People will be invited to look inside a beautiful former Welsh synagogue for the first time in decades. The building just off Church Street in Merthyr Tydfil was built 147 years ago to serve a growing Jewish community.

Thought to be the third and most impressive synagogue established in the town, it boasted congregation numbers of around 400 during its heyday in the 1920s. The expanding community largely stemmed from the town's prosperous industrial revolution, which attracted people from a diverse array of backgrounds into the centre.

According to an extract from book Jews of Wales by Cai Parry-Jones, in 1906 the Jewish population in Merthyr Tydfil was recorded as 300. Comparatively, Pontypridd recorded a Jewish community of 100 and 70 in Newport. By 1983 the practising Jewish population had dwindled to less than 20, leading to the closure of the synagogue.

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Since its official closure as a place of worship, the former synagogue has largely remained derelict and vacant. Though it was used as a gym for some years before 2004, it has been empty and decaying ever since. Plans to turn the building into flats in 2009 never came into fruition. For the latest Merthyr Tydfil news, sign up to our newsletter here

Although it has been abandoned for the best part of 20 years, the former synagogue and its congregation have certainly never been forgotten by those who live in and have lived in the valleys town. Many were delighted by the announcement in July 2022 that the Foundation for Jewish Heritage had secured funding to bring the important grade II listed building back to life as a Welsh Jewish heritage centre.

Now, as part of the plan's development phase, members of the public are being invited to look inside the building for the first time in 20 years. An open day event on Sunday, February 18 is being held at Theatr Soar in Merthyr Tydfil town centre, with tours of the synagogue running throughout the day.

Eerie shot of inside the abandoned synagogue with pain crumbling from its walls
Inside the synagogue today
Star of David stain glass window
The synagogue will be brought back to life if more funding is secured

Michael Mail, chief executive of the foundation, said the purpose of the open day is to find out what people in Wales want to see as part of the heritage centre. Once the plans have been fully developed with the help of the public, it is hoped the project will secure funding in summer 2024 to be able to begin work. It is hoped that the work will take no longer than 18 months, with the opening of the heritage centre on track to fall around the synagogue's 150th anniversary.

Mr Mail said: "We bought the building in summer 2019 and then carried out urgent repairs in 2020, which was partly funded by Cadw. In 2022 we made a submission to the National Lottery and the Welsh Government and were successful. We are now in the development phase of the project which has been funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund Wales, the Welsh Government and Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council.

"The development phase lasts 18 months and comes to an end this summer, then we will put in a second application for the delivery phase which is doing those plans. It is not guaranteed that we will get the money for the delivery phase, so the development phase has to go well. They want to know that the plans are solid and compelling."

dilapidated interior of the synagogue with foundations exposed
The synagogue has previously fallen into disrepair

Mr Mail said the project has a significant team of consultants and volunteers from a range of backgrounds. Describing the plans so far, he said: "We have links with Llandudno Museum and Bangor University. With Bangor University we’ve been creating a database of all the material that exists in archives and museums in Wales and beyond on the Welsh Jewish experience. We are also developing oral testimonies.

"We want to record stories of Jewish people - and non-Jewish people who had strong connections to Jewish people in Wales - to hear what they remember of the community in Merthyr and also about Jewish life in Wales today. [We want to ask] what is life like for Jewish people in Wales? What are the issues and challenges? We also want to celebrate Jewish life in Wales and the routine of Jewish festivals, Jewish living, Jewish culture and Jewish values and traditions. It’s not just about the past, it’s also about the present too. This is about shared heritage - yes it’s Jewish heritage, but it’s also Welsh heritage."

Broken mirror inside the synagogue
An open day will run on Sunday
Original features
Many original features remain

Eventually Mr Mail said he hopes to be able to showcase the project around Wales, such as in schools and organised events outside of Merthyr. He said the event on Sunday will inform the plans so they are able to bring people the most important and interesting aspects of Welsh Jewish history.

He said: "We’ve sent questionnaires to people asking what they would like to see and we’ve held focus groups. The event on Sunday is a key aspect of that. It’s an open day where we are inviting people from Merthyr and across Wales to come and look at our plans, see what we’re doing and give us our views of what they would like to see."

Wood and founations inside the synagogue exposed after years of wear and tear
Michael hopes the heritage centre will be complete by the synagogue's 150th anniversary
A stone Welsh dragon on the synagogue
An impressive Welsh dragon on its gable

So far he said the project has received very positive local feedback, with people excited to see the iconic building hopefully revived in the next few years. He said: "On Sunday we are opening this building up which has been closed for approaching 20 years. It’s been sitting in the landscape and there are a lot of people locally who are interested in this.

"When we bought the building we had lots of lovely feedback from people saying: 'Finally someone is doing something with it!'. Everyone is delighted that something is being done. We want to hear from the community and ask what people would like to see. It’s really important to us that we bring real benefit to Merthyr - we want to get lots of volunteers on board."