10 Abandoned Synagogues of Europe & America

The peeling ceiling of one of America's many abandoned synagogues. This building was demolished soon after this photograph was taken. (Image: Dan Pawlowski; the abandoned synagogues of Europe and America)

As one of the world’s oldest religions, Judaism has a long and fascinating global history. From the Jews of Spain and the Habsburg Empire, to the early Zionists who arrived in Israel seeking religious liberty, to the immigrants who flowed to America’s shores, the Jewish story is long, turbulent, and utterly compelling.

Just as fascinating are the traces of these movements, left across the surface of the world. Old synagogues, tucked away in side streets, or standing empty in historic medieval town centres. In some cases, the story behind their abandonment is one of persecution and tragedy. In others, it is merely prosaic; the result of too few funds or economic migration. Join us as we examine the atmospheric ruins of 10 abandoned synagogues found across Europe and the USA.

Abandoned Greenbank Synagogue, Liverpool, England

(Images: Trevor BishendenTrev Bish Photography)

One of Liverpool’s unsung treasures, the glorious Art Deco Greenbank Synagogue was once a focal point for the city’s thriving Jewish population. Built in the 1930s, it took the modernist fixation with light and open space and ran with it, creating a building that was at once traditional and cutting edge; airy and intimate. At its peak, it had a congregation of 700 flocking to it on a weekly basis. But its days as a gathering place were numbered. By the time it closed its doors in 2007, only around 40 people were attending.

Sadly, this reflected a general decline in Liverpool’s Jewish community over the years. From a 1930s peak of 11,000, the number of Jews in the city dropped to only 3,000. As they left, “the Ark” synagogue fell victim to neglect, even as it became a Grade II* listed building. Yet hope has not been lost. In recent years, the abandoned Greenbank synagogue has undergone emergency restoration to keep it standing until its fate can be decided. Plans were submitted last year (following a campaign by the Liverpool Echo) to transform the ailing religious structure into apartments, hopefully preserving its historic form for future generations of Liverpudlians.

Agudas Achim Synagogue in Chicago, USA

Agudas Achim Synagogue in Chicago

The atmospheric sanctuary of the abandoned Agudas Achim Synagogue

Agudas Achim Synagogue in Chicago is now poised for conversion into residential accommodation, saving the historic building (Images: Jim Frohliger)

The story of Judaism in the US is one of triumph in the face of initial adversity. From the first influxes of migration, the Jewish population has risen to the second highest on Earth, only a fraction behind that of Israel. As a result, the 20th century saw a plethora of synagogues spring up across the Land of the Free. Some were vast, impressive places serving thousands. Others were more simple structures, designed for small local communities. And some, like the abandoned Agudas Achim synagogue in Chicago, were works of atmospheric beauty.

Despite its neglect, the building is still in astonishingly good shape. The stained glass windows remain apparently unbroken, allowing a magical, diffuse spray of colour to wash over the empty seats. There’s still an order to the neglected sanctuary, as if just waiting for the congregation to return and pick up where they left off. You can even still see the Hebrew writing, clearly etched into the walls; a reminder of the people this stunning building once faithfully served. The abandoned synagogue is now poised for residential conversion, though it’s hoped much of its ornate architecture will be preserved.

Mishkan Yisroel Synagogue (Blaine Shul), Detroit, USA

Detroit's Abandoned Mishkan Yisroel Synagogue

Inside the abandoned Blaine Shul in Detroit

(Images: Cory Seamer)

Detroit is a mecca for grand old buildings that have fallen on hard times. Whole swathes of the city await redevelopment. Some urban ghosts are lovingly protected by regeneration projects. Others simply stand empty. The abandoned Mishkan Yisroel Synagogue is one of the latter. An impressive building that served the city for nearly a century, it was once a centre of youth engagement and Jewish community outreach programs. But nothing lasts forever. By 2004, the structure was empty.

Interestingly, the sanctuary spent its last few years as something else altogether. As Detroit’s Jewish community dispersed to the suburbs, many of the city’s synagogues were bought up by African-American residents leaving the slums and converted into churches. In 1972, the Mishkan Yisroel Synagogue became home to God’s Inspirational Kingdom Church. The Jewish congregation, meanwhile, moved to a newer, larger synagogue north of the city in Oak Park. While Detroit’s modern Jewish population continues to thrive in Motor City, the derelict Blaine synagogue has fallen into grand disrepair.

Abandoned Baptist Church (Former Synagogue) in Detroit, USA

Derelict Baptist church in Detroit

This abandoned Baptist church in Detroit began life as a synagogue (Images: Timothy NeesamGumshoe Photos)

Like the old Blaine synagogue, this building was also sold and converted to a church as Detroit’s Jewish community moved out of the inner city. And, just like the old Blaine synagogue, the church that followed it eventually fell into disuse and was abandoned. Today, both are empty. Both are damaged and seemingly forgotten. But while the Blaine synagogue is now an utter wreck, this one (which is understood to date to 1923) at least still retains some essence of the building it once was.

What’s interesting here is seeing how total the religious conversion of the building was. Looking at these photos, with their stained glass and murals of Jesus, you might never guess that this had once been a place of Jewish worship.

Abandoned Orthodox Synagogue, Sopron, Hungary

(Images: Istvanwebsite)

Just across the border from Austria, the Hungarian city of Sopron is a place of understated beauty, and carefully-concealed tragedy. It was here, in July 1944, that some two thousand of the city’s Jewish population were herded onto trains and transported to Auschwitz. The devastation to the community was so great, that even after the war the survivors couldn’t hold it together. By 1956, Judaism was little more of a memory in Sopron.

