The Ohr Torah Synagogue: A treasure in Acre

A shining jewel off the beaten path richly rewards adventurous tourists

Ohr Torah Synagogue, Acre (photo credit: TOURISM MINISTRY)
Ohr Torah Synagogue, Acre
(photo credit: TOURISM MINISTRY)
I told my tour guide friend Jon that I was planning to take a day trip with my daughter. “What do you have in mind?” he asked.
“Something extraordinary, unusual. Beautiful, or different. A place that tells a story.”
“Go to Acre, the Ohr Torah Synagogue. It’s pretty cool. Four stories high, completely covered with mosaics. I mean covered, floor to ceiling.”
So we hopped in the car and headed off to Acre. Walking past ancient walls that safely cordon
off archaic buildings and more contemporary stucco apartment complexes that are weathered and tarnished, we found the treasure across from a sandy lot being used for parking. It was immediately obvious from the lively facade of the extraordinary building that we had arrived.
A mosaicked brick wall – inset with colorful 3D metal scenes of Moses on Mount Sinai, David and Goliath, the crossing of the Red Sea and the binding of Isaac – guards the synagogue, echoing the many fortressing elements in the ancient city of Acre. Welcoming visitors with mosaic illustrations, decoration and verse, the synagogue rises from behind the fence. A woman coming out of the gate as we are about to enter cannot suppress her emotions as she urges us in. “Hurry, hurry! It’s so beautiful!” she tells us. It’s funny – she wants to tell us all about it outside and she wants us to be inside. We have to chuckle.
Inside, the place is weirdly unassuming and casual. Plastic garden chairs are scattered about with cardboard boxes perched on them that are filled with different useful articles . At the entrance, a couple of chairs have scarves and kippot on them for visitor use. Throughout the four levels of the synagogue, there are more chairs providing whatever items you might need.
“You know you have to pay to come in here? You realize that? It’s NIS 10 each!” a firm voice from an office a few yards away announces. Meanwhile, my eyes are open wide. “With pleasure” I tell Yafa, the source of the voice, who is clearly running things, as I ante up. She is not so anxious to talk or explain when I begin inquiring about what I see, and after rapidly firing off the basic lay of the place, she recommends that we Google for information.
Fine with me – it’s time to explore.
IT IS so overwhelming that it is difficult to decide where to begin. There are multiple options. Every centimeter of floor, wall and ceiling, inside and out, is covered with mosaic. Every mosaic tells a story; from the Bible, the Land of Israel, the flora and fauna, the Jews and their history.
The mosaics are composed of natural stone, all native to Israel, from Eilat to the Golan Heights. The colorful tiles were produced in the mosaic factory of Kibbutz Eilon, not far from Acre along the northern border. Yes, a modern mosaic factory exists. Founded in 1959, it specializes in handcrafted mosaics; its techniques and designs are based on the ancient local mosaic tradition and it continues production to this day.
Another visitor tells us the women’s section is upstairs. Obediently, we work our way up to the third floor, with plenty of stops. It is impossible not to stop, and stop often, to inspect. There is more to see than can be absorbed.
I’m quite certain that my daughter and I both gasped when we first laid eyes on the women’s section. The ezrat nashim is beautiful and the view onto the main section – the heart of the synagogue – is breathtaking.
At this point, the synagogue became an experience, no longer a site for mere inspection or observation. The mosaics of the ezrat nashim are, in my opinion, the loveliest. They are tender and deserve adoration, a very fine accomplishment in stone. Natural light streams in through skylights; their inset frames are covered with delicate imagery. Stained glass windows along the walls of the main floor filter and send lights dancing throughout the two floors. Intricate details abound everywhere – such as light fixtures that honor souls and events, physical metaphors from earth to heaven.
The curtains that hang over each aron hakodesh (holy ark) housing the many Torah scrolls have the type of dedication that we often see, but this is not the dominant theme. Each beautiful curtain pays homage to an aspect that marks our existence, history or tradition. Tzahal (the IDF), the Tree of Life, the Temple, the jeweled breastplate of the high priest, the State of Israel – all are honored in exquisitely executed needlework.
Behind the curtains, most of the doors are covered in elaborately modeled silver, some with illustrations, many with biblical passages and blessings. Open the doors and you will see fantastically beautiful mantels covering Torah scrolls, many ketarim (crowns that decorate the poles of the scrolls) and lots of notes.
The first floor is divided into two sections and used as a beit midrash (study hall) that can also function as another prayer hall, for celebrations – circumcisions, bar mitzvahs, etc. It is no less extraordinary than the main floor of the synagogue.
The top floor is dedicated to the heroes and fallen of the Holocaust. It is a map of the world and of places Jews have called home. It is a world that no longer exists and must never be forgotten.
HOW DID this incredible house of worship come to exist?
As much as Yafa was not keen on chitchat, her father Zion Badash, Ohr Torah founder and visionary of blessed memory, enjoyed telling his story, according to my tour guide friend Jon Duitch, who disclosed the existence of this bejeweled treasure to us. A distant focus drew Jon’s gaze to the past as he described how the old man relished talking about his beloved beit knesset (synagogue). Born in Gafsa, Tunisia, Badash and his family survived the Nazi takeover of Tunisia during the Holocaust in 1942. An ardent Zionist, he and his wife made aliyah in 1955, settling in Acre.
Tunisian Jews had a 2,000-plus year history that was uprooted as a result of the Holocaust. The Gafsa Jewish community was Orthodox and, like most of the Tunisian Jews, looked up to the predominantly Cohanic Jews of the island of Djerba, considered the leading upholders of tradition and law.
Also known as the Tunisian synagogue in Acre, Ohr Torah is based on the ancient Djerba synagogue, considered one of the most beautiful in the world. It makes perfect sense that Badash longed to bring that beauty to his new, restored home(land). Badash actually brought his dream to fruition. I read that each stone in each mosaic breathes his spirit. After experiencing the house of worship and meeting that he built, that claim seems accurate.
We have been richly blessed by Zion Badash, an immigrant with a vision.
The Beit Knesset Ohr Torah Mi Zion, also known as the Tunisian Beit Knesset, is next to the courthouse at 13 Kaplan Street in Acre. It is usually open from 9:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. I recommend phoning ahead to be certain: (04) 981-8451.