Situated at the foot of the Harz Mountains, Halberstadt is a town adorned by beautiful religious architecture and traditional timber constructions. It is also well known as being the seat of a historical Jewish community which became the epicentre for the development of Jewish Neo-Orthodoxy. These ideas enabled the preservation of Jewish laws and customs within communities that at the same time were keen to embrace modernity, secular society and the modern world.
Since at least the 13th century, a Jewish community has existed in Halberstadt. Around the year 1700 the famous royal resident of Poland and agent of the Saxon court, Berend Lehmann (1661 – 1730), established here a house of learning, the so called Klaussynagogue. The community grew in importance attracting learned scholars and those interested in learning from them. The Jewish community in Halberstadt became characterised by eruditeness and developed from the middle of the 19th century on into one of the centres of the Jewish Neo-Orthodoxy. Distinguished rabbis such as Eger, Auerbach, Hildesheimer and Hirsch are intrinsically connected with Halberstadt’s history, and transformed it into one of the most important Jewish communities in Middle Germany.
In 1712, a splendid Baroque synagogue, built by the Court Jew Berend Lehmann, was inaugurated. Hidden from view behind the buildings of the Bakenstrasse and Judenstrasse, the cupola of the synagogue surmounted the height of those buildings twice. The synagogue building was the first one in Germany built following a defined architectural concept. At the end of the 19th century, the entrepreneurial Hirsch family decided to invest in the modernisation of the building, extending it by erecting an entrance hall. During the “Night of Broken Glass” – the Progrom Night – on November, 9th, 1938, the synagogue was plundered, and all Tora scrolls were burnt in the street. On November, 18th the building inspection ordered the demolition of the synagogue, which was initiated the next day. The Jewish community of Halberstadt had to bear its costs. The remaining wall which still stands is the outer wall of the former entrance hall. Of the rest of the structure, only the foundations and the flouring have remained. Not a single object from the splendid interior is preserved.
The building complex enshrining the ruins also houses the Moses Mendelssohn Academy with the Berend Lehman Museum. In the vicinity, it can also be found the Klaussynagogue which was established around 1700. Following its traditional purpose, the house became in 1998 again a seat of study and science, a place of encounter and exchange for Judaic knowledge. The synagogue, enclosed by the houses of the Bakenstrasse and Judenstrasse, is now a place of remembrance, where a contemporary art installation stands as a reminder of the destroyed place of prayer.
The main entrance to the remains of the former synagogue leads through the gateway of the Jewish community’s former cantor’s house in Bakenstrasse 56, where a traditional mikveh has been uncovered on its basement. During renovation works on the house, the mikveh, which had previously been filled with rubble and coal, was discovered unexpectedly.
Translated from the Hebrew, mikveh means "accumulation of water". A mikveh, or Jewish ritual bath, is a basin with accumulated water which cannot be filled artificially, but rather has to be filled by a natural flow or by ground water since the Torah says it does not have cleansing properties otherwise. It was used to purify people or religious objects through a ritual bath before partaking in religious activities such as the Sabbath, before important festivities or to prepare people before or after yearly cycles. Nowadays, mikvehs are rarely used by men. It is now mostly a ritual reserved for women in Jewish Orthodoxy, who are required to use a mikveh before their wedding, for the birth of a child and after every menstruation.