So many synagogues: Tiberias

The city's Jewish community traces back to 1740s under the patronage of Daher El Omar, who persuaded the aged sage Rabbi Chayim Abulafia of Smyrna to rebuild the desolated community.

TIBERIAS GREAT Synagogue  (photo credit: JACOB SOLOMON)
TIBERIAS GREAT Synagogue
(photo credit: JACOB SOLOMON)
Tiberias today sits on a heritage of an impressive who’s who in the development of Judaism as we know it. It has been the seat of the exiled-from-Jerusalem Sanhedrin and its successor establishment the Beth HaMidrash, from 193 until 425 CE. Their decisions enshrined in the Jerusalem Talmud continue to shape and influence Jewish practices today. The city and immediate surroundings include the tombs named for great Jewish personalities, including Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, the Rambam (Moses Maimonides 1135-1204), as well as the much later 18th century thinker and Kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, the Ramchal.
The present Jewish community traces back to 1740s under the patronage of Daher El Omar, who persuaded the aged sage Rabbi Chayim Abulafia of Smyrna to rebuild the desolated community. His many community-revitalizing achievements included the building of the synagogue that despite extensive reconstruction following natural disasters, continues to bear his name. Together with Jerusalem, Hebron, and Safed, Tiberias continued to grow with traditionally-minded Jews from both Ashkenazi and Sephardi countries: some 2,000 Jews by the beginning of the 20th century forming more than half of Tiberias’ population, to the predominantly Jewish city of today with approximately 45,000 people with secular as well as religious elements.
This city has suffered more than its share of disasters, including a severe earthquake in 1837, numerous floods which were finally addressed by the British Mandate constructing a flood barrier forming today’s promenade on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and a series of fires: most recently the Mishkan Shalom Synagogue in 2019 together with its seven Torah scrolls, and at the Kehilat Hassidim Synagogue in 2020. Fortunately, neither involved human casualties.
With its population having more than quadrupled since Israeli independence, Tiberias has expanded up the steep slopes framing its waterfront into a patchwork of neighborhoods, each with its variety of synagogues, generally small, to suit the traditions and outlooks of the residents. These envelope the multifarious shades of ethnicity, haredi, national-religious, Sephardi as well as Chabad. Indeed the Great Synagogue, high up on Herzl Boulevard has a distinctly local community feel about it: as one writer puts it “an atmosphere of pleasant holiness and relaxation”, with Torah learning going on at all hours interspersed with services at sunrise, midday, and sunset. Under the spiritual leadership of renown Kabbalist, Rabbi Dov Kook of the illustrious Kook family, its decorative strip separating the ceiling from the upper window frame tastefully and proudly declares the final recorded words of Moses to the Israelites: “Happy are you, O Israel, Who is like you?” (Deuteronomy 33:29).
TIBERIAS GREAT Synagogue exterior and interior. ETZ CHAIM Abulafia Synagogue, exterior and interior. (Jacob Solomon)TIBERIAS GREAT Synagogue exterior and interior. ETZ CHAIM Abulafia Synagogue, exterior and interior. (Jacob Solomon)
However, a newcomer to the city should also make a point of visiting the Old City Promenade of Tiberias, which contains synagogues from the 18th and 19th centuries that together form a square. The square itself looks as though it is making a brave effort to emerge from neglect, and the aging synagogues, with one exception, are in regular use and in excellent condition. They include the Etz Chaim Abulafia Synagogue, named after the aforementioned forefather and sage of the present community, the small and cozy in-the-process-of-renovation Senior Synagogue, the symmetrical two-storied, red-roofed Boyan Synagogue, and the Hassidic Karlin-Stolin Synagogue.
The Abulafia Synagogue, formerly the Great Sephardi Community Synagogue has suffered the ravages of earthquake (1759, 1837), confiscation in mortgage to pay community taxes (1816), and extreme flooding (1934), but it has been restored time and time again, up to its present grandeur. Of similar size to the aforementioned Great Synagogue, its elaborate domed ceiling displays a floral pattern bearing upon six overlapping circles, which give the impression of the six days of creation happening in an aura of divine love and goodwill. The six circles do not quite meet in the center, suggesting perhaps that mankind is expected to participate in bringing the creation to future fulfillment. On the left side of the synagogue, a pillared canopy marks the place of the special mikveh (ritual bath) that Rabbi Abulafia used. Step inside and peer down: according to legend, water from the Sea of Galilee would enter the pipe and fill it up whenever he entered. Finally, the architecture includes a beautifully 12-Tribes of Israel-framed Ladies Gallery, indicating that female worshipers are not merely welcome, but very welcome.
Almost opposite is the house of one of Rabbi Abulafia’s great supporters in revitalizing Tiberias, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk. A student of the premier disciple of the founder of Chasidim, the Baal Shem Tov, he spread the ideas of hassidism that galvanized the Jewish communities of White Russia. He reached the Holy Land and settled in Tiberias in 1765 with several hundred of his Hassidic followers, transferring a distinctly Eastern European milieu into fast becoming one of the four “Holy Cities” together with Jerusalem, Hebron, and Safed.
KARLIN-STOLIN Synagogue and Beit Midrash.(Jacob Solomon)KARLIN-STOLIN Synagogue and Beit Midrash.(Jacob Solomon)
The Hassidic dimension has continued: over the next century the house became part of the Karlin-Stolin Hassidic Synagogue. It continues to be revitalized and open, day and night. Doubling up as the House of Study, it attracts plenty of people to learn including visitors from nearby hotels. These Hasidim are especially known for their custom to cry out in a strong and loud voice when praying. They are also known for their personal warmth. Pay special attention to the ark, which maintains a design that was common in Eastern European, with the small podium placed modestly to the right from where the services are conducted in line with “From the very depths, I call out to You” (Psalms 130:1).
On the other side of the square remains the Senior Synagogue, a.k.a. the El Senor Sephardic synagogue. This place of worship is view by appointment only: call 052 3997897 in advance. It was contributed by Rabbi Chaim Shmuel HaKohen Konorti as an extension of his home and as part of his role in the development of the community especially after the physical ravages of the earthquake of 1837. His descendants continued to live in the compound, and are currently engaged in restoring the synagogue, whose walls are flanked by comfortable couches.
This leaves the final place of worship in the square: the Boyan Synagogue. It was the place of worship of the Boyan Hasidim from the Ukraine, who settled in Tiberias in the early 19th century. Though the synagogue was enlarged following the ravages of the 1934 flood, the Boyan contingent dropped in numbers, with the present building more recently succeeded by the Habad community. Known now as the “Old Synagogue”, its superb location by the heavily touristed sea front provides a superb base for Habad’s outreach activities. It has also grown though extending a hand to visitors as well as regular locals; indeed, the local Habad spiritual leaders make a point of engaging visitors in services and learning sessions. Their goal is to make their neat-exterior synagogue a dedicated tourist destination for Jews from all walks of life and affiliations. The goodwill is reciprocated. For example, one Rosh Hashanah the air conditioning broke down, and a well-satisfied worshiper immediately donated a commercial grade air-conditioning unit in time for the remaining High Holiday period festivals.
Overall, it is not possible to be anywhere in Tiberias that is more than a very short distance from a synagogue. Each one reflects the character of the immediate local community, with Moroccan and Tunisian families particularly well-represented. However, those looking for formal cathedral-style places of worship familiar to the English-speaking Diaspora communities will find themselves adapting to environments that may be initially unfamiliar, but captivating in their atmosphere, and engagement in prayer and study.
Enter and engage with an open mind!