Sunday, August 14, 2011

Synagogues in Jerusalem

This is a compilation of my weekly synagogue visits to Jerusalem during my sabbatical from April-August in 2011.   One of my major goals was to attend as many synagogues for Shabbat as possible.  When I'm home I generally only get to attend one, so this was a real treat for me.

As you read these please understand that:
(1) which synagogue a person is most comfortable in is very much a matter of individual "fit" and taste.
(2) these are not meant to be reviews, but rather, a reflection of what we liked and disliked, how we felt, etc.
(3) most of the synagogues were Orthodox, as there are very few Conservative and Reform synagogues here.  This made the experience a little less fun for Karen in the women's section.
(4) almost all of these synagogues experiences were amazingly uplifting, often in contrast to North American synagogues.  Because of the knowledge base of the people who attend these services, the ruach (spirit) is really fantastic.

The first two in each section, Kol Rina and Mizmor l'David in the Orthodox section, and Hod v'Hadar and Moreshet Avraham in the non Orthodox section, were our very favorites, in retrospect.  The others are in the order we attended them.

Kol Rina--Nachlaot
This was probably our very favorite synagogue in Jerusalem, especially for Friday  night.  Kol Rina in the Nachlaot neighborhood, a good 35 minute walk from our place.  For those who know Jerusalem it is relatively close to the Machane Yehuda "Shuk."  Friday night was one of the most uplifting, spiritual services I have ever attended in my life.  The ecstatic spirit of 200 people singing at the top of their lungs and then ecstatically dancing around the room in the middle of a prayer is really an amazing experience.  Many, many synagogues try to have this style of service, but they often feel forced.  This one was the opposite--really authentic, spontaneous, and awe inspiring.  It was impossible not to get swept up in it.  Their tunes come primarily from the late Shlomo Carlebach, which .are very popular these days,   When not everyone is participating, they can fall flat, but and when done right, are incredibly beautiful and exciting.  About two thirds of the group appear to be English speakers, but the overall diversity was impressive.  There were teenagers, black hatted ultra religious Haredim, tatooed hipsters, old time hippies, and plenty of "regular" folks all in attendance singing and dancing their hearts out.

After such a stirring Friday night, Saturday morning was almost a completely different place.  It was much more sparsely attended (except there was a BBYO group from "March of the Living There," which was fun), and, though they tried, it lacked the same spirit evident on Friday.  The 20 or so regulars there, though, were very friendly.  They offered me an Aliyah, struck up many conversations wtih us afterward, and had a wonderful warmth about them.  They wanted my boys to lead "Anim Z'mirot, " an extremely long Psalm done at the end of the service, but they did not know it yet, so they had to decline.  It is very, very difficult, but Micah wants to take up the challenge.  Well, I am bribing him, but I'm still proud of him.  Addendum:  We returned 3 months later, and he did it, beautifully!

The view from the Mechitza was:  "They tried."  It's a sheer curtain, which they open for the sermon, and they bring the Torah to the women's section for them to kiss it, but it's still in back of the men and can be hard to see.  But on Friday night, the women sing loudly and sometimes even dance (but not the time Karen went), so they are clearly participating openly.

Mizmor l'David--East Talpiot
Mizmor l'David, a very modern Orthodox synagogue in the Talpiot neighborhood.  They have a side by side mechitza, so women feel much more comfortable here, and a woman takes the Torah and carries it around the women's section so all have the opportunity to kiss it.  The ruach here is tremendous, with people singing in wonderful harmonies at the top of their lungs to mostly Shlomo Carlebach melodies. The people also try to dance after Lecha Dodi, both the men and the women, though separately.   If I hadn't attended another Carlebach style synagogue called Kol Rina the week before, this would have been amazing, but It's hard to compare anything to the ecstatic feeling created there.  This was just an energy notch below.  However, the Saturday Musaf at Mizmor l'David was the best Musaf I have ever seen.  The person davening had an amazing combination of good voice, ruach, and sincerity.  Unfortunately, the 3 1/2 hour service which preceded Musaf didn't enable me to enjoy it fully.  Still, I have to give many kudos to the men and women sustaining this shul.  It's certainly a great one and would be one we could see ourselves joining if we lived here.

Shira Chadasha--Emek Refaim in the German Colony
The first one we attended was the closest to our house and is called Shira Chadasha, which means "new song."  The ruach (spirit) there is incredible, with people singing all service long in harmony.  It is Orthodox, but they push every envelope you can push ritually.  There is a mechitza dividing the men and women, but women are allowed to chant Torah and chant certain parts of the service.  It's also a place that many Americans frequent, though the service is, of course, entirely in Hebrew and so are the announcements.  We returned there with our congregational trip as one of three synagogues we saw in one morning, and they did not take kindly to our getting up and leaving.  They scolded my wife, saying "we are not a museum," and it was rather offputting.  I understand their point-of-view, but it left a little bit of a bad taste in our mouths at what is generally an amazing place to pray.

