Shalom Life | July 01, 2014

Shalom, Belgium: A Jewish Culture Guide

Although it has faced difficult periods, the Belgian Jewish community is now large, proud, and thriving. With such a rich history, Belgium is definitely worth the visit.

By: Sarah Bauder

Published: February 18th, 2014 in Culture » Society » News

Shalom, Belgium: A Jewish Culture Guide

And we’re off, to anywhere and everywhere, as we say ‘Shalom’ every week to different global travel destination. World cities, provincial towns, and even the most unassuming of suburbs are infused with Jewish history and culture, some of which is waiting to be discovered.

For the pious follower, the curious traveler, or the intrepid adventurer, we’ll unearth the best of what to do and where to go. Be it an emerging subculture, a historical landmark, or simply a triumph of art in any form, Jewish experiences are found around the world; and likely as well in your backyard.

It may be in the destination, the journey, or the company, but there is much to uncover and celebrate near and far, so hurry up and get going.

Shalom, Belgium

Definitive evidence of a Jewish presence in Belgium can be traced to the 13th century. The population increased further in the 14th century, when French Jews who had been expelled from their homeland, began settling in various regions of what is now modern Belgium. However, during the Black Death that swept throughout Europe in the mid 14th century, much of the Jewish population was decimated from plague, or later being murdered as scapegoats for the calamity.

Belgium saw further influx of Jewish immigration in the 15th century, when Conversos from Spain and Portugal settled in the region. Many Jews settled in Antwerp at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries, playing integral roles in both the economic and financial development of the city, including the precious stones trade. By the mid to late 17th century, the population was large enough that a clandestine synagogue operated in Antwerp, conducting services. During the 18th to mid 19th century, the region that is present-day Belgium changed hands numerous times, being ruled by Austria, France, and later the Netherlands.

In 1831, Belgium gained its independence. Judaism was officially recognized in the constitution, and Jews enjoyed full freedom under the law. By the 1880’s the Jewish population began to increase substantially, with Eastern European Jews fleeing persecution in their homelands and settling in the region.

Although estimates vary, by the 1930’s betwixt 65,000 to 100,000 Jews resided in Belgium, with communities in Brussels, Antwerp, Liege, Charleroi, Ghent, Arlon, Oostende, and Namur. In May 1940, the Nazis invaded Belgium. Despite the courageous efforts of the resistance movement in Belgium, comprised of both Jewish and non-Jewish citizenry, by the summer of 1942 the Nazis began transporting Jews to concentration camps, mainly Auschwitz. By the end of World War II, it is estimated that 23,838 Belgian Jews died in the Holocaust.

In the following decades, thousands of refugees from Central and Eastern Europe began settling in Belgium, and the Jewish community as whole, began rebuilding itself.

Communauté Israëlite de Bruxelles (The Great Synagogue of Europe)

Today, an estimated 30,000 to 42,000 Jews live in Belgium, with large numbers residing in the capital Brussels, as well as Antwerp. Other locales with Jewish communities include Ostend, Ghent, Charleroi, Arlon, Liège, Mons, Knokke, and Waterloo. The Jewish community throughout the country is both active and strong. There are nearly 50 synagogues, more than a dozen Jewish schools, in addition to five Jewish newspapers.

Although the number is an estimate, roughly 20,000 Jews call Brussels home. Communauté Israëlite de Bruxelles (The Great Synagogue of Europe) is the main synagogue in Brussels and Orthodox. Beth-Hillel Synagogue is Reform. A small sampling of synagogues throughout Belgium can be found here.

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