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The sporadic presence of Jews has been reported in Ghent since the Middle Ages.  However, not much is known on the subject, other than the fact that the Jews were expelled from the town, and indeed from all of Flanders, in 1125.  Jews were apparently admitted again in the 13th century but driven out once more during the 1348-49 outbreak of the Black Death.  They did not show up again in Ghent until the 18th century, although not until the late 18th century, with the French occupation, could one truly speak of a Jewish community taking root in the town.  A score of Jewish families were living in Ghent in 1817, and they already had a synagogue.

This small community was given a plot of land for a cemetery in 1847.  While the Jewish community of Ghent was recognized officiously by the young Belgian State’s authorities in 1834, official recognition did not come about until 1876.  It was granted by the Royal Decree of February 7, 1876, as was the case for the main Jewish communities of Antwerp and Brussels and the smaller communities of Liège and Arlon.

In the first decades of the 20th century the city attracted a certain number of Jewish students from Central and Eastern Europe.  They enrolled in Ghent University, and more particularly in its Polytechnical School.  An estimated 300 Jews were thus living in Ghent on the eve of World War II.

During the German Occupation of 1940-45 Jews were allowed to live in only four cities, namely, Brussels, Antwerp, Charleroi, and Liège.  Those who refused to submit to the Nazis’ diktat had no other choice than to go into hiding.  Upon the country’s liberation, Ghent’s Jewish community reassembled.  Its members included several dozen engineers - former students of Ghent University from the interwar period - who held leading positions in Ghent’s industries, some doctors, and several university professors.  What is more, the community was enriched by the arrival of Israeli students who became integrated in Jewish community with amazing ease.  It also hosted a number of Israeli professors on sabbatical who contributed to its cultural activities.  Then a wave of Jews from the former Soviet Union swelled the community’s ranks.

The Six Day War in the Middle East and the febrile days of the summer of 1967 mobilized the city’s Jews and sympathizers.  The result was a surge of activity around the Bloch Center.

Religious services were held for some twenty years in a synagogue that was renovated along the lines of Djerba’s synagogue in a strong collective movement.  However, in 1995 this building was no longer available.  Since then, the community has been given access to a room in a Protestant center where it holds religious services and various celebrations.  At Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, children and adults come together there in a festive mood marked by music and the distribution of presents.  The Passover seder (ritual Jewish Easter meal) is a great success each year, as are other holiday celebrations, such as Tu bi’shevat and Purim.

Hug Ivry Gent (the Hebrew Studies Circle) has brought Jews, Protestants, and Catholics together for Bible and Hebrew classes for more than thirty years.  Other activities, such as talks on cultural subjects and current events, are likewise organized around these weekly evening classes.  In addition, the community is asked to help fellow Jews, be they Belgian or foreign (often Israelis), hospitalized in the area and to look after patients awaiting organ transplants.

Finally, the community takes pride in having erected the Michael Lustic Memorial with the help of many donors, the bishopric, and public authorities.  It is an original monument in the form of a top on which the names of Ghent’s Holocaust victims are engraved.  The commemoration of the terrible events of Kristallnacht is held in front of this memorial each year with the help of the city and patriotic organizations’ participation.  In parallel, a delegation of the Jewish community of Ghent attends the annual May 8th celebrations.

In short, this community is characterized by its openness and constructive dialogue with fellow citizens of all backgrounds.