Kehilat Har Horev--Helamed Hey Street in KatamonI was originally planning on attending a synagogue called "Yedidya" this week, another left-leaning Modern Orthodox synagogue that was more family-oriented, but when I walked outside for the 23 minute walk, I noticed a whole lot of folks walking with Siddurim.  I decided to follow them instead to whatever neighborhood synagogue they going.  I ended up at a place called "Kehilat Har Horev," which turned out to also be modern Orthodox, but much more Israeli.  The service was Ashkenazic, as were most of the people there, but the pronunciation was Sephardic.  I found it relatively easy to follow.  While there was more mumbling/davening than at Shira Chadasha, when the congregation did come together to sing, it was lovely.  Lots of kavanah (intentionality) in their praying and singing, and I found it quite enjoyable.  On Friday, I enjoyed the sing alongable tenor voice of the man who led the evening service.  There was also a sermon, all in Hebrew.  I understood the majority of the words, since it was about the Haggadah, but I didn't understand what point the speaker was getting at.  It may have been my lack of Hebrew knowledge, but when I saw the people on both my right and left sleeping, it may just not really have had a point.  On Saturday, I was honored with the hagbah (Torah lifting).  I was rather hesitant to accept, since I didn't know the weight of the Torah, but I got lucky.  The first of the two scrolls was the light one, and the reading is in the middle of the Torah, so I had no problem.  One man with 5 boys was very friendly (he looked like Roxy Bernstein), and the overall atmosphere was vibrant.  The downside was that despite a very modern building, they did a very poor job with the Mechitza.  It is both elevated and has a curtain, so Karen reported that she could see almost nothing from the Women's Section.  (Note from Karen:  I actually reported that I could see ABSOLUTELY nothing from upstairs.  I didn't know where Mark and the boys were sitting, I couldn't see the Torah, Ark, or people at all.  The prayerbooks were only in Hebrew; after about 20 minutes a woman handed me one and asked if I wanted to follow along for Musaf - at least that's what I think she said, to me it sounded like "blah blah blah musaf?"  At least I could hear the davening.)

Ezrat Yisrael--German Colony
Ezrat Yisrael, which means the help of Israel, was very similar to "Har Horeb," except that Karen could see better from this mechitza, and I was given Galila (Torah dresser and roller) rather than Hagbah, and I did a very poor job.  There was no slit in the cover, and it had writing on both sides, so I put it on backwards, and we had to change it, plus there was an extra piece with the word Pesach on it that kept flipping around).  It was still a very nice, enjoyable morning with lots of people davening with Kavanah (intentionality).  The best part was that there were kids playing outside in the courtyard the game called "Chayei Sarah," a sort of Israeli dodgeball, so Micah and Jonah were happy.

Yedidya in Baka
We spent much of our Shabbat with our good friends the Greybers from Camp Ramah, including doing a sleepover exchange where Micah went to their house and their middle son, Benjamin, slept over at ours.  The boys are so much happier when they are with other kids and away from each other for a while.  Yedidya is a very modern Orthodox synagogue.  I say very because the mechitza is very small, and the Torah is passed to the women's section and carried by a woman (Karen got the honor this week), things that are not allowed in every Orthodox synagogue.  I had an Aliyah.  This week was a very long Torah portion, but it was a pleasant service, with very knowledgeable people lending their voices and enthusiasm to the service.  It was not as spirited or raucous as Kol Rina or Mizmor l'David, but compared to virtually any synagogue in America, it is kavanatically (that's a made up "Heblish" word meaning with intention) superior.  I pray that I can bring some of that back with me without disturbing the comfort level of our own congregation.                                                                                        

Yakar in Katamon
Yakar is another spirited modern Orthodox synagogue with a lot of Anglos.  They actually have two separate services.  The first one, downstairs, is more meditation-oriented, though it's the loudest meditation I've ever experienced.  They sit rather still in their seats and sing many niggunim (songs without words) at the top of their lungs in multiple harmonies.  It is beautiful, though some of the songs drag on for quite a while.  Lecha Dodi was taking a very long time, when we suddenly heard the spirited Shlomo Carlebach tunes we have come to love emanating from somewhere else in the building.  So for the second half of the service we went upstairs and joined in there.  Lots of ruach, which Jonah tells me he personally hopes to bring back to Temple Beth Abraham.  ON Saturday morning, this place is known for their Kiddush snack, which they do as a break in the service between Torah reading and Musaf.  They also have a shiur (lesson) during this time, which is what makes this place unique.  Unfortunately, they had neither the week we attended, so if I were grading this shul I'd have to give it an incomplete.

