So many synagogues – Ashdod

With a 95% Jewish population, of whom one third are observant, Ashdod’s many synagogues express a wide range of religious and cultural roots, narratives and customs.

BEIT MEIR Synagogue, named after Rabbi Meir Abuhatzeira. (photo credit: JACOB SOLOMON)
BEIT MEIR Synagogue, named after Rabbi Meir Abuhatzeira.
(photo credit: JACOB SOLOMON)
Modern Ashdod is a phoenix. Once a stronghold under the Philistines, Israelites, Romans and Crusaders, it continues to rise as today’s state-of-the-art international port and industrial center. Modern city planning has neatly segregated its burgeoning port and commercial functions from its fast-growing residential life, whose wide boulevard-bounded districts collectively house nearly a quarter of a million inhabitants. The city’s residents of considerably differing origins and outlooks have built up a tradition of living in ethnic and religious tolerance.
With a 95% Jewish population, of whom one third are observant, Ashdod’s many synagogues express a wide range of religious and cultural roots, narratives and customs. The sages that shaped the Kabbalah-steeped Moroccan community; the Pittsburg hassidic dynasty; the waves of Cochin (India) immigrants from 1950s and 1960s; Georgian Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union in the 1970s; the more recent Ethiopian; and the Marathi-speaking Bene Israel from Maharashtra, India – all continue to take their place as distinctive groups within the city. Add to that numerous other hassidic and non-hassidic haredi groups; immigrants from France; the US; the UK; South Africa; Argentina; and last, but certainly not least, considerable internal migration from the Tel Aviv and Bnei Brak, and you have the maturing mix that populates the city’s 17 residential neighborhoods.
Not all places of worship are under the Orthodox umbrella: the Karaite community is some 5,000 strong, and there is an active Conservative and an active Reform congregation. And unlike Safed and Jerusalem, communities and synagogues are of recent origin, however venerable their interiors.
Visiting synagogues is an excellent way to create informal and friendly contacts with local people. As a rule, you will be welcome as long you let yourself blend in with the crowd and dress reasonably conservatively. Nearly all places of worship are gender-segregated – it may be difficult for women to access the sanctuaries during the weekday services at sundown. It’s best to play the situation by ear.
Space limitation allows exploration of just a few of the places of worship that enrich the city of those who make Ashdod their home. The best time to do a comprehensive tour is during the crack-of-dawn slihot services that approach the High Holy Days, but Shabbat and weekday early evenings can also work.
Rabbi Meir Abuhatzeira Synagogue
BETH MEIR Synagogue interior.BETH MEIR Synagogue interior.
Start in the central Hakirya Quarter, where the northern side of the Begin Boulevard interacts with circular Ha’atzma’ut Street. Moving counterclockwise past the Ohr Yitzchak Synagogue on the circular Ha’atzma’ut Street, enter the community-founding Rabbi Meir Abuhatzeira (1917-1983) synagogue that was built after his death.
Like his father, Rabbi Israel Abuhatzeira – a.k.a. the “Baba Sali,” whom he predeceased – he is remembered as a baal mofet, a person whose mystical depths and closeness to the Almighty enabled him to activate miracles for people seeking his help and guidance.
For example, back in Morocco, a simple Jew tearfully confided his ultimate yearning to move to Israel, but thought that he would never fit in, as he could not read and write. The Rabbi told him to go. He would succeed not in spite, but because of his illiteracy. True to R. Meir’s words, in due course he found himself in a well-paid job in the Israel military department for developing missiles. It was his not being able to read that got him the security clearance to destroy the extremely sensitive constantly rising piles of technical proposals that were examined, but no longer usable. Because he couldn’t read, he was the only person they could trust to destroy the secret papers, and keep them truly secret!
Look for the likeness of R. Meir Abuhatzeira within the stonework of the building. Also, observe the multi-colored rectangles on the ark: as on the high priest’s breastplate, each represents one of the 12 tribes of Israel.
Or Yitzchak Synagogue
Cross over to the south side of Begin Boulevard into the also circular Hatzionut Street. Number 10 is the Or Yitzchak Synagogue of the Georgian Jewish community, whose exterior evokes the Great Synagogue of Tbilisi. This magnificent place of worship was established only in the last decade, but the 40,000-strong Georgian community in Ashdod stems from its position in the vanguard of the 1970s waves of immigration following extended struggles with the former Soviet Union. The prayer nusach (style) is Jerusalem Sephardi, but the community sings it according to its own Georgian musical tradition. Festive events during holidays take place in the garden, expressing music, dancing and singing practices with food and drink to match.
