The vision of architect Elias Bouwman, the synagogue was constructed between 1671 and 1675; inscribed above the entrance, however, is the year 1672, when the temple was intially supposed to have been completed. Restored many times over the centuries, the latest restoration came in 1992 and 1993, when the entire temple was revamped, from the foundations to the timber roof structure to the various interior adornments.
The synagogue is located in a complex that also houses several other buildings, such as the winter synagogue. It’s immediately apparent to visitors who enter the main synagogue how difficult it would have been to heat the vast space, hence the need for a winter-weather alternative equipped with heat and electricity. The complex also contains the rabbinate, the mikveh or ritual bath – which was also modernized in the most recent spate of renovations – as well as offices and archives.
As of December 20, 2011, the temple’s annexes have been reopened to the public after a nearly two-year period of renovation, which included the creation of a new treasure room. Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands was on hand to witness the triumphant moment that the 800-odd ritual objects were made accessible to the public once more. The delicate items will now be housed in conditions that meet museum preservation standards, in climate-controlled spaces that facilitate the preservation of this treasure trove of silver, antiques, textiles, and rare books and manuscripts.
Ets Haim – Livraria Montesinos
In the same complex is the revered Ets Haim library, the oldest Jewish library in the world, founded in 1616; it was moved to the synagogue complex when construction was completed in 1675. The immense collection specializes in 17th- and 18th-century Judaism, with an emphasis on Sephardic Jewry, but also includes a fair number of secular works from those centuries. The full name of the library, Ets Haim – Livraria Montesinos, refers to former librarian David Montesinos, who donated his personal collection to the library in 1889.
The Ets Haim collection now consists of 560 manuscripts and 30,000 printed works, more than half of which are in Hebrew, but it’s been a tortuous road for these priceless documents. In the Second World War, the collection was confiscated by Nazis and taken to Germany, but returned unharmed after the war; later, in the 1970s, the library didn’t have the funds to adequately care for its precious collection, and so it loaned the core collection to the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem. The core collection was returned to a restored, climate-controlled Ets Haim library in 2000, where it has remained ever since.