Prayer and patriotism

The Ahdut Israel Synagogue, once home to members of the underground movements, is now being revived by younger congregants.

Louis Lipsky 370 (photo credit: Adam Ross)
Louis Lipsky 370
(photo credit: Adam Ross)
For those looking for a place to tap into the spirit of Jerusalem Day, a lesser-known alleyway in downtown Jerusalem is home to the Ahdut Israel Synagogue. It brings to life the Zionistic ideals of the generation that fought the underground battle against the British to secure Jewish independence. Complete with a gun cache under its ark, the synagogue and its courtyard below are expected to draw hundreds for Jerusalem Day evening services, who come to taste the spirit of patriotism and bloody-minded dedication that forced the creation of the state some 65 years ago.
Nestled between the busy thoroughfares of Agrippas Street and Jaffa Road on the easily missable Mashiah Borochoff Street, passersby will find the derelict General Orphanage Building, established over 100 years ago to fend for the city’s destitute children.
The gates are usually locked, but during Shabbat prayer services, a stream of visitors step inside and go up a flight of stairs to pray at the synagogue that was once home to the saintly Rabbi Aryeh Levin. The synagogue still houses his personal prayer lectern.
Named after the Ahdut Israel movement in Poland that blended the politically right-wing ideals of Betar and the religious nationalism of Bnei Akiva, it is likely that the members – many of whom joined the underground forces of the Irgun – made the synagogue their home because it was where Levin prayed. Renowned for his frequent visits to the prisons of Mandatory Palestine, Levin cut a supportive, loving figure for many young fighters.
The symbol of Ahdut Israel is a hand holding a torch over a map of Israel, and the two stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments. This image, along with the insignia of the Lohamei Herut Israel (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel), a hand swearing an oath with the words “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,” is emblazoned on the impressive wooden canopy of the synagogue’s central prayer platform.
The more recent upkeep of the synagogue, which seats around 50 to 60 people, is largely due to the efforts of Yosef Vitelson, who died two years ago.
The Polish-born Vitelson grew up in Jerusalem, joined the Irgun and was jailed following a skirmish with the British. After being released, he made the synagogue his home. On his deathbed, Levin held his hand and asked him to take care of the synagogue, a request Vitelson fulfilled in every sense for 40 years.
Louis Lipsky, when he was in his 30s, was a relatively junior member of the synagogue. Now aged 53, with the number of old-timers down to single digits, he has taken over the reins – but says every step he takes, he feels Vitelson’s self-sacrifice and legacy.
“He made sure it was the kind of synagogue that people felt comfortable visiting – he greeted people, asked them to help lead the service, he consulted with them and made them feel involved. Vitelson did everything from changing light bulbs to standing out in the rain to find the 10th man to make the prayer quorum,” says Lipsky.
“The culture here is to embrace everybody, whether they are religiously observant or not. It’s a place that is built upon Rabbi Aryeh Levin’s positive encouragement, and the pleasant ways of Judaism that he and Yosef Vitelson wanted to share.”
Among the legendary figures who made the synagogue their home is Meir Heller, a former bodyguard of Ze’ev Jabotinsky and later Polish partisan, who gained a reputation for his audacious efforts fighting the Nazis in occupied Poland. His reputation even reached the Russians, who commissioned him as an officer in the Red Army. When the war ended, he immigrated to Palestine and joined the Irgun. It was Heller who introduced Lipsky to the synagogue some 20 years ago.
ANOTHER larger-than-life character was Danny Beit Hamikdash, with his trademark fingertip-to-palm handshake and greeting “yibaneh” (it will be built). An Irgun fighter, born Danny Finkelstein, he changed his name to Danny Har Habayit to illustrate his desire to see the Temple Mount back in Jewish hands after the War of Independence. When this actually happened in 1967, he thought he had something good going – and changed his name again to Danny Beit Hamikdash.
A former rabbi of the synagogue is the former chief rabbi of South Africa. Rabbi Louis Isaac Rabinowitz was a decorated British chaplain who fought in the Battle of Normandy in World War II.
Following the British decision to close the doors of immigration to Holocaust survivors, he famously renounced his war decorations in protest and became an ardent supporter of the underground movements. Later, as a British chaplain, he was asked to pay pastoral visits to the camp in Eritrea where 320 underground fighters were held, deemed by the British too dangerous to keep imprisoned in Palestine.
Rabinowitz used his visits to help supply the men with fake passports, civilian clothes and money, which a group later used for their escape and return to Palestine. Moving to Israel, he turned down the pulpit of the grand Yeshurun Synagogue in favor of the underground synagogue for which he felt a special affinity.
The most prominent feature of the synagogue is a remembrance board with all 497 Irgun and Stern Group members who were killed playing their part in the pre-state fight that led to independence. Among the entries are those listed by first name only. One such entry reads “Aharon”and pays tribute to a young man keen to join the Irgun, but who died in an operation the day he arrived on a ship from Nazi-occupied Europe – before any of his new comrades even had the chance to find out his last name. The board highlights the names of the 12 underground men hanged by the British at the top, and the remaining names are listed alphabetically so that old fighters can come and look up past friends. Zionist figures such as Theodor Herzl, Yosef Trumpledor and Jabotinsky are also commemorated; a separate plaque marks the death of prime minister Menachem Begin.
THE SYNAGOGUE itself was more than just a hangout for the underground movement: The hollow base of the ark doubled as a weapons cache that fighters could visit to pick up a gun when the need arose. While the British would trail many underground members, on visiting the synagogue any police lurking nearby could usually be relied upon to take their eye off the ball long enough for a weapon to be fished out from the ark. Supplies were replenished mainly by children, whose activities were far less suspicious to British eyes.
In 1944, Stern Group members Eliyahu Bet Zuri and Eliyahu Hakim were caught and tried by the British for the assassination in Cairo of British minister for the Middle East Lord Moyne.
Cairo’s Jewish community was so moved by the bravery of the men that it commissioned a Torah scroll written on expensive deerskin, to awaken divine mercy so that the two would be spared from execution. After the men were hanged in March 1945, an Egyptian businessman chanced upon the synagogue, and the scroll was bought to Jerusalem and placed in the ark, where it is still housed today.
Until a few years ago, stories from the underground would fly around at the kiddush after services, especially as most weeks new faces from the underground would appear.
Every Shabbat there were between 10 and 12 Irgun fighters who would spar with different stories, while the younger crowd would sit wideeyed, soaking it up. Today, there are still generous refreshments after the service – although the number of fighters has dwindled dramatically in the last few years. “They’re mostly dead now,” Lipsky says. “Shlomo Goldhour, who fought to liberate Malha, still comes here – we see him around once a month.”
In the last few years, Ahdut Israel has experienced a burst of new, young members keen to connect to the values it stands for.
Vitelson’s son Eitan now signs the checks as the synagogue officer, and Lipsky gives regular tours to visitors, bringing to life the stories of the old, legendary fighters. Weekly services are packed, and the synagogue’s Independence Day and Jerusalem Day celebrations attract crowds of hundreds. Traditionally, a talk is given by one of the old fighters before festive prayers commence.
Lipsky believes that the synagogue has become a site of pilgrimage for national and patriotic reasons. “In an era of questions and doubts about Zionism, [about whether we’re] going where we should be, there is a certain inspiration that people draw from a generation that was totally devoted to establishing a state.
That feeling of unity is very much needed now, and I think people find it here – in what’s left of the old fighters, and what they’ve left behind in the walls of the synagogue.” •