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Film retrieves vanished holy places

More than a half century ago, more than a thousand wooden synagogues known as shuls dotted rural Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.

In their glory, some were spacious with colorful drawings and scriptures splashed on the walls and ceilings. Others boasted grand staircases. In the tiniest towns, the synagogues were small and simple.

That was before the Holocaust, when Nazis stormed in and torched entire Jewish towns, wiping out most of these wooden synagogues.

Now, only a handful remain. And even those are boarded up and rotting.

"(A shul) is where the Jewish people worshiped, and the Germans were out to destroy them all," said Albert Barry, an award-winning filmmaker and executive producer of the documentary The Lost Wooden Synagogues of Eastern Europe.

On Sunday, Barry will offer a lecture at Congregation Beth Tefillah in Port Richey. He'll chat about the history of shuls, show the film and answer questions.

The vanishing shuls are a slice of history that everyone should learn about, said Ellie Geier, a Beth Tefillah member who helped organize the event. The lecture holds special meaning for temple members. Many are old enough to remember the Holocaust, Geier points out.

Barry, 80, is passionate about Jewish history. And he takes his message to college campuses, synagogues and community centers across the country. Barry, who is Jewish, has spent the past four decades researching the wooden shuls. He transformed old photos of the buildings into delicate, handmade wooden replicas. For years, Barry thought the wooden synagogues were no more. When he got wind that a few were still standing in Lithuania and Latvia, Barry and a crew rushed there to begin filming.

"When I hear about a subject that I think will make a good film, I'm obliged to do it," Barry said.

He recalls the first time he laid eyes on the old buildings.

"It was amazing," said Barry, who lives in Sunrise. "It was like that English explorer who went to Egypt and found the pyramids."

In larger cities in Eastern Europe, synagogues were made of sturdy brick and stone. But in rural areas, locals used wood. Some were fancy. One illustration shows an old temple that resembled a Chinese pagoda.

"Imagine a thousand buildings all vibrant in your community and now there are just a few left," Barry said.

Barry's film took a year to make. It was released in three languages: English, Hebrew and Yiddish. Famed Jewish author Elie Weisel has even given the film high marks, Barry said.

Barry spent years as a graphic designer in New York. Now, he's semiretired and living in South Florida.

Rabbi Alan Goldberg of Congregation Beth Tefillah says Sunday's lecture may appeal to people all ages and faiths.

"It's a pleasure to have him come and show it to us," he said.

IF YOU GO

Congregation Beth Tefillah will host a lecture featuring Jewish filmmaker Albert Barry at noon Sunday at 9841 Scenic Drive in Port Richey. The cost is $10 in advance and $15 at the door. Kids ages 12 and younger get in for $5. There will be a short lecture, film and question-and-answer session. A dessert reception will follow. For information, call the synagogue at (727) 847-3814.

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