Today, the old Orthodox Synagogue stands as a kind of monument to those who died during the brutal Nazi occupation of Hungary. But more than that, it also marks the tragic loss of what was once one of the city’s most vibrant communities. When the Sopron synagogue was built in 1891 to the designs of János Schiller, it was in a world of tolerance towards Jews fostered by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. No-one would have had any conception of how awful things would turn in a single lifetime. Yet turn they did, leading to this synagogue’s tragic abandonment.

Abandoned Synagogue in Vidin, Bulgaria

Abandoned Synagogue in Vidin

Inside the ruined Bulgarian synagogue (Images: Erik Cleves Kristensen)

The story of Judaism and Bulgaria is a complex one, incorporating elements of both heroism and tragedy. Unlike Hungary, Bulgaria was not occupied by the Nazis. Instead, it allied itself with the Axis powers, bringing in restrictions on Jews and rounding them up into labour camps. Yet, when orders were signed to deport Bulgaria’s Jews for extermination, the population resisted. Popular unrest in the streets led to an estimated 48,000 Bulgarian Jewish lives being spared. But the Axis alliance still practically spelled the end of Bulgaria’s long Jewish history. After the war, some 90 percent of the country’s Jewish population left, never to return.

As a result, Bulgaria has various abandoned synagogues like the one you see above, their windows and rooftops missing, the insides gutted. Lonely, forgotten monuments to the past they now stand, seemingly in defiance of the horrors of World War Two. Yet they also act as a reminder: that the story of the Jews in Bulgaria started long before Hitler came on the scene, and continues to this day. Even now, there remains a small population of 2,200 Jews living in Bulgaria, having refused to leave in the wake of Nazism and Communism.

Beth Hamedrash Hagodol (Formerly Norfolk Street Baptist Church), NYC, USA

Closed Beth Hamedrash Hagodol synagogue, former Norfolk Street Baptist Church in NYC (Image: via Google Street View)

It’s not just abandoned synagogues that become churches. The 19th century Norfolk Street Baptist Church was bought up by the Beth Hamedrash Hagdol congregation in 1885 and converted into an orthodox synagogue. One of the oldest Russian Jewish orthodox congregations in the United States, it made the grand old building its home for 120 years.

Despite this longevity, the years were not kind to the congregation. The late 20th century saw the building battered by storms and suffer damage that worshippers couldn’t afford to repair. Lowering attendance took its toll. By 2007, the writing was on the wall. Only 20 members of the congregation remained, and the structure was fast becoming unsafe. The only sensible option was to close it down.

Although the building still stands, no-one seems to know what to do with it. Proposals to develop it into flats never went anywhere. Hopefully, a use will be found for it soon.

Decaying Synagogue in Abony, Hungary

(Image: Istvanwebsite)

A fine neoclassical structure, the old Abony synagogue looks more like the entrance to a grand palace than a place of worship. It’s also one of the oldest buildings featured on our list. Ground was first broken in 1825, at a time when the Habsburg Lands (what would later become the Austro-Hungarian Empire) had only just survived the devastation Napoleon had unleashed. In its lifetime, the now abandoned synagogue saw an increase in tolerance towards the Empire Jews… followed by the cataclysm of war and, eventually, the horrors of the Holocaust.

Poignantly, the synagogue in Abony has remained almost empty ever since the dark days of 1944. Although it was used as a granary, no other congregation, and few people, have set foot there. Completely abandoned in 1990, it is now both a crumbling ruin, and another awful reminder of the terrible human cost of World War Two.

Derelict Youngstown Synagogue, Ohio

Derelict synagogue in Youngstown, Ohio (Image: Matt Shifflerwebsite/Facebook)

Broken, battered and neglected, the ruins of the Youngstown synagogue in Ohio are a surreal sight. Great holes gape, through which sunlight streams, illuminating the shattered interior. The whole place has the feeling of a building that has just received a visit from hordes of vandals, yet parts of it are still eerily intact. The stained glass windows are unbroken. The pews are dusty and strewn with rubble, yet still a vibrant red. Taken together, the whole lot appears as a beautiful enigma.

Despite the clear evidence of neglect here, Youngstown is a place with a vibrant Jewish community. Three synagogues turn up on a quick Google Maps search, suggesting a sizeable, active congregation (the city’s entire population is a mere 65,000). So it’s interesting to see the condition that this abandoned synagogue has fallen into. We can only hope someone buys it and restores the forgotten sanctuary to its former glory.

Abandoned Synagogue in Anne Street, Kingston upon Hull, England

The abandoned Anne Street synagogue in Hull later became a nightclub before closing down again. (Image: Bernard Sharp)

In America, as we’ve seen, some abandoned synagogues became places of Christian worship. Meanwhile, in Britain, some become nightclubs. Such was the fate of the old Anne Street synagogue in Kingston upon Hull. Opened in 1903 as a place of Jewish worship, it ended its life as the notorious Heaven & Hell nightclub and bar, before closing for good sometime in the early 21st century.

Prior to that, the building had lived a crazy sort of life. Gutted by a German bomb in 1941, it was only finally rebuilt in 1955, following a concerted effort to restore it to something of its former glory. Yet that didn’t stop it falling into disrepair, eventually becoming a series of nightclubs, once operating under the name Eclipse before later becoming Heaven & Hell. Now little more than an empty space in the middle of town, the abandoned synagogue on Anne Street bears little trace today of the place of Jewish worship if had been decades earlier.

 
 
 

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