Gur Aryeh Synagogue
ENTRANCE TO the Georgian community’s Gur Aryeh SynagogueENTRANCE TO the Georgian community’s Gur Aryeh Synagogue
Return to Begin Boulevard and move northwest into Quarter Dalet into Rav Shauli Street, and visit the Gur Aryeh Synagogue, the older Georgian synagogue. Impeccably maintained, it is dominated by a magnificent gold and silver-fronted ark, whose awesome aurora gives the sense of colliding head-on with a particularly powerful eagle. The pulpit and donations plate are uniform with the synagogue’s gold and silver décor, and the notice in Hebrew and Georgian quaintly informs congregants that the synagogue doors shut without human encouragement.
GUR Aryeh Synagogue interior. The magnificent gold- and silver-fronted ark can be seen faceing the congregation.GUR Aryeh Synagogue interior. The magnificent gold- and silver-fronted ark can be seen faceing the congregation.
Magen Avraham/ Yismach Moshe  Synagogues
THE GLOWING Yismach Moshe Synagogue at night, a major religious center of Ashdod’s Moroccan Jewry.THE GLOWING Yismach Moshe Synagogue at night, a major religious center of Ashdod’s Moroccan Jewry.
Aficionados of Moroccan synagogues will also like the neighboring Magen Avraham Synagogue, with its magnificent central chandelier and its themed stained glass windows, including the 12 Tribes of Israel, as well as the Yismach Moshe synagogue on Brenner Street in adjacent Quarter Heh. The arched windows of the latter give it a Jerusalem look. With the words “Torah, Service and Acts of Kindness” emblazoned on the metal crown over the entrance, it attracts members of other communities and also more secular Jews who come to pray during the festivals.
THE POWERFUL, Intricately detailed stained-glass windows of the Magen Avraham Synagogue.THE POWERFUL, Intricately detailed stained-glass windows of the Magen Avraham Synagogue.
Cochin Synagogue
Move on to the Cochin Synagogue in Quarter Vav. Named after its leading scholar Nechemia the Elder, its exterior partially resembles the synagogue of the village of Chendamangalam, Cochin, where some of the members of the community come from. Its small size and chandeliered ceiling create a pleasant intimate atmosphere, despite being built of stone rather than the bronze-plated wood of the home country that is unsuited to the local climate and likelihood of termites. Services on Shabbat and holidays have their own distinctive tunes, and the occasion of a bar mitzvah or a pre-wedding Shabbat call up is marked with chapatti, pastries stuffed with meat, and other Indian specialties.
Additional synagogues
Adjacent to the north and east are haredi quarters Gimel and Zayin. Major hassidic as well as Lithuanian-type groups have major outposts here, with synagogues, yeshivot, and other cultural, charitable and medical emergency institutions. A special mention should be given to the Pittsburg hassidim, a hassidic dynasty that developed in the city of the same name (but is spelled differently) in Pennsylvania, but relocated to Ashdod in 1970 under the son and successor of the founder, R. Avraham Abba Leifer. Upon his arrival, the city had few religious residents, but the haredi community grew quickly, and Pittsburg alone operates a network of schools, yeshivot and kollels, while still remaining small enough for each member to personally known to the founder’s son and successor, R. Mordechai Yissachar Ber. The Pittsburg hassidim have also been attracting formerly non-observant Jews through the Rebbe’s shiurim (lectures), tishen (spiritually joyful get-togethers), and personal interactions. 
There are many additional synagogues and communities in the city, but among the special ones, try:
• The Orot Haim U’Moshe Moroccan Synagogue, overlooking the Moshe Sneh Boulevard (Quarter Gimel)
• The Shalom Shabazi Achdut Ameinu Yemenite Synagogue, with a mixed Baladi and Shami (the two Yemenite prayer versions) service (Quarter Yud Aleph)
• The Keter Torah Karaite Community (Quarter Yud Bet)
• The Birkat Amalia Ashkenazi Synagogue (Quarter Yud Aleph)
• The Goel Yisrael Ethiopian Synagogue (Quarter Het)
• The Ohr Menachem Chabad Synagogue (Quarter Yud Zayin), at the extreme southwest of the city.