Great Synagogue

1671

Great SynagogueThe Great Synagogue is the oldest of the four synagogues in which the Jewish Historical Museum is housed. Of all these former synagogues, the Great Synagogue was always the most prestigious. It has often been depicted and much has been written about it.

The Ashkenazi community of Amsterdam was founded in 1635 and at first small groups of Jews held services at different places. As the flood of Jewish refugees fleeing the wars and pogroms of Eastern Europe increased, the community grew and the need for a large central Ashkenazi synagogue was felt. In 1670 a plot of land was purchased for the purpose.

The architect and contractor Elias Bouman was engaged for the project. He had already built a house for de Pinto family and some years later he was to build the Portugese Synagogue.

The design of the Great Synagogue reflects the influence of city architect Daniel Stalpaert. It is similar to Amsterdam's Oosterkerk, which he built.

Hoogduijtse Joodse Kerck, Justus Danckerts, ca. 1675The total cost of the building was 33,000 guilders. To finance the construction, the city of Amsterdam provided a loan of 16,000 guilders to the Jewish community. Money was also raised by the sale of seats in the synagogue.

The ceremonial dedication of the synagogue took place on 25 March 1671. It was the first Ashkenazi synagogue in Amsterdam to be a recognisable as such from outside.
The two square houses built alongside the synagogue were the mikveh (ritual bath) on the corner and the boardroom and sexton's residence. The tall chimney on the roof of the corner house belongs to the mikveh.

Plattegrond Grote Synagoge, situatie 1671The Great Synagogue is almost square. The inner dimensions are 16 by 17 metres. Four white marbled columns carry the vaulted wooden ceiling, which runs east to west.
An eighteenth-century register shows that the Great Synagogue could seat 399 men and 368 women. The building has galleries on three sides. Two of these were women's galleries, which explains the high screen.

Since the third gallery had a low screen, and was meant for men, it is clear that from the start the Great Synagogue was always full. In the centre of the hall stood the bimah, arranged around it were the seats.

A characteristic feature of the building is the imposing marble Ark presented to the community in 1671 by Abraham ben Isaac Auerbach of Coesfeld.
At the top of the Ark, surmounted by the Crown of Torah, are various Hebrew texts. The inscriptions at the base of the columns flanking the doors of the Ark, state the benefactor's name and date in Hebrew: (5)431 (=1671), and the dates of two restorations in 1855 and 1913.

Great SynagogueAn engraving made in 1737 by Pieter Tanjé after a drawing by L.F. du Bourg shows the original interior.

Restoration and rebuilding
Over the centuries many changes were made to the building.
In 1776-1777 the corner house was extended and an entrance porch was added on Nieuwe Amstelstraat, spanning the width of the synagogue.

In a later renovation in 1822-1823 the current neoclassical entrance was added. That was when the mikveh, by then reserved for guests, was decommissioned. Other mikvehs had since been built in the vicinity.

Great SynagogueThe mikveh was rediscovered here in 1976-1987, when the building was restored and adjusted as a museum.

Around the same time it was also discovered that while two of the three galleries had been for women, the third was for men.

Other changes mainly involved the windows. In 1776 stained-glass windows in iron frames were inserted. In 1855-1856 the entire synagogue complex was renovated. Wooden window frames were reinserted and the blue of the interior was painted over in dark brown and ochre.

In 1911-1913 a sloping concrete floor was laid, a choir balcony was built above the gallery on the Nieuwe Amstelstraat side and brightly-coloured stained-glass windows were placed in the east wall of the Great Synagogue.

Second World War and after
In September 1943 the German occupying forces ordered the synagogue to close. In the winter of 1944-1945, when food was in short supply, the galleries were broken up for fuel.

In 1954 Amsterdam city council took over the plundered complex, including the New Synagogue and the smaller Obbene and Dritt Shul. Under architect J. Schipper a thorough restoration was took place in 1966. Following the refurbishment by Premsela Vonk and Partners with architect Roy Gelders in 1976-1987 the complex was assigned to the Jewish Historical Museum. This restoration returned the synagogues to their situation in 1822. The changes that had been made after this were removed.

Great Synagogue in 2004 (photo Liselore Kamping)On the ground floor of the Great Synagogue the exhibition focuses on Jewish religion and tradition.


The galleries of the Great Synagogue feature a presentation on the history of the Jews of the Netherlands from 1600 to 1890.

A virtual reconstruction of the synagogue complex shows the interior in 1700 and 1935.

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