The Great Synagogue in Budapest is not your typical Jewish temple. If you ever visited a synagogue before you probably noticed they are quite simple and austere places of prayer. But not this one! Located in downtown Budapest, the Great Synagogue stands tall and majestic on Dohány Street, within the Jewish Quarter. This is the largest Jewish temple in Europe and the second largest one in the world.
The History of the Great Synagogue
The second half of the 19th century was a period of prosperity for the Jewish community of Budapest. As a result, the Jews founded many institutions during this period, including the Great Synagogue on Dohány Street. The building was designed by Ludwig Förster, a German architect who believed that there was no distinctively Jewish architecture. Thus he chose “architectural forms that have been used by oriental ethnic groups that are related to the Israelite people, and in particular the Arabs.” The construction ended in 1859.
At the time, the Great Synagogue in Budapest was quite an architectural achievement. With its golden dome flanked by two towers and its lavish interior, the synagogue was the pride of the Jewish community in Budapest. Jews have always been entrepreneurial merchants, shopkeepers and craftsmen. Many of them were very affluent people which explains the opulence of this building.
During World War II, the Germans used the synagogue as a radio communication center. As many other structures in Budapest, the synagogue suffered a lot of damage during the bombings of 1944. The building remained in a state of total disrepair until the 1990s, when a full-scale restoration began. The synagogue was rededicated in 1996.
What to Expect When Visiting the Great Synagogue in Budapest
The Great Synagogue in Budapest has a central nave resembling that of a cathedral. The nave is decorated in a Moorish style with a mixture of Byzantine and Gothic elements. The interior walls have oriental motifs in shades of pink. There are beautiful frescoes and ornaments, many chandeliers, lamp-brackets, a beautiful pulpit and even an organ.
In line with the ancient Jewish tradition, at the east wall of the Synagogue stands the Ark of the Covenant containing the Torah scrolls. During the World War II a couple of Catholic monks hid the scrolls, thus saving them from the Germans. The scrolls have been later returned to the Jewish community.
On top of the synagogues you can see the stone tablets with the ten commandments. Above the main entrance gate there is an inscription in Hebrew reading: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25,8).
Today the synagogue’s community is more inclined toward integration into the Hungarian society. As such, they practice a less traditional form of Judaism which allows women to sit in the same room as men. In the same new spirit, they allow organ music during the ceremonies.
The Great Synagogue Complex
The synagogue complex consists of the Great Synagogue, the Heroes’ Temple, the Cemetery, the Holocaust Memorial and the Jewish Museum.
The Heroes’ Temple was added to the complex in 1931 as a memorial to the Hungarian Jews who lost their lives during World War I. The temple can seat about 250 people and is used for religious services during the winter time.
The Cemetery located in the backyard of the Synagogue was the result of a historical circumstance. Although it is not customary to have a cemetery next to a synagogue, during the winter of 1944-45 over 2,000 people died in the Jewish ghetto and were buried here in improvised mass graves (95 per grave).
The Holocaust Jewish Memorial sits in the rear courtyard, behind the Synagogue and the Heroes’ Temple. The Memorial erected in remembrance of the 400,000 Hungarian Jews who were murdered by the Nazis in the Second World War. The Memorial resembles a willow tree on whose leaves are written the names of victims.
The Jewish Museum is adjacent to the synagogue. The museum features Jewish traditions, costumes, as well a detailed history of Hungarian Jews.
Opening Hours and Guided Tours
You can visit the Great Synagogue in Budapest every day of the week except for Saturdays, when there are prayer services. Guided tours in several languages are available between 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. The tours are very informative and even entertaining, so I encourage you to book one if you plan to visit the synagogue complex. You’ll hear amusing stories and get valuable insights into the Jewish community in Budapest.
Inside the synagogue men have to wear a small skullcap called kipah or yarmulke (handed out at the entrance). Women have to have their shoulders covered.
The Great Synagogue in Budapest is primarily a house of prayer and worship, but it occasionally hosts cultural events and music programs.