A synagogue of mosaics

A showpiece house of worship, Acre's Or Ha'torah is truly awe-inspiring.

syn mosaic 298 (photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
syn mosaic 298
(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
On a visit to Israel in the early part of the 1950s, a young Tunisian Jew fell in love with the city of Acre. Zion Bardash returned to Tunisia to collect his family and soon settled in the Mediterranean city, where he has since become a local legend in his lifetime. Bardash had been impressed by the way Acre's Jewish and Arab communities got along with each other, in much the same way as they did in southwestern Tunisia. The Bardash clan settled in a new section of the port city. Shortly after his arrival, Bardash got together with a group of fellow Tunisian and Libyan immigrants to establish their own Orthodox synagogue. Initially, they prayed in an old wooden shack. Nowadays, they come together in prayer in a showpiece house of worship and art that attracts local Sephardi and Ashkenazi worshipers, as well as many overseas visitors. Tucked into a quiet side street between a modern apartment block and a group of private houses - one of which is the Bardash residence - the Or Ha'torah synagogue is impressive from the outside and a Pandora's box of surprises inside. A retired post office worker, the unassuming Bardash, 76, can be found on the premises whenever the front door is open. Locals still reminisce about the Ghirba synagogue, and Or Ha'torah maintains a connection to the Tunisian synagogue of that name on the island of Djerba. One of Or Ha'torah's Torah scrolls, said to be almost 300 years old, originally belonged to the Djerban Jewish community. Or Ha'torah boasts no fewer than seven holy arks, two of them with doors made of engraved silver. To have seven arks in a synagogue was common in Tunisia, explains Bardash, adding that he dreams of being able to turn the doors of the five other aronot kodesh into silver works of art, like the two completed ones. These days, nobody tells him that he has set his mind on the impossible because folks know that when Zion Bardash takes on a challenge, dreams become reality. The three-story Or Ha'torah has many special features - Jewish heritage in stone and glass is literally spread out from top to bottom and on all sides. Almost every inch of walls and ceilings, including all the stairwells, is covered in mosaics of biblical or Jewish historical, and modern-day motifs. The mosaics cover the ceilings of the beit midrash, the central synagogue floor, and the women's section on the third level. A mosaic-covered dome with artistic Jewish and Israeli themed windows allows colorful rays of sunlight to stream into the central part of the prayer hall. The inside of the dome bears an inverted zodiac motif from the floor of the ancient synagogue in Beit Alfa. Biblical scenes, buildings, and scenes of ancient and modern Israel, flora and fauna from past and present times, the Holocaust, rebellions and wars of the Jewish people, and more are to be found in stone and glass in this most unusual house of prayer cum heritage art gallery. Bardash worked meticulously on the plans for Or Ha'torah, and even more so on finding the right artists for the mosaics, windows, and silver ark doors. The mosaics are the work of artists from nearby Kibbutz Eilon, where members founded a mosaics factory more than 30 years ago. The kibbutz itself has an unusual mosaics garden developed over many years, and often host groups of people whose first port of call was the synagogue and, after being left agog by the artwork, continued to Eilon. The partnership between the secular kibbutz members and the Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Tunisia in Acre is another side of the coexistence that Zion Bardash seems to inspire.