A unique exhibition will tell the life stories of Jews in South Wales when it opens in Cardiff this year. Hineni – Hebrew for ‘Here I am’ – will explore the history and culture of Cardiff’s Jewish Reform community. With a mixture of personal testimony and photography, it will be the first of its kind in Wales.
The project has received a grant of £33,600 from the Heritage Lottery Fund and has been two years in the making.
The team behind the Hineni project is a mixture of volunteers and academics, led by the Cardiff Reform Synagogue with support from Butetown History and Arts Centre. Project officer Diana Soffa says the idea initially stemmed from the urgent need to keep a record of individual memories: “We have got some amazing people in the community and some of the older people have stories that really shouldn’t be lost. Everybody’s got a story but some of them are pretty spectacular.”
Judaism is the oldest non-Christian faith in Wales. The first Jewish community was founded in Swansea in 1768, followed by Cardiff in the mid-19th century. Many Jews travelled to Wales from cities like Liverpool to work as peddlers as industrialisation spread and towns became bigger.
Cardiff’s Reform Synagogue was set up shortly after the end of World War Two by refugees who had fled persecution in continental Europe, some of whom had come over on the Kindertransport. Although Jewish communities are currently declining in Wales, the Reform movement continues and its members now come from all backgrounds and walks of life.
The exhibition will reflect this diversity. “We’re hoping to get the exhibition to break down any stereotypes,” says Diana. “We’re trying to show how diverse we are – even as a small community and a small sample. Yes, we’ve got the doctors and lawyers, which is one of the stereotypes, but we’ve also got travel agents, shop keepers, people who work in communications and transport, and a lot of football fanatics who all support Cardiff City. We are really just a sample of the wider community.”
The project will be a departure from the way Judaism is traditionally portrayed in museums. Cai Parry-Jones, an editor and analyst of the exhibition, says it will show the many different routes people have taken towards being Jewish in Wales. “A lot of what has been written about Welsh Jewish communities focuses on the negative, and when people come to see an exhibition about Jews they expect to see something on the Holocaust. Many people have links to the Holocaust and lost family members during the Second World War, but you also have families that didn’t. A lot of them have English backgrounds or are third generation Welsh.”
Jennifer Stewart, Head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Wales, says, “Recording the memories and stories within our communities is vitally important. This project is providing a lasting record of the Jewish community in South Wales which will be an invaluable resource for people to gain a better understanding of this little known part of Welsh history and life.”
But the Hineni exhibition is not just for Wales, or indeed the UK. There are plans to take it around Europe and North America to share and celebrate the history of Wales’ Jewish community.
The Hineni exhibition is scheduled to open in Cardiff in summer 2012.
Holocaust Memorial Day is observed on 27 January every year in countries across the world, and aims to ‘provide an opportunity for everyone to learn lessons from the Holocaust, Nazi persecution and subsequent genocides and apply them to the present day to create a safer, better future.’ Find out more on the Holocaust Memorial Day website.