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Excavations in Vilnius lead to the rediscovery of the Bimah at the site of the Great Synagogue

 

The archaeological excavations at the site of the Great Synagogue at the very heart of Vilnius have resulted in a sensational revelation – the foundations of the Bimah, i.e. a central part of the synagogue, a platform, from which Rabbi reads Torah and leads the services. It was located directly under the school building that was constructed atop the site in 1952. The archaeology project began in 2011 with a preliminary excavation, and last year, in 2017, two miqve (ritual baths) were found. This year, in June, a joint group of Israeli, American and Lithuanian archaeologists have succeeded to unearth a big outer back wall and part of the floor of the Great Synagogue, and part of the Bimah.

‘On behalf of all the people of Vilnius I would like to thank everyone for their joint efforts. The extraordinary finding of the archaeologists this year – the Bimah of the Great Synagogue in Vilnius, the platform from which the Tora had been red for centuries – is a gift to everyone. The spiritual and cultural heritage of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius obliges us and enables us to believe that by the year 2023, for the 700th anniversary of Vilnius, we will have perpetuated in a worthy and dignified way the Great Synagogue, which was ransacked and torched by the Nazis in World War II, and finally torn down by the post-war Soviet regime. I have no doubts that in cooperation with the local and foreign Jewish communities, scholars and researchers, we will be able to restore the fame and significance of the Vilnius Great Synagogue as an invaluable heritage both for Vilnius as well as the world’, said Remigijus Šimašius, Mayor of Vilnius.

This year’s archaeological excavation has been led by Dr. Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Justinas Račas of the Kultūros paveldo išsaugojimo pajėgos.

‘The research into the history of the Synagogue and its site has revealed a nice symbolic coincidence: the Vytė Nemunėlis primary school with its principal’s office right atop the most sacred synagogue place – Bimah. How much wisdom must have been imparted! The Great Synagogue was a true centre for the Jewish culture and education in Vilnius, and Bimah was the centre of the Synagogue itself, that is why its rediscovery is of particular significance’, said Dr. Jon Seligman.

Constructed in the 18th century, the Bimah was donated by the noted Jewish benefactor known by his acronym as the Yesod. The ornate Bimah, was a two tiered Baroque structure with four Corinthian and eight Tuscan columns. Pieces of these columns were found during the excavation.

In addition, large sections of the walls of the bath, and the men’s miqve (ritual bath) decorated with coloured tiles, and the corner of the Synagogue were exposed for the first time. This is only the first research results and they show the further potential for excavation at the site and the exciting possibility that more unique fragments of the Great Synagogue of Vilna (Vilnius) & the Shulhoyf will be discovered in the future.

‘Today, we can enjoy the great discovery, the size of which equals the Greek Acropolis, and such findings do not happen every day in Vilnius. I would like to thank the Mayor of the capital for his goodwill to perpetuate in the future the memory of the Synagogue, which will definitely contribute to Vilnius’s acclaim. The Goodwill Foundation and the Lithuanian Jewish Community will make every effort to preserve this synagogue and show it to the public so that the Lithuanian Jewish culture is better known to the visitors’, said Faina Kukliansky, the Chair of the Lithuanian Jewish Community.

The work was aided by Zenonas Baubonis (Kultūros paveldo išsaugojimo pajėgos, Lithuania); Prof. Richard Freund (University of Hartford, Connecticut, USA); Prof. Harry Jol (University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire, USA) and Prof. Philip Reeder (Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, USA).

It is supported by the Israel Antiquities Authority, Kultūros paveldo išsaugojimo pajėgos, The Good Will Foundation, and the Lithuanian Jewish (Litvak) community. The project is also supported by the City of Vilnius.

The research is partially financed by the Good Will Foundation implementing the project of PE Kultūros paveldo išsaugojimo pajėgos, project title: The archaeological research of the Great Vilnius synagogue and Shullhoyf, project No: GVF-271/2017(2)PR. Partner of the project – Lithuanian Jewish (Litvak) Community.