In December 2023, Izabella our Heritage Trainee for Wales visited the Merthyr Tydfil Synagogue. The synagogue was bought by the Foundation for Jewish Heritage in 2019 as a priority due to it being the oldest surviving synagogue in Wales, and one of the better historical examples of synagogues in the UK.
The Foundation for Jewish Heritage is a charitable incorporated organisation founded in 2016 which works internationally to ensure that important Jewish architectural sites, monuments and places of cultural significance in danger are preserved and re-imagined for a sustainable future. The Foundation is currently supporting efforts to save several prioritised historic synagogues in danger which were identified through the mapping project that the Foundation commissioned the Centre for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to undertake. This established an inventory of the historic synagogues of Europe. It was this work which led to the Foundation taking on the former Merthyr Tydfil Synagogue as one of its projects.
A Jewish population is indicated in Merthyr by 1830, this presence is cemented by the building of the first synagogue in 1848, another was subsequently built in the town but with the population growth of the Jewish community at the time, both soon proved to be too small. On the 15th of March 1876 at the top of the hill on Church Street, the cornerstone of the current surviving synagogue was laid. The synagogue was opened at the end of June 1877, it was built in the heavy Northern Gothic style and has several interesting features.
The building is spread over four floors; a small lower ground floor, which contained a ‘mikvah’, a bath used for the purpose of ritual immersion; an upper ground floor, which takes up the front half of the building and, according to plans from the late 1970s, comprised a lobby and staff room with a school room behind; a first floor, which takes up the full length of the building, which was the main synagogue space, with stairs and a bathroom within the front section; and a second floor, which was a balcony area that contained the Women’s Section with a large central void looking down to the main space and stairs, with a store and a bathroom at the front. The balcony has since been removed and a floor extended across the full space to create a fully separate first and second floor.
The structure was listed as a Grade II* building in 1978 “primarily for historic interest as the oldest remaining synagogue building in Wales, built in heavy Northern Gothic style” (Cadw).
In the 1980s the synagogue was deemed no longer viable as the Jewish community in Merthyr had dwindled significantly, and so the building as sold off in 1983. The building was used as a Christian centre and then later a leisure centre/gym by the local community, and many residents of the town still remember that as the main purpose of the building. In its current state you can still see where some of the gym facilities, including the changing rooms and different studios have been added to the building.
Following the building’s sale and subsequent use, the listing was downgraded to Grade II status due to the loss of interior features. A site visit by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Wales in March 2017 confirmed that the building had deteriorated badly, and photographs revealed large holes in the roof.
Since the synagogue’s purchase by the Foundation for Jewish Heritage in 2019, urgent repairs were carried out on the building in 2021.
Following a feasibility study and Project Development Grant from the Architectural Heritage Fund in 2020, in June 2022 the Foundation for Jewish Heritage were awarded a development grant by the National Lottery Heritage Fund to develop plans to repair the building and establish “an educational, nationally-focused Welsh Jewish Heritage Centre within the building representing the national story of Welsh-Jewish people.”
Since receiving this funding, a design team and a business and activities team have been hired to plan for the development of the building. There are several issues with the building which need to be resolved before it can be returned to functional use and be developed into the Jewish Heritage Centre the Foundation have envisioned.
A large part of this project involves ensuring that the building is fully accessible. With four floors and step only access currently, there are already plans underway on where a lift will be installed, starting at lower-ground level and going up to the top floor.
Another obstacle that must be overcome for the building to be functional is the transformation of the upper floors. When the building was bought and used as a gym, a floor was added in the main synagogue space where the balcony was in order to create two separate rooms. To restore the synagogue so that it is closer to its original state and honour the heritage of the building, this floor will be removed, an ark similar to the original placed where it once would have been, and another balcony created. This will open up the space and serve two purposes, it will be closer to how the original building was set out when it was used as a synagogue, and it will create a more versatile space for the Heritage Centre, with multiple ways that the open room can be used for activities, events, interpretation and exhibition functions.
These changes to the fabric of the building, though necessary and integral to the development of the building as a heritage and education centre, also mean that certain parts of the building have already been allocated specific functions and therefore limit how the rest of the building can be adapted. Making sure that the building is as versatile and multifunctional as possible is the aim of the design and activities teams. Discussions are already underway on how best to ensure that there is an area for offices and if that necessarily needs to be within the building or can be off-site. Additionally, the Foundation for Jewish Heritage own a small portion of the land surrounding the building and are working to assess the feasibility in making that into a garden attached to the synagogue, an element which will need to be addressed early on as access will potentially be blocked once the building has had work done.
In addition to the physical changes of the building, the team working on the project is also undertaking community engagement to make sure that the residents of Merthyr Tydfil are aware of the project and feel like it is something which they are involved in. Unlike many similar projects, this project has started from a more top-down approach where the Foundation has purchased the building to restore it for the community, rather than it being a grass-roots community project initially. To make sure that this is a successful endeavour and can be a sustainable and functional part of the topography of Merthyr Tydfil, the project has also employed a community engagement officer. This community engagement officer is making sure that residents local to the synagogue as well as more generally to Merthyr are aware of what is happening with the building and can see and be a part of the change to the building. This includes a project open day which will be happening in Merthyr Tydfil in February 2024 to ensure that the project gets as much exposure as possible.
Whilst exactly how the building will change and develop is still not completely certain, the plans for how it will be used and the functions that it will serve have already been decided. Once the development plan has been completed, the Foundation for Jewish Heritage will be applying for a delivery grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund which will cover much of the physical work that needs to be undertaken, as well as covering the interpretation and activities planning, which will involve employing staff to oversee interpretation and activities in the centre.
The aim is to have the centre resemble the synagogue it once was as much as possible, by restoring some of the features such as the Ark in the main hall, as well as the beautiful stained-glass windows. This is to ensure the heritage of the building is preserved and honoured. The restoration of these parts of the building, though not making it a functioning synagogue for worship, will tell the story of the building to those who visit. There is also an element that this is what is expected for the building and so will be carried out.
The main purpose of the building, however, will be to tell the story of the Jewish population in Wales. This will cover the Jewish community that lived in Merthyr Tydfil and established the synagogue, but more widely will also cover the stories of Jewish communities across Wales, the diverse people that have come to live and be a part of the Welsh national community, as well as the interfaith dialogues that have been started and are ongoing as a result of this migration. The interpretation and storytelling within the building will not only be historical but will reflect more modern and current dialogues and stories of the Jewish community in Wales and their experiences.
Thanks to Neil Richardson and Ashley Collins.
To find out more about the Merthyr Synagogue and the restoration project, go to their website: www.jewishheritage.wales
There is a project open day for the Merthyr Tydfil Synagogue on 18th February 2024, you can download the flyer here: Synagogue Open Day