Eisenstadt – Asch

Synagogue built in: 1834
Earliest record of community: 14th century
Last rabbi: Markus Jaffe-Schlesinger
Community members: 1932: 583; 1934: 462; Eisenstadt: 204; Oberberg: 33; Unterberg: 225
Pogrom Night: Destroyed
Today: Office buildings
Summary: The earliest record of Jews living in Eisenstadt (Burgenland region) dates to 1373, when Jews were granted privileges in the town.

A Jewish ghetto was established in the 16th century. It had a Beth Midrash (hall for religious studies), a mikvah (ritual bath) and its own cemetery within the town walls.

In the 17th century, Eisenstadt was listed (under the protection of the ruling principality) as one of the seven holy communities (the Sheva Kehillot). The town’s first great synagogue, which later came to be known as the “old temple” (Alte Tempel), was built in 1690. This synagogue served the community for 150 years until Karl Moreau, a ducal architect, designed and built a replacement, which opened in 1834. The new synagogue building housed an apartment for the rabbi, a bathhouse with a mikvah, and a lecture hall.

In 1717, Samson Wertheimer, the official cantor to the royal court and the provincial rabbi of Hungary, built a mansion In Eisenstadt. The mansion contained a small synagogue and a mikvah, and was known as the Wertheimer Shul. This synagogue was bought by the Wolf family in 1875. Members of the Wolf family and their acquaintances continued to hold religious services there.

Also in 1717, Rabbi Meir ben Yitshak (the Maharam Asch, author of the Panim Meirot) arrived in Eisenstadt. A yeshiva was opened around that time, the development of which became Rabbi Meir’s prime occupation. After his death in 1744, a succession of distinguished rabbis—including Rabbi Ashe Laemmel Halevi Glogau and his son Rabbi Yechiel Michel—served as rabbis in Eisenstadt in the 18th century.
After an unsuccessful attempt to induce the locally-born Rabbi Akiva Eger to become the Eisenstadt rabbi, in 1822 Rabbi Yitzhak Moshe Perls was offered and accepted the job. Under his leadership, the yeshiva became the second largest in Hungary. Rabbi Perls served for twenty years, leaving in 1841 on account of a dispute with the community leader, Loeb Wolf. Records from the days of Rabbi Meir ben Yitshak in the 18th century indicate that members of Jewish community were strictly forbidden to play cards, except on the holidays of Hanukkah and Purim. At a later stage, this restriction was further relaxed, and card-playing was permitted on the day after the holiday as well, up until the next Torah reading on the following Saturday (the Jewish Sabbath), Monday or Thursday. In 1841, however, Rabbi Perls announced that the relaxation of the ban on card playing was being withdrawn, and from that moment on, the ban would come into force immediately upon close of the holiday. The community leader, Leob Wolf, took great exception to the rabbi’s ruling, and had an announcement made that the relaxation of the ban had been reinstated.

Similarly to other Burgenland Jewish communities, Eisenstadt developed its own customs. There was a Keren Tzitzit foundation that provided free tzitzit (the ritual fringes attached to the prayer shawl worn by Jewish men) to all the boys in the school; the ladies of the community were traditionally tasked with the job of decorating the Torah scrolls for the yearly for Simchat Torah holiday. A particularly interesting custom, which was later adopted by other communities in the area, encouraged adherence to the halakha (Jewish religious law) which states that fruit must be checked to ensure that it is free from infestation. For example, the first child to discover a wormy cherry would bring the fruit to the rabbi and receive a prize, whereupon the shammash (the synagogue sexton) would announce that for the remainder of the cherry season, all cherries must be examined before eating.
The traditional “Sabbath chain”—common in Jewish communities in this area—was not part of the eruv (the enclosure within which observant Jews were permitted to carry objects on the Sabbath) as generally thought, but was instead erected every Sabbath eve to prevent wheeled traffic entering the Jewish quarter. The Judengasse (literally: Jews’ Alley), where many Jews lived, was closed off by an iron gate and reopened after the close of the Sabbath.
On weekdays, the shammash made the rounds of the Jewish quarter knocking on the doors of its inhabitants when it was time for them to attend the morning or evening synagogue service. Three knocks was the general rule, but two knocks were the accepted signal for funerals. On the Sabbath, the congregants were summoned vocally, because knocking was not permitted on the holy day.

In 1851, Rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer, born 1820 in Halberstadt and educated in Hamburg, Berlin and Halle in both rabbinic and secular studies, succeeded Rabbi Perls. Under Rabbi Hildesheimer’s guidance the yeshiva achieved great renown. However, in 1869, he left Eisenstadt to establish a seminary for rabbis in Berlin. In this seminary, young rabbinical students were trained in the spirit of “Torah im Derech Eretz,” namely, combined Jewish and secular studies. The outlook of the seminary was diametrically opposed to the prevailing attitude in the Sheva Kehillot, which were a bulwark of the strictly separatist policy of Hungarian Jewry.
Rabbi Hildesheimer was succeeded in Eisenstadt by Rabbi Salomon Kutna. Next it was the turn of Dr. Hillel Phillip Klein to officiate in Eisenstadt, and then that of Dr. Klein’s brother. The town’s last rabbi, Chief Rabbi Markus Jaffe-Schlesinger, who served from 1931 to 1938, left Germany for Tel Aviv.

On the night of the pogrom, November 9/10, 1938, vandals ransacked the Eisenstadt community’s main synagogue and laid waste to its interior. A hatchet-wielding mob broke into the basement, where many valuable ritual items were stored, and plundered and destroyed Torah scrolls, silverware, and rabbinical manuscripts.
After the pogrom the synagogue building was used as a warehouse. The Austrian Association of Trade Unions took over the building in 1951 and converted it into an office block. The smaller Wertheimer Shul was more fortunate; it was left standing, and towards the end of the war was used as a synagogue by Jewish soldiers of the Soviet army.

The regional government of the Burgenland district acquired the main synagogue building in 1972. In 1979, it reopened as the Austrian Jewish Museum; a reminder to its many visitors, both from the area and abroad, of the rich Jewish history of Eisenstadt. The Wertheimer Shul has been preserved in its original condition, although religious services are not held there on a regular basis.
Sources: Reiss, Johannes, Zur Geschichte der Juden im Burgenland, Internetseiten des Österreichischen Jüdischen Museums in Eisenstadt (http://www.ojm.at/artikel/burgenland02)
Encyclopedia Judaica 1972, vol.6, S. 546ff. Eisenstadt
Ayali, Meir, Meine Kindheit in der Judengasse in Eisenstadt, Internetseiten des Österreichischen Jüdischen Museums in Eisenstadt (http://www.ojm.at/artikel/kindheit01)
Located in: Burgenland