The underground lives

The Ahdut Israel Synagogue keeps the memories of pre-state fighters alive.

Lehi, also known as the Stern Gang, and the Irgun, often referred to in Hebrew as Etzel, were two organizations which were instrumental in the creation of modern Israel. These pre-state organizations specialized in assassinations and bombings, usually against the British who ruled what was then Mandatory Palestine, and were responsible for some of the most notorious episodes of the period, including Lehi's assassination of high-ranking British official Lord Moyne in 1944, the Irgun's famous bombing of the King David Hotel in 1946 and Lehi's assassination of UN mediator Count Folke Bernadotte in 1948. They were branded terrorists by the British and their methods were denounced by the mainstream Zionist leadership yet, after the creation of Israel in 1948, the fighters of these groups were integrated into the newly formed Israel Defense Forces and many Lehi and Irgun members became important figures in Israeli politics. The most famous of these are two former prime ministers; Yitzhak Shamir, who was a leader of Lehi, and Menachem Begin, who commanded the Irgun from 1944 to 1948. The pre-state Zionist groups are not usually thought of as being composed of religious men, yet tucked away near the Mahaneh Yehuda market is a synagogue where former Lehi and Irgun members and their families still come to pray. Ahdut Israel synagogue is located on the second floor of the old orphanage building at 91 Jaffa Road. The synagogue was original located further up Jaffa Road and moved to its current location in the 1950s. "The full name is actually Ahdut Israel L'shem Olei Hagardom - Unity of Israel in Memory of the Ascenders of the Gallows," explains executive committee member Louie Lipsky. The name refers to Lehi and Etzel members who were executed by the British or died in the course of their missions. These members' names occupy a prominent place on the synagogue's Yizkor (remembrance) boards. Lipsky, 46, made aliya from New York with his family when he was eleven. A former officer in the Israeli Navy and a self-described Likudnik, as are many of the regular members of Ahdut Israel, he was 77th on the Likud list in the historic 1996 elections and is upfront about his plans to run for the Knesset again. He met with In Jerusalem to give us a brief tour of the synagogue before running off to the Hebrew University, where he is working on a law degree. "I started coming here when I was 26 or 27," he says. "The Likud branch in Jerusalem put out a quarterly newspaper and one issue had an article about the shul in it. I came here once and I never wanted to pray anywhere else... very, very warm, very outgoing. It was just a lovely experience." According to Lipsky, there are fewer than a dozen former Lehi and Irgun members left who pray regularly at the synagogue, but often the extended family members or descendents of former fighters will come to Ahdut Israel to have a bar mitzva or a brit mila. Lipsky also organizes evenings several times a year where the veterans relate their experiences to a capacity crowd. The synagogue itself is a fairly standard, high-ceilinged Ashkenazi-type house of prayer, yet contains some remarkable features linked to the history of these fighting groups. The most striking of these are the multiple Yizkor boards set up in remembrance of the dead, one of which covers nearly the entire northern wall. Displaying the names of rank and file Lehi and Irgun men (and some women) who died in action in the pre-state years, this board also includes the names of well-known figures including Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the influential founder of the Revisionist Zionist movement, Avraham Stern, the founder of Lehi, and David Raziel, the former commander of the Irgun who was killed in 1941 while on a mission in Iraq. Another Yizkor board is completely dedicated to Menachem Begin and a third is dedicated to the "non-combatant" community members who have passed on, including Rabbi Arieh Levin, who for years gave a weekly sermon and, by all accounts, was extremely popular with the Lehi and Irgun fighters. Also listed on this board is the former rabbi of Ahdut Israel, Yitzhak Rabinowitz, who died in 1984. Rabinowitz served as chief rabbi of South Africa and was a veteran of the invasion of Normandy. In 1947, he famously discarded his British war medals (and knighthood) in protest of the British policy of restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine. Rabinowitz's son is the current rabbi of the synagogue. The community has a beautiful, hand-carved, wooden Elijah's chair, which was made by a chance visitor to the synagogue whose father happened to have been instrumental in discovering the location of David Raziel's grave in Iraq. This allowed Raziel's remains to eventually be returned to Israel. According to Lipsky, the visitor had no idea that the synagogue was associated with the Irgun and was moved to craft the chair by hand after his visit. Another special item is an unusual Sefer Torah that was written on deerskin in the 1940s in Egypt after the assassination of Lord Moyne. The Egyptian Jewish community commissioned it in hopes of arousing God's mercy, so that the two captured Lehi assassins, Eliahu Hakim and Eliahu Bet-Zouri, would be spared. Their effort was to no avail; Hakim and Bet-Zouri were eventually hanged by the British authorities, but the Torah was completed and, decades later, found its way to Ahdut Israel by way of Canada. The Torah scroll has a few blemishes, so it is not suitable for ritual use, but funds have recently been raised to repair it. However, the most unusual feature of the synagogue is a trap door under the main ark that holds the Torah scrolls. As told by Lipsky, the fighters would sometimes stash their weapons there before a mission. On the appointed day, they would arrive around the time of the afternoon service, wait around inside until it got dark, and then pray the evening service, grab their arms and go about their business. This tactic helped them avoid surveillance. For many years, the Ahdut Israel Synagogue was a thriving community but, as time passed, attendance began to decline, mostly due to members passing on and to population shifts in the neighborhood. These days, however, things appear to be on the upswing. "When I came everybody was 80 or 90 plus, so I must have reduced the average age by about 50 percent," says Lipsky. "But two or three years ago, a few young guys started coming and they liked it and others heard about it from them. Now, on a 'nothing special' Shabbat we have about 50 men and 35 women." The synagogue offers services on Shabbat evening and morning as well as on holidays, including Independence Day. This year, the Independence Day service drew such a large crowd that people were forced to pray outside in the downstairs courtyard instead of in the synagogue itself.