The Great Synagogue of Iași, historically referred to as Jassy, the second largest city in Romania and traditionally, one of the leading centres of Romanian social, cultural, academic and artistic life, is a free standing building and the oldest synagogue still in activity in Romania, listed in the National Register of Historic Monuments. Located adjacent to a small garden off Cucu Street, once called Sinagogilor Street or the Synagogues Street for the presence of several synagogues in the old Jewish neighbourhood of Targu Cucului and built between 1657 and 1671, it is one of the 112 synagogues built before World War II in lasi, a mute witness of the Holocaust and only one of the two, which continues to serve the dwindling Jewish community of the city. Hidden in the former Jewish quarter of the city, near its historic centre, it is a significant remnant of a time, when more than half of the city’s population was Jewish.
Iasi, the ancient capital of Moldavia, already had a Jewish community in the 16th century and for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Jewish community of Iasi was the second largest in Romania. Moreover, the percentage of the Jewish population of Iasi was the highest of any major city in Romania and at its peak around 1900, around half of the city’s population was Jewish, when there were over one hundred synagogues and prayer houses in Iasi.
The Great Synagogue of Iasi was reportedly founded at the initiative of Rabbi Nathan ben Moses Hannover, a Ruthenian Jewish historian, Talmudist and Kabbalist, who was the rabbi of the Jewish community of Iasi in the 1660s. However, he was chiefly known as the author of Yeven Mezulah (Venice 1653), which was translated into English as Abyss of Despair in 1950. Nevertheless, his dream came true in 1666, when Alexandru, the Prince of Moldavia, granted a charter to the Jewish community of Iasi, confirming the right of the local Jews to set up a school and construct a synagogue in their locality.
It is considered that in all probability, the Great Synagogue in Iasi was originally built in wood due to the general prohibition of stone synagogues and it underwent major renovation in 1761.However, the building was damaged by a fire in 1822, when the woodwork and painting were destroyed, but readily restored and the subsequent rounds of restoration works were carried out in 1864 and 1914. In 1939, before the outbreak of the Great War, the Great Synagogue was one of the 112 Jewish prayer houses in the city of Iași.
Much later, a high obelisk was inaugurated in 1976 in front of the synagogue, in memory of the victims of the Pogrom of Iași on 28 and 29 June 1941. After the onset of the new millennium, a major restoration of the synagogue also took place between 2006 and 2018.
Although the word ‘great’ is attached to its name, with a total length of 72 feet (22 m), the size of the Great Synagogue of Iași is very modest. Constructed in an eclectic style with strong late Baroque influences, the exterior of the edifice boasts a prominent cupola, over its east side, while the west end is covered by a half barrel-vaulted ceiling. Its thick stone walls, relatively small doors and small round-arched windows are reminiscent of the fortress type synagogues found in Poland. The entire interior of the synagogue is illuminated by imposing chandeliers. The prayer hall of the synagogue is equipped with two groups of two windows on each lateral wall and a ceiling, divided by a large ark and the women’s section is located on the first floor on the western side of the prayer hall.
Today, the women's Gallery houses a small museum of the Jewish community of Iași. While the bimah, the raised platform, where the Torah is read, is located at the centre of the prayer hall, the eastern part of the hall is covered by a huge 33 feet (10 m) diameter dome capped with a lantern. All the walls of the synagogue are painted white, except for the eastern wall, which is covered almost completely by the Holy Ark, richly decorated with small columns and carved decorations made of wood, which are painted in black, red and green, dominated by sculptures of eagles in gilded wood and also equipped with gilded wood doors featuring stylized floral motifs.
Recognised as a historical monument for its remarkable past, the brick-built modest building of the Great Synagogue of Iasi, the oldest surviving synagogue in Romania, housing a small museum of the Jewish community of the city, still continues to serve the dwindling Jewish community of Iasi.