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An organized and officially recognized Jewish community existed in Brussels as of the early 19th century.  Hartog Sommerhausen, a leading Dutch Jew and follower of the great German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, moved to Brussels in 1817.  As the “brains” of the Jewish community, he immediately took things in hand and founded the Jewish Primary School, which the Dutch government honored with the title of “model school.”  The capital of Brabant already had two Jewish cemeteries at the time.

In the aftermath of Belgium’s independence (in 1830), the community’s headquarters were established in a rented house.  In 1834 the Chief Rabbi Elie Carmoly inaugurated a synagogue in Rue de Bavière (today’s Rue de Dinant).  The building became the Maison du Peuple (”House of the People”) in 1886.  Some forty-four years later, in 1878, Chief Rabbi Aristide Elie Astruc consecrated the new Main Synagogue of Brussels, in Rue de Régence, just a couple of years after the Jewish Community of Brussels’s official recognition (Royal Decree of February 7, 1876).  The Jewish Community of Brussels recently celebrated the 125th anniversary of the superb synagogue’s founding, on June 11, 2003, to be precise.  The synagogue stands in the center of the capital’s royal district, between the city’s major central museums, the Royal Conservatory of Music, and courthouse.  It is hard to imagine a better spot for the central house of worship for Jews in the capital of Europe!

The periodical L’Echo du Parlement contained a laudatory account of the synagogue’s inauguration in its September 22, 1878 issue.  One can read, for eample,

…the synagogue is Romanesque in style and the decorative elements are in the Byzantine style…The panels surrounding the great rose window above the main entrance bear the names of the twelve tribes of Israel.  The central part of the edifice culminates in a gable and is crowned by the Tablets of the Law…

This is followed by a description of the interior of the sanctuary, with “mosaic stained-glass windows, candelabras, the perpetual lamp, the great eight-branched menorah, the organ,…” and so on.

For more in-depth knowledge of the history of Brussels’s Jewish community, both the architecture and history of its superb Main Synagogue, and some of its most eminent members and Jewish figures who played noteworthy roles in public affairs and intellectual life in Brussels in the 19th century, we recommend most strongly a superb, richly illustrated, collective work, La Grande Synagogue de Bruxelles - Contributions à l’histoire des Juifs de Bruxelles - 1878-1978, published by the Jewish Community of Brussels itself.

While the synagogue is the spiritual center of a Jewish community, the latter is much, much more than its house of prayers.  For a community to be alive and viable, it needs elaborate infrastructure, members who meet regularly in General Assemblies to make the major decisions that will determine the community’s future, a Board of Directors for daily management, a rabbi, officiating ministers, ministers of the faith, a secretariat, an accounting office, charitable works, cultural activities, a room for celebrations and meetings, a cemetery, and a network of services and offices that organize the ceremonies linked to all the major stages in the community members’ individual lives.  The rites linked to birth, religious majority, marriage, and death are naturally part of relations between the community and its members.

These elements enable us to understand better the implications of a Jewish community in general and those of the Jewish Community of Brussels in particular.  The Main Synagogue in Rue de la Régence has an additional role above and beyond those filled by all the synagogues in our country.  Indeed, its central location, the privileged ties with the Jewish Central Consistory of Belgium that derive therefrom, and the historical circumstances of its development give this central synagogue the special status of official synagogue of Belgian Judaism.  Many official ceremonies have thus quite naturally been conducted in the Main Synagogue since its consecration more than 125 years ago, ceremonies attended by the country’s highest authorities.  On the other hand, and for the same reasons, the Jewish Community of Brussels is the one community among all its counterparts that serves as a showcase for Judaism in the capital.  In this spirit, the community regularly organizes, on request, guided tours of its synagogue for schools, sociocultural associations, and interreligious groups.  The Jewish Community of Brussels also participates each year in the regional Heritage Days and European Day of Jewish Culture.

The Jewish Community of Brussels’s history, central location, and involvement in the Belgian Jewish community’s life since its official recognition have contributed greatly to the fact that so many leading figures - leaders in our country’s Jewish community and in Belgian society in general - are to be found among its members past and present.