The minyan factory
A Katamon synagogue serves Jews from all walks of life, all the time.
Illustrative photo Photo: Gavriel Fiske
For those with the need to pray, options abound in Jerusalem. But for those who need a minyan (prayer quorum) immediately, no matter the time of day or night, there is one option everyone turns to, and it's not the Western Wall but the Shtieblach in Katamon, located at the corner of Hahish and Hamatzor streets.
To be sure, at the Western Wall one can find a minyan pretty much anytime, but it is not always so convenient to get to the Old City.
While "shtieblach" commonly refers to a synagogue that has many minyans, and although there are several synagogues in the city that fit that description, there is only one that is routinely pronounced with a capital "T" in the "the."
The Shtieblach, sometimes referred to as "The Minyan Factory," is centrally located and the services, especially during peak prayer times (6-10 a.m. and 3:45-5:30 p.m. in the winter), are carefully organized and orchestrated down to the minute, making it the perfect stop for those on the run. Open all the time, there is even a computerized display indicating the upcoming minyans complete with directional arrows, as well as a listing of classes and other information.
"Between 1,500 to 2,200 people pray here everyday," says Arnie Rund, a friendly white-bearded man who functions as the synagogue caretaker and describes himself as the "builder and maintainer of the Shtieblach."
"Shtieblach means 'rooms' in Yiddish," he explains. "This arrangement allows for simultaneous prayer."
Indeed, the building itself, a classic Jerusalem Arab structure built of old stone, has a narrow entrance that branches out into at least four rooms used for services. The facility also has a library, a mikve for men (there is one for women next door), a mikve for kitchen utensils, a geniza (for discarded holy documents) and a large courtyard that is also - weather permitting - used for services. The building is wheelchair accessible and there are a few designated handicapped parking spots on the street outside.
Katamon was a mixed Christian and Muslim Arab neighborhood until 1948, when the occupants fled after the War of Independence. The Jewish families who settled the area quickly set up synagogues, with the Shtieblach serving the Ashkenazi and hassidic residents. The Mizrahim (eastern Jews) set up places of their own, but according to Rund the Shtieblach was always the "center of the neighborhood." Nowadays, of course, Jews of all backgrounds can routinely be found praying there together.
"You can get Yiddish-speaking haredi guys praying with people who just pulled out their kippa from their pocket when they walk in the door," says Gedaliah Gurfein, who moved into the neighborhood last year from Baka.
By its very nature the Shtieblach attracts people who come to services on their way to somewhere else, so there is literally always somebody new coming through. But the synagogue also serves the neighborhood and there is a strong community that regularly prays there, especially on Shabbat and holidays. On Purim, they hold a megila reading every hour on the hour.
Jewish life, however, is not just about prayer, and the Shtieblach also has an extensive schedule of Torah classes in Hebrew and English, from a regular morning program to smaller classes and informal meetings sandwiched before, after or in-between prayer sessions. In addition, there is a free loan fund and a fund available for the needs of mourners. The synagogue doesn't have a formal membership, but does have a system whereby the regulars contribute annual donations to keep the place running.
"What's really nice... it's not just full-service davening [praying], but it's also a full-service Jewish facility," comments Gurfein. "I can buy Hanukka stuff there; I know there will be a Succot market. Everything you need as a Jew is there."
"This is a good place," says composer Mordechai Cohen, who lives in Modi'in but often comes to pray at the Shtieblach when he is in Jerusalem. "I've known it for a few years. But it is a little crazy; you have to have your head together [to really pray.]"
On a recent late afternoon visit the synagogue is packed with people running off to various rooms to catch the beginning of davening or leaving en mass from a session that had just finished. Rund stands near the entrance like a traffic cop, directing people to different quorums, admonishing them to shut off their cell phones and all the while keeping up a steady stream of jovial conversation with the passersby.
"Say something bad about the place," he asks an elderly regular, who replies, "Why?"
"It's not women-friendly," someone else says.
"Women do use the Shtieblach," replies Rund, and points out the women's section, a balcony overlooking one of the prayer rooms. "But it's primarily a men's club."
Observing the rushing masses of people coming and going, an old-timer who declines to give his name contentedly remarks, "It's open all night, there are classes in the mornings, and it's warm in the winter and cold in the summer... it's all good."