Cityfront: Keeping the flame alive

As a historic neighborhood modernizes, the fate of one of its oldest synagogueshangs in the balance.

ohaliav 248.88 (photo credit: Abe Selig)
ohaliav 248.88
(photo credit: Abe Selig)
Tucked behind the shiny new condos and renovated houses of Jerusalem's Nahlaot neighborhood, Beit Knesset Ohaliav, a small, ornate synagogue surrounded by a flowery courtyard, silently bears witness to the area's ongoing transformation from ramshackle Sephardi enclave to one of the city's most prominent blocs of real estate. Work crews make their daily foray into the neighborhood's narrow streets and past the old stone buildings, banging out room for a host of new construction projects shooting up across the neighborhood at a dizzying pace. But as the gentrification of Nahlaot races toward completion - early 19th-century immigrants from Syria, Iran and Kurdistan have given way to a new crowd of Anglos, artists and Jerusalem's young professionals - Ohaliav's veteran members feel as though their window into the past, the synagogue which they have been tasked with keeping alive, is being submerged by a seemingly unstoppable wave of the future. "I can still remember the synagogue in all its glory," recounts Shlomo Kedmi as he discusses his memories of the arcane synagogue, which celebrated its centenary last week. "Every Shabbat it was full," he says, his eyes glimmering with a flame of the past. "We always had a minyan." Now 80 years old, Kedmi is Ohaliav's oldest surviving member. Born in Nahlaot to a family of Persian Jews in 1929, Kedmi began attending services at the synagogue when he was five years old, had his bar mitzva there in 1942, and has retained his seat in the left corner of the brightly lit, colorful sanctuary every Shabbat since. "I have rarely missed a Saturday morning service since my bar mitzva," Kedmi says, smiling. "Back then, we had so many people coming in, we had to bring in extra benches for the kids to sit on. It was beautiful, the singing was delightful, and we always had a respected cantor to lead us in prayer." The synagogue still retains a bit of its original grandeur, at least internally. Multicolored plaques bearing God's Hebrew name decorate the sanctuary's walls, and a chain of silk flowers hangs down over the wooden bima. Built under the Ottoman Turkish rule in 1909 by Jews of Spanish descent, names such as Calderon and Moreno can be found on the old memorial plaques which also bedeck the walls, etching into eternity the names of congregants from a time gone by. "For years there was a cantor named Senor Tarablus," Kedmi says. "He was completely blind, but he knew every single prayer by heart. He even knew the rare piyutim [poems] for the special holidays, and he had a beautiful voice," he recalls. "In the old days, we had prayers there every day, and Shabbat was simply a pleasure," Kedmi continues. "So many great, holy people have come and gone; now it's like a different place." These days, there are no daily prayers, and Shabbat mornings often find Kedmi, or one of Ohaliav's other loyal members waiting outside the synagogue's white, rusting front gates, calling in passers-by to help form a quorum of 10 men for prayer. "Sometimes people come back to the neighborhood to say the memorial prayers for their parents, but otherwise we don't have enough people anymore," says Kedmi, lamenting the reality of his boyhood surroundings. "All the old members have gone on to the next world, and their children have all moved away. Sometimes I wonder what the synagogue will look like a few years down the road." While he insists that he's not worried, Kedmi says he does wonder if the synagogue will ever experience a rebirth or a renewed popularity with the neighborhood's younger, newer crowd. "A lot of these young people are Ashkenazim," he says. "They want to go to their synagogues, the new ones. They won't come pray with us at Ohaliav. But It's all in God's hands," Kedmi reasons. "And I believe the younger generation will pick up the work after us." Nonetheless, the synagogue has other, structural problems that also threaten its survival. Listing a slew of issues concerning the century-old building, Kedmi says that the roof leaks whenever it rains, dripping water onto the old upholstery and original wooden benches inside. "It's going to cost NIS 40,000 just to fix the roof," he says. "Where are we supposed to get money like that? We can't even make a minyan. There are 14 Torah scrolls inside, and thank God, they haven't been damaged by water. But we have to start doing some repairs. We need help immediately." So far, little help has come. The "regulars," as Kedmi calls them, make up around seven or eight men who dutifully arrive for prayers on Saturday morning but have little to offer in the way of financial support. "But I'm not worried," Kedmi repeats, trusting in the fact that the synagogue's history, which has outlasted the Turks and the British, will ensure its future. "Ohaliav has been around for 100 years," he says, "and I believe it will be around for hundreds more."