Home / Communities / Machsike Hadas Orthodox Jewish Community of Antwerp

The Jewish community of Antwerp was very similar to those in the country’s other towns, that is, strongly attached to the traditional values of Judaism while being clearly ensconced in modernity, for the greater part of the 19th century.  A very large number of Orthodox Jewish communities were scattered across Europe until World War II.  While some of them limited their roles to conducting services in their synagogues, weddings, and burials, others offered the complete range of community services and infrastructure, i.e., synagogues, kashrut, ritual slaughter, facilities for Pesach (Jewish Easter), a mikveh (ritual bath), eiruv (related to the precepts of shabbat), beit din (rabbinical court), religious weddings, burial societies, divorces, scribes, circumcisers, and so on, in order to enable Orthodox Jews to fulfill all their religious obligations.  Neighboring communities obviously were also able to avail themselves of these services.  Unfortunately, Word War II devastated almost all of these communities.  So, the majority of the Jews from Eastern and Central Europe who took up residence in Antwerp in the late 19th century followed very strict rules of observance.  They thus very naturally wanted to set up a community and institutions that would respect very strictly this same infrastructure and the spirit of orthodoxy to which they had remained faithful.

The de facto community was founded in 1892 with the association of six small synagogues and the appointment of rabbi Noach Zvi Ullman.  At the same time, it appointed shochatim (religious slaughterers to carry out ritual slaughter) and opened shops that ensured compliance with the rules of kashrut under its supervision.  Relations with the existing Jewish community, Shomre Hadas, were excellent, and the Orthodox community ran the mikveh located in Kleine Pieter Potstraat at the time.  In 1895 the Orthodox community set up a boys’ school, Jesode Hatora.  A girls’ school, Beth Jaacov, was added in 1936.  The union of the two schools bears the name “Jesode Hatora-Beth Jaacov.”  Even today, neither of the two sections is co-ed.  This institution became one of the most important Orthodox Jewish schools in the world.

The Orthodox community founded a new mikveh in Van Noortstraat in 1902.  This bath was moved to Lamorinièrestraat in 1912.  In the same year of 1902 Rabbi S.J. Sternberg, appointed dayan (rabbinical judge) by the community, erected the famous Antwerp eruv, a symbolic border allowing Orthodox Jews to carry objects on shabbat.  It is the oldest eruv in the world.  He published his book Birkat Shalom, including a map of the eruv and its specifications, in 1930.

The Machsike Hadas Community inaugurated its cemetery at Putte, a small Dutch border town, in 1908, following a new challenge to the principle of perpetual concessions of cemetery plots in our country.  It went on to create other institutions in 1909.  They include Ezra (mutual assistance), Bikur Cholim (visiting the sick), and Hachnasat Orchim (visitor hospitality).

The Machsike Hadas Orthodox Jewish Community of Antwerp was officially recognized in 1910 by a Royal Decree dated December 14.

Machsike Hadas inaugurated its main synagogue in Oostenstraat, designed by the architect Jules Hofman, just after World War I.  The land had already been purchased in 1912, but the building plans were temporarily set aside because of the war that raged from 1914 to 1918.  Whereas the architectural style of the overwhelming majority of synagogues in Belgium is Neo-Romanesque or Oriental, the Oostenstraat synagogue is an Art Nouveau (Modern Style) edifice.

Rabbi Markus Rottenberg took over after the death of Chief Rabbi Ullman in 1918.  Machsike Hadas founded a yeshiva (Talmudic school) in Heide, near Antwerp, in 1929.  The horrors of the Holocaust struck the Jewish community of Antwerp, like all the other communities across continental Europe, from 1940 to 1945.  Chief Rabbi Rottenberg had the possibility of leaving the country as of the start of the invasion, but refused, for he wanted to remain to help the faithful during the tragedy.  His house was ransacked during the “Antwerp mini-pogrom” of April 14, 1941.

After the war, the survivors of the “Final Solution” developed by the Nazis to deal with the Jewish community set to work to rebuild their devastated Jewish institutions.  So, in the aftermath of the Holocaust the Orthodox Jewish Community of Antwerp came back to life little by little.  The yeshiva was re-opened in 1946, but in Kapellen (also near Antwerp) instead of Heide.  Machsike Hadas appointed Chief Rabbi Chaim Kreiswirth, a world-renowned Talmudic scholar, in 1954.  And so, the Orthodox Jewish Community of Antwerp regained some of its past glory thanks to the daily efforts of its members, who gave proof more than ever of the devotedness that has always characterized this beautiful community.  It is one of the rare Jewish communities in Europe that managed to resurrect all of its prewar religious infrastructure and has even expanded it, thanks to today’s technological advances.

The community built a new mikveh, in Oostenstraat, in 1972.  It would remain the largest mikveh in the world for the next twenty years.  It should also be pointed out that the many Hassidim who can still be seen in Antwerp are subdivided into a host of separate currents, each with its own traditions, as well as their own prayer rooms and even, sometimes, their own educational establishments.  Nevertheless, they all belong to the Machsike Hadas Orthodox Jewish Community of Antwerp and account for a large part of its originality.