So many synagogues in Jerusalem

For observant Jews – and few places come more observant than Jerusalem – the Shabbat and Festivals are days out of time.

So many synagogues in  Jerusalem (photo credit: JACOB SOLOMON)
So many synagogues in Jerusalem
(photo credit: JACOB SOLOMON)
Friday afternoon and the sun begins to set. The traffic thins out. Numerous individuals and families make their way to their local synagogue, the Jewish place of worship. The descending wings of tradition’s two angels escorting the opening of Shabbat are almost palpable every Erev Shabbat, every Shabbat eve.
For observant Jews – and few places are more observant than Jerusalem – Shabbat and the festivals are days out of time. Cars, phones and other worldly concerns are put to one side. The synagogue, the special meals and the Torah reading specific to the occasion all come into their own.
No one knows for certain how many synagogues there are in Jerusalem. I’ve heard “over 1,000,” “about 3,000” and even “over 6,000.” The discrepancies are hardly surprising. Ashkenazi, conspicuous and centrally-located edifices such as the Great Synagogue and the Yeshurun Synagogue, with their relatively formal, familiar-to-Diaspora-Jewry proceedings and wide range of activities, are just a little of what’s on offer. Most regular neighborhood worship happens in much smaller gatherings where the premises often double as schools, matnasim (neighborhood community centers), private homes and even covered parking garages.
As the regular synagogue-going population grows in a neighborhood, the number of venues for regular services goes up in number and variety. As a visitor, just ask for the nearest one. Chances are there’s one just around the corner. And as a new resident, you can participate in their activities and get to know the people in your neighborhood. This is especially true if you can join in a program of regular shiurim, or classes, which in some places are in English as well as Hebrew.
Each synagogue goes in for its own particular brand of service. The regulars will be happy to tell you what precisely makes their place special. And each synagogue attracts its regular clientele that forms its core. Few take on paid officials. Instead, services are led by competent laymen who know how their particular kehillah does things, with the rest of the congregation enthusiastically joining in, sometimes going into spontaneous four-part harmony. If you are someone who can put together and deliver a drasha (sermon), lead services or read from the Torah up to local standards (which are generally high), it can be a good idea to let the gabbai (synagogue warden) know.
The cantorial arts, aka hazanut, are not generally practiced, except in the largest synagogues. Israelis work a six-day week and the younger generation, in particular, does not tend to go in for drawn-out worship. I remember one of my first Shabbat morning services in Israel, in a border settlement in the Jordan Valley. It lasted just an hour and a half from start to finish, instead of the usual three hours at my hometown synagogue in the UK. Remarking on my surprise, I was told, “They are fast, but they are Israelis who understand every word they’re saying.”
I think that gets to the heart of what synagogues in this country are all about. The typical worshiper goes to synagogue to daven, to pray. There is a sense of service with joy and fulfillment, being at one with the Creator and the people of Israel. Nothing beats davening in Jerusalem, especially in the company of a congregation to your taste.
What does that mean for the uninitiated visitor or new resident, or for that matter, an interested visitor of a different faith? As long as you go with the flow of your surroundings, you should have an excellent and informative time. Keep the questions for later. If praying in Hebrew or communal worship is not quite your thing, just let it wash over you and enjoy the rhythm of the tunes. In addition, many synagogues have siddurim (prayer books) with English translations and notes.
Expect gender separation during the services. Men and women should dress in a reasonably modest fashion as they would in any place of worship. Hats and even baseball caps generally fulfill the headgear requirement for men. Kippot are not compulsory. And if there’s a kiddush – refreshments in the spirit of the day following the Shabbat morning service, often with kugel Yerushalmi, a spiced, caramelized noodle savory that tastes much better than it looks – just follow the crowd and join in. One note of caution: Don’t partake before the ceremonial blessing over the wine has been recited. That would be a faux pas.
Once it has been said, though, dig in and enjoy! It’s a great time to get talking and meet your neighbors, both married and single.
Seats are often formally allocated for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. It is generally the practice in Ashkenazi synagogues to purchase seats for these occasions. The fee includes synagogue membership and a fixed place throughout the year. Check on seating arrangements beforehand or ask after you arrive but before you take a seat. As a visitor, you probably won’t be expected to buy full membership there and then, but a suitable donation will always be welcome, although not until after Shabbat or the festival, since on those days no business is transacted. Don’t be fazed. Donations are typically a synagogue’s major source of income in order to keep things going throughout the year.
WITH SO many synagogues in Jerusalem and new ones being added constantly, it’s hard to know where to begin. Here are a few fairly central favorites to get started on your journey but check out your own neighborhood as well.
1. The Western Wall is a particularly good location at sundown on Friday night, with the different simultaneous services often merging into dancing and more, including all types of worshippers, Ashkenazi, Sephardi and more.
2. The Great Synagogue and the nearby Yeshurun Synagogue are both on King George Street. Large, formal and often choral in manner, each one is a good place for spotting who’s who in the Knesset, especially on Yom Kippur.
3. The President’s Synagogue on Usishkin Street in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood features quality shiurim, including some in English, along with a flourishing community.
4. The Hurva Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City was recently rebuilt along the same lines as the previous edifice that was destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948. It is more haredi (ultra-Orthodox) in character. There are highly informative tours offered on weekdays, with first-class views of the Old City and beyond.
5. The Beit Yisrael Synagogue in Yemin Moshe, several levels below the Montefiore Windmill, has survived from the late 19th century. It is small in space, but big in experience, and a particular favorite with the English-speaking community.
6. The Ben Zakkai Synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City is part of the Four Sephardi Synagogues complex. This is another survivor from the Turkish period and Jordanian rule. A short tunnel joins it to the Eliyahu HaNavi Synagogue, which hosts an Ashkenazi congregation and services as well as some interesting legends. The association with the Prophet Elijah, however, continues in the Ben Zakkai Synagogue. High above the southern wall, a very thin shofar and a supply of oil rest on the upper window bay. These are reserved for his exclusive use to herald and anoint the Messiah.
7. The Hessed v’Rachamim Synagogue in Nahlaot can be found behind the Mahaneh Yehuda market, or shuk, along with any number of Sephardi synagogues in the area, such as the Ades Synagogue. These are all small, authentic, local congregations that were in full swing well before the establishment of the State of Israel. Each comes with its own beloved characters and collections of stories. These are well worth a Shabbat morning visit but are at their best during Slihot, from the beginning of the month of Elul until Yom Kippur.
8. The twin synagogues of Nahalat Shiva – the Ashkenazi Nahalat Ya’akov and the Sephardi Ohel Yitzhak – both possess the Old World charm going back to the early days of Jerusalem outside the Old City.
9. Synagogues in the Bucharan Quarter, just north of Geula and Meah Shearim are fascinating. Particularly recommended are the Old Bucharan Synagogue (Bava Tama), on Yechezkel Street, and the Moussayoff eight-synagogue complex, virtually any time, day or night. Nearby is the synagogue of the ancient Mashad community of Persia, which is know after its founder personality Hajj Adoniyahu HaCohen. (How he obtained the title is an intriguing story that exemplifies the challenges of living in that region during the mid-19th century.) 
10. The Nachum Synagogue is one for the connoisseur: a small old-time Yemenite synagogue close to the center of Meah Shearim on the continuation of Habbakuk Street. The Torah reading continues to be read in the distinct Yemenite pronunciation. And each verse is read by a meturgaman, who translates the Hebrew text into Aramaic.
All of these synagogues come with the own cores of active regulars. Try to see – and enjoy – as many as possible.