DUBROVNIK, Croatia — With its walls freshly painted, floors sanded and varnished and a new tile roof overhead, the elegant, baroque synagogue of Dubrovnik reopened its doors for Rosh Hashanah 5758.
The synagogue first opened in 1655. Located deep in the center of Dubrovnik's medieval walled city, it has faithfully served a community that has never exceeded 250 members.
With fewer than 40 Jews remaining in recent years — most of them elderly Holocaust survivors — the congregation had no funds to restore damage caused by Serb shelling in 1992 during the civil war in the former Yugoslavia.
The congregation watched as the synagogue's splendid blue ceiling, decorated with dozens of golden stars, began to fade and rot.
Nearly every window had been shattered. Aged wooden shutters did what they could to keep out the wind and rain.
Otto and Jeanne Ruesch of Washington — who stopped by the synagogue while touring Dubrovnik in January 1996 — came to the rescue.
"We were stunned at the condition of this beautiful place, and we were so taken with the community that we decided to try and help," said Otto Ruesch, who is Catholic.
Standing next to a beaming Bruno Horowitz, president of the Dubrovnik Jewish community, Ruesch recalled how after he returned home to Washington, he phoned all his Jewish friends and asked them to help.
Horowitz soon came to Washington and gave an impassioned speech in the home of the synagogue's benefactors.
Nearly $35,000 was raised that night, and Horowitz phoned his daughters in Dubrovnik and told them to get the contractors ready.
Horowitz and Ivana Burdelez, a Croatian scholar specializing in Dubrovnik's Jewish history, pored over records, plans and letters dating back hundreds of years.
"We drove the contractors out of their minds," said Burdelez, "because we wanted this thing done perfectly."
Speaking at the synagogue's opening shortly before Rosh Hashanah services was Yechiel Bar Chaim, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee's representative for the former Yugoslavia, and Peter Galbraith, U.S. ambassador to Croatia.
A representative for Croatian President Franjo Tudjman also brought words of greeting.
After the dedication speeches, the over-capacity crowd gathered around the bimah as a rabbi from Israel — whom the JDC brought in for the occasion — began the service.
It was the first time the synagogue had seen such a crowd since Rosh Hashanah services in 1940.
At that time, Dubrovnik's tiny Jewish community of 87 members was populated with German, Austrian and Czech Jews fleeing what was to soon to engulf them all.