A couple of Sundays ago, Rachel and I visited the city of Groningen which is hosting the David Bowie Is exhibit at the main museum. The museum is directly across from the train station, but after a two-plus hour train ride from Leiden, we needed lunch before our entry time and walked towards the town center.

As we walked to lunch we passed this synagogue, having had no idea it existed. Overview Groningen synagoge, ca. 1939Note that I had one goal for the day, and that was the museum exhibit. I had no reason to look further into what the town had to offer. Had I given the Groningen page in Lonely Planet Netherlands a peak, I would have taken note. So it was a surprise. Had we taken a different little lane into town, I never would have seen it. A sandwich sign in front announced hourly tours from 1pm until 5. At 4 we entered and requested a tour in English and shortly after a woman whose English was passable started to tell us about the building’s history we were joined by another half-Jewish couple and learned much of the following.

In 1916, the Groningen Jewish community numbered about 3000 and the previous synagogue was unable to seat weekly attendance in excess of 600 worshipers, so they hired an architect to design a new building. Oddly the architect was not Jewish, but he had a wide range of influences. Rachel (who was raised in the Church of England) has been in a few synagogues with me and when our guide asked, what’s strange about this one, her answer was immediate and accurate: ‘It’s shaped like a church.’ And indeed it has a nave and a transept, and a dome at the intersection. In addition, there are elements of Spanish mosques as well such as the alternating light and dark brickwork of the arches on the second level.

The tour itself, after the history lesson, was sort of Judaism 101, but the history of the building was quite interesting. Many of the original artifacts were destroyed, but the building itself was simply used for storage (What did they store here? The answer, ‘As far as we can tell, confiscated radios mostly,’ elicited a sigh of relief. After the war, it spent several decades as a laundry, but funding to reconsecrate it as a synagogue was successfully raised in the early 1980s.

We visited the mikveh which was discovered much later. The baths had been tiled over in the years since WWII and the architectural designs had long since been lost, but being an orthodox synagogue, it was known there had to be a mikveh somewhere. Just off to one side and just barely, as far as I could tell, within the property of the synagogue.

At this point there’s enough of a community in and around Groningen to justify services twice per month. I don’t remember the number precisely, but of a pre-War population of over 3000, something less than 50 returned. From what I gather, the synagogue in Leiden (which I’ve never visited, and which does not share a welcoming sandwich board with tour hours on a Sunday morning) also has services only about twice per month. The liberal synagogue in the Hague is a little more community-facing with weekly services, but I’ve only visited that one once as well.

Rachel commented that it would have been great to share the Groningen venue with my folks when they last visited. Perhaps next time.