Jewish Museum of Belgium
Rue des Minimes 21 1000 Brussels, Belgium
Jewish Museum of the Deportation and Resistance
Kazerne Dossin, 153 Goswin de Stassartstraat, 2800 Malines
Grande Synagogue de la Régence
Rue de la Régence 32 1000 Brussels, Belgium
Central Israelite Consistory of Belgium
Rue Joseph Dupont 2 1000 Brussels, Belgium
Centre Communautaire Laïc Juif David Susskind
Rue de l'Hôtel des Monnaies 52, Saint-Gilles, Belgique
The Belgian capital, Brussels, is a cosmopolitan city: a quarter of its population is foreigners. Its Jewish population is similarly diverse. Before the war, the Jewish quarter was located in the boroughs of Anderlecht and Schaerbeek, close to the two main railway stations. This demographic concentration unfortunately facilitated the work of the Nazis during their roundups. At the intersection of rue Émile Carpentier and rue des Goujons, you will find the National Monument to the Jewish Martyrs of Belgium. The names of 23838 victims are engraved in the stone. The square on which its stands has been renamed Square des Martyrs Juifs (Square of the Jewish Martyrs).
Brussels is the seat of the Central Israelite Consistory of Belgium, which represents Belgian Judaism.
Contrarily to Antwerp, the Jews of Brussels are mostly secular, which explains the importance of the Centre Communautaire Laïc Juif David Susskind. It hosts regular cultural events and was named after its former director and influential local figure.
The Grande Synagogue de la Régence, built circa 1878, stands next to the Royal Conservatory and not far from the law courts. The rather conventional facade gives no idea of the dazzling majesty of the interior nor the size of the organ. This traditional community meets on Saturdays and for the main festivals. The male choir and the cantor are renowned. Note that none of Belgium’s synagogues have permanent wardens, but they can be visited by appointment.
English-speaking Jews, most of them working in the city’s European institutions, form a fifth of Belgium’s Jewish community. They attend Shabbat services with Liberal French-speaking Jews. The Beth Hillel Synagogue is strongly attended during Jewish festivals.
Egyptians, Moroccans, Syrians, and Iraqis meet at the Sephardic Synagogue, which is small but very congenial.
Directed by Michel Dratwa, a learned authority on the Jewish world, the Jewish Museum of Belgium has a large collection of ancient and modern documents illustrating Jewish life. The objects exhibited come from Europe, Africa, and Asia. This permanent exhibition is designed to be educational and follows the chronology of the Hebrew calendar. The rites of passage -birth, marriage, and death- are clearly illustrated. In order to provide the Belgian capital with a fitting site for Jewish memory and history, the museum has been given a prestigious annex, a building housing a major Centre of Belgian and European Jewish Art and History.
The Nazis used barracks as assembly camps for the Belgian Jews. Between 1942 and 1944, 25267 Jews were imprisoned in the camps before being sent to Auschwitz. The Jewish Museum of the Deportation and Resistance is presented as a kind of antechamber to death -which in effect it was. It presents the history of the Final Solution and the deportation of the Belgian Jews, half of whom never came back. It pays tribute to those Belgians who saved thousands of Jews, including 4000 children.
Interview of Chouna Lomponda, Head of communications at the Centre Communautaire Laïc Juif (CCLJ)
Jguideeurope: From your experience as a PR for the Jewish Museum of Belgium and today at the CCLJ, what are the priorities in the presentation and sharing of Jewish culture in Brussels?
Chouna Lomponda: When we talk about Jewish culture, we refer to secular and modern culture which the Jews have produced since their encounter with modernity.
Different political and cultural movements have accompanied and shared this Jewish cultural heritage. Quite often, out of conviction or principle, those movements aren’t religious. That’s how the CCLJ functions, contributing to the elaboration of a secular version of Judaism. Such an aspiration fully registers in a secularized Jewish environment.
Regarding its priorities, the CCLJ aims to enable Jews to combine a loyalty to Jewish memory with the universalism of thought, striving for the assertion of a secular, humanistic and tolerant Jewish identity, open on the world surrounding them.
Do you feel a difference in the public’s reception following the terrorist attacks?
With those successive attacks which have shaken Belgium and even Europe, we have witnessed a deliberate willingness to generate collective fears.
Despite that, we discover a sense of solidarity, a more bonded society, more resilient with a desire to “live together”… even if, and it’s a paradox, on the other side, we notice a form of withdrawal and liberation of anti-Semitic and racist speech.
Apart from the Museum of Belgium and the Centre Communautaire Laïc Juif, what place evoking Jewish heritage in the city of Brussels has touched you personally?
It’s hard to answer such a question. But what first comes to mind is the Great Synagogue of Brussels, also known as the Great Synagogue of Europe. It is located between the Palais de Justice of Brussels and the Royal Conservatory of Brussels. And it’s not far from the museum either.
I particularly enjoy its architecture, the way it inscribes itself in the city and its history. For that matter, its a very important and warm gathering place, especially during the religious celebrations, which grants it a sort of status described as the heart of Belgium’s Judaism.
Can you tell us about an event organized soon at the CCLJ which symbolizes for you the attachment to Jewish life in Brussels?
Hanoukah is one of the highlights of our end of the year activities. A celebration enabling each person, religious or not, to feel and express his Judaism. It’s a festive moment which will take place on the 20th of december, punctuated by the lightning of candles by the Bnei Mitsvah of the Year of Judaism, a show and animated musical performance.
During the year, the Centre Communautaire Laïc Juif welcomes writers such as Boris Cyrulnik or Emilie Frèche, directors such as Alexandre Arcady, comedians Michel Boujenah, Richard Ruben and Virginie Guedj to name a few and many others who propose a range of activities addressing every generation…