Jerusalem Great Synagogues
This is part of a series of articles on kosher travel in Israel. For the map with all places discussed and links to other pages in the series go to the main page at Israel Kosher Vacations for Tourists.
In no particular order . . .
Located at 55 King George St, this modern synagogue was built in 1982 at a cost of $18 million (in 1982 dollars) and holds 1400 people. What’s amazing about this synagogue is the choir. We’re talking about a huge synagogue built with professional acoustic design and a live choir of about 12-20 singers. I can best describe it as a cross between 18th century baroque, 19th century Poland, and 20th century Carlbach … it was like going to a classical music concert complete with a conductor and “instruments” (only voice) with impeccable sound quality since there’s no reproduction of the sound. You’re hearing the actual voices in a “concert hall” which is built for sound quality.
The difference between this and say, a classical music concert is you’re not a spectator at this concert – well, assuming you know the davening [prayers], probably as a Torah observant Jew. Here, even the conductor takes part as he too is answering “amen” because he’s actually praying while conducting.
It’s not something I think I’d do every week (I usually prefer little to no singing synagogues that move along), but wow is it amazing when it’s done right. I imagine it as the closest thing to praying with Leviim singing in the Bais Hamikdash (Temple; though they had instruments too). On Shabbos morning, the synagogue starts at 8:30am but you’ll be there while a while (probably about 3.5 hours) if you stay for everything so it might be advisable to daven someone else early and then come over here for the second half of davening – e.g. f you can, go there when they sing Hallel (Rosh Chodesh, Chol HaMoed, etc…) and get the full experience. … and don’t worry what you look like. There are people with kippa strugas, black hats, streimels, probably some tourists … you have everyone attending here.
Those who are used to walking through the Old City of Jerusalem, until recently, were used to passing through a square with a small platform where musicians gather, people make calls from the bank of payphones, and an arch stands in what everyone knows is a synagogue which was destroyed by the Jordanians in the 1948 war. Well, a blank wall now greets you were the payphones were and the platform is still there, but the arch that you see is now part of the rebuilt Hurva synagogue. Once the headquarters for Ashkenazi Jewish practice in Jerusalem in the 1700s, it’s been built and destroyed (usually by the Ottomans or other Muslims) and rebuilt more times than it seems history has kept track of. There are historical mentions of the synagogue in 2nd, 13th, and 14th centuries and is also known as the Ramban Synagogue as the Ramban is one of the builders at one time.
Today, it’s fully rebuilt as exact as possible based on the pre-1948 plans. The only difference I could find were the wooden blocks surrounding the air conditioning units. You can find minyanim here every day and two Shabbos morning in a ‘yeshivish’ style, the later at 8:15am. Minyan proceeds quickly and without talking or a break for a Rabbinical speech, but be advised that modern acoustics are not something you’ll find in the multi-story many shul built of stone. There’s quite the echo making for a very different experience from the modern Great Synagogue described above.
Seeing this synagogue rebuilt is a very positive change for those of us who walked through this courtyard numerous times on our way to the Kotel only to see an arch where a shul should have been. Now, there’s a shul there and it’s emblematic of much of Israel which is constantly growing, being rebuilt. It’s not the country it was when I lived there in 2002. As I write this article in 2017, only 15 years later, the roads have been straightened, incomes have gone up 50%, ruins are often active places of worship.
Unintentionally, the article covers a Mizrachi, Yeshivish, and Chassidic great synagogue. Belz, as one would probably guess, is the chassidish synagogue of the Belz Chassidim from Belz, Poland/Ukraine. The flat fur hats that they wear are quite stylish, but when you see this synagogue … wow. It’s the largest synagogue in Israel and can seat over 10,000. You enter on a floor that looks like a never ending lobby of a hotel complete with granite, marble, and stone work. Go up a floor to the synagogue, or if you’re going to the woman’s section, you can go up to one of three floors, and you’re greeting by an Aron HaKodesh (where the Torah’s are stored) which is, I’m told, a full size replica of the Heichel – the front of the Temple. It’s huge, as is this room.
It’s worth a stop to see how the Jews have finally returned to Jerusalem in huge numbers. Belz had two main synagogues back in Poland which were destroyed by the Nazis. It amazing to think that in 1945, between death and rebirth, chassidim like Belz had no great synagogues and were largely wiped out but you come to Jerusalem today and see that the synagogues have been more than rebuilt where they’re supposed to be and now accommodate crowds praying to G_d within which haven’t been seen in Israel since before the last Temple was destroyed.
Bais Tzvi is it’s name – at approximately 26 Agripas St (see picture on map) this humble synagogue sits at the end of the drive-able part of Agrippas St which extends from the shuk, and what begins the pedestrian mall from here through the King George triangle. It’s not huge like the rest discussed in this article, but it has it’s charm. Hidden behind a plain looking doorway between restaurants and clothing stores, this small synagogue has regular Ashkenazi minyanim three times a day with well posted times inside. It’s small enough and the Rav is friendly enough that he’ll notice you when you walk in and help you feel comfortable (he only speaks Hebrew though). The Gabbi is an American Jew from Baltimore who moved to the area, and many who stay in the hotels in the area frequent this synagogue.
On Shabbos morning, they start at 7:45am and finish by about 9:15am but the reason this gets mentioned in the kiddush. You’ll find an “authentic” Jerusalem kiddush here. It’s not over the top, it’s not huge, it’s just some yerushalmi kugel, cholent, and a small amount of baked goods. It’s just not something reproducible outside of Israel. Then, you can head off to experience the bigger Great Synagogue of Jerusalem discussed above.