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The Uilenburgersjoel

By Louise Laurence-Israëls

The Uilenburgersjoel (Uilenburger Synagogue) was built in Amsterdam in 1735, in the center of the Jewish quarter. Regular services were held there from 1735 until 1942. The Jewish quarter was a lively area in the center of Amsterdam where people spoke Dutch with some Yiddish and Hebrew woven into the language. Next to the sjoel was a large square, het Waterlooplein. A market was held at the square every day but Saturday. The women got together to share their family news; they gossiped and bought their food for the day. The sjoel was in the center of it all.

Services were halted abruptly during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, when most of the Jews who lived in the quarter were deported to concentration camps, where most of them were murdered. Miraculously, bombs missed the old sjoel. The Ark, Torahs, and other religious objects and books disappeared, and the building started to deteriorate.


A view of the Uilenburger Synagogue in 2008. —Marion Golsteijn, Wikimedia

Apartment buildings around the synagogue where Jewish families had lived were demolished after the war. Later a metro was built, and under the water, a tunnel was made to connect the center with the northern part of Amsterdam, and land was used for the entry of the tunnel. The Jewish quarter is now no more. The market is still there, but much smaller, and there are no more Jewish men selling their wares with loud voices.

Some years ago, the municipality of Amsterdam decided to restore the old synagogue. Now you can lease it for concerts, weddings, etc.

Twenty years ago, three young Jewish people started a new congregation and called it Beit Ha’Chidush, House of Renewal, an unaffiliated community. Although Amsterdam has a few orthodox and one liberal community, they wanted a more open and lively community where everybody would be welcome. They met at people’s houses and grew to be a congregation of a few hundred members. Without a rabbi, the services were led by lay people.

After Beit Ha’Chidush was in existence for nine and a half years, the congregation hired a rabbi. She was the first female rabbi in the Netherlands. The congregation decided to rent the Uilenburgersjoel for services. Since it is costly to rent the building, services are only held at the sjoel three times a month.

On one of my usual visits to Holland, my sister and I decided to check out the Friday night service there. We parked the car close to the sjoel and found a café to have dinner. We enjoyed smoked salmon on toast with a glass of white wine. Then we walked to the sjoel. It was a cold winter night; we entered the building with a lot of people, everybody dressed in heavy, black winter coats. Everybody wishing each other Shabbat Shalom.

We climbed the stairs to the sanctuary. Offices and classrooms are on the lower level. Folding chairs, five rows deep, were arranged in a circle, just a small opening was kept for the portable Ark. The rabbi and two young, female cantors were part of the circle. The prayer books were just photocopies, but  the service was wonderful. People of all ages were there, many of them students, and everybody participated. So many child survivors attended the service. We talked afterwards and treated each other as old friends. I felt so at home. It was extra special for me to see this new congregation enjoy a great service in the old sjoel.

Jewish life was destroyed in this area 80 years ago. Thanks to the vision of some young people however, they have an enthusiastic congregation that attracts people of all ages and backgrounds, and they use the old Uilenburgersjoel again.

On my next visit I will return to services, and I will bring my family.

© 2022, Louise Lawrence-Israëls. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.