Sanctuary and Synagogue

Exhibit at the Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary
August 12, 2002 - December 8, 2002
Online selections available indefinitely

The seventeenth century ushered in the Golden Age of the Netherlands as Amsterdam became the leading European center for international trade and commerce. In this milieu, the Portuguese Jews flourished financially as a result of their extensive mercantile connections. In their new home they were able to reclaim their Judaism and to organize places of worship as well as religious and charitable societies. By 1618 the Portuguese Jewish community had already established three separate congregations: Beth Jacob, Neve Shalom and Beth Israel. These three congregations united in 1639 to form Kahal Kadosh Talmud Torah. Thirty-one years later the prosperous Portuguese Jews resolved to build a synagogue that would reflect their privileged status within Dutch society. Completed in 1675, the magnificent new sanctuary, later known as the Portuguese Synagogue, seated over 1,600 congregants; it was the largest synagogue in Europe for almost two centuries.

German Jews began to settle in Amsterdam shortly after the establishment of the Portugese Jewish community. With limited financial resources they were heavily dependant upon the charitable support of the wealthier Portuguese Jews. It was not until 1635 that these Ashkenazic Jews were able to establish their own congregation. Waves of Central and Eastern-European refugees fleeing persecution in Ukraine, Lithuania and Poland swelled the numbers of the Ashkenazic community in the mid-seventeenth century. The congregation consequently outgrew its existing quarters and in 1670 began to construct the imposing Great Synagogue. Archival records indicate that the relationship between the Portuguese Jews and their poorer Ashkenazic brethren was often strained; ironically, their magnificent sanctuaries were built directly opposite one another on the Houtgracht Canal.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Dutch buildings became principal subjects of etchings and engravings. Churches and synagogues were continually featured due to their communal significance and their monumental architecture. The prints reproduced here were created by some of the preeminent printmakers and artists working in Amsterdam such as, Romeyn de Hooghe, Bernard Picart and Peter Schenck. Their artistic representations chronicle the growth and development of the Portuguese and Ashkenazic Jewish communities within the larger landscape of Dutch culture.