Synagogue was the undisputed centre of spiritual and cultural life for Litvaks (Lithuanian Jews).
It was founded at the end of the 16th century when the Litvak community was granted the right to attend their houses of prayer. The first synagogue was wooden but in 1633 King Wladyslaw IV Vasa allowed a brick building in the Jewish Quarter.
The synagogue could not be taller than the nearby churches, so the architects built two floors below ground level, meaning that from the outside the synagogue was three stories tall, in fact it was spread over five stories.
Three original pieces from the Great Synagogue of Vilna survived the destruction and are now on display at the Vilna Gaon Jewish Museum: a door of the Holy Ark, a reader’s desk, and a bas-relief of the Ten Commandments.