Shir Chadash in KatamonShir Chadash is not to be confused with Shira Chadasha where we spent our first Shabbat.  It was a little quieter than some of the places we've been, but it was very sweet and in the Carlebach style we love.  On Saturday morning there was a sermon in English.  They had a long-time Gabbai saying an emotional goodbye to the congregation the week we were there, and it was very moving.  There were also two grooms, and they did a little dance around the Torah table with each of them.  Jonah joined in, as he seems to be some sort of good luck symbol to people.  Micah got to do Gelila (dressing the Torah), though he was disappointed that he didn't get to do Anim Zmirot.  Anim Zmirot is a very long, difficult hymn of glory that he has been working very hard on.  He knows it now, but this synagogue followed the not as common custom of reciting it early in the service rather than late, and we didn't get a chance to ask anyone if he could do it.  Thus it was led by the regular davener, and not all that well!

Mayanot (Rehavia/Nachlaot Borde)
After our family service on the congregational trip and dinner I took about 20 people to an additional service at one of the spirited Carlebach services at a place called Mayanot, about a 20 minute walk from the hotel. There are a lot of Haredim there (ultra Orthodox), and they weren't terribly friendly to us.  They dance around the reading table and bang on it as they pass by, which is an interesting way of doing things.  I did not enjoy it as some of the other places I have been, but it was great to have some of our members witness the joy of a Jerusalem synagogue.  Unfortunately, the joy was mostly just on the men’s side of the mechitza. 

The Great Synagogue in Center City
The Great Synagogue is a massive and beautiful structure, much like the large synagogues in America.  It is Orthodox, but in style it resembles an old time Reform synagogue.  There is a paid professional choir of all men who sings along with the operatic Cantor throughout the service. If you like choral music, this is the place in Jerusalem.  In general, though, I don't especially in a prayer environment, and neither did most of our synagogue members who went with me and likewise did not enjoy the lack of participation.

Yemenite Synagogue in the Greek Colony
In this particular week we decided to go a little more exotic and went to a small, neighborhood Yemenite Synagogue at the corner of Elazar Hamodai and Yehoshua ben Nun streets.  As far as we could tell it had no formal name, but they were certainly warm and friendly.  There were only about 20 people there, including our family, so it was very intimate. The Yemenite traditions are quite different than standard Ashkenazi synagogues.

1. There are many small liturgical changes, as basic prayers like the Amidah, Aleinu, Ahavat Olam, Kaddishes, Adon Olam, and many more have slightly different wording.  We assume all our prayers came directly from Sinai, but looking at what happened when they spread out to different parts of the world, customs and even sacred wording varies.  They also stand a lot less frequently.2. The Yemenites do everything aloud.  There is no mumbling followed by chanting when you see the open box a la Sim Shalom or Art Scroll. 
3. The sound is very different.  Lots of ululation in a very repetitive musical mode.  They gave me an Aliyah, which I attempted to do Yemenite style.  The Gabbai asked me if I had any relatives who were Yemenite after that.  He was teasing me, but I tried. 
4. They auction off the last three Aliyot.  Mine was free.
5. They read from the Sephardic style of Torah in the large wooden casing with the Torah standing up. They do hagbah before the reading rather than after.  
6. After each line of Torah, another reader chants a similar sounding line.  What he is chanting is actually an ancient Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Torah called the Targum Onkelos.  At one time it must have helped the listener understand what was going on.  Today it just adds length.  Yemenites do not speak Aramaic (nor does any other Jewish tradition at this point in time).  The Torah reader was straight from central casting, about 4 foot 10 and 70 something, with a great Yeminite look and voice. 
7. Some of the men wear Tallitot on Friday night.  People also get up and lead from their seats.  Perhaps all the leaders were wearing Tallitot, but it was hard to tell if that was the case.   

Thoroughly enjoyable overall.

The Western Wall and the Hurva Synagogue in the Old City
We spent one Friday night at the Western Wall.  There are many minyanim at once going on there, so we tried to find one to stick with, but it was very hard to hear.  What we did enjoy was seeing a large group of Israeli soldiers dancing up a Shabbat storm and singing songs on both the mens' and womens' sides.  The release of joy for such hard working young men and women whose mission is to protect this holy place was joyful and inspiring.  

Saturday morning was spent at the Hurva Synagogue.  Architecturally, it was amazing.  Spiritually, it was lacking.  The Hurva is in the Old City of Jerusalem and was rebuilt to its full beauty just a few years ago.  It was destroyed by the Jordanians immediately after the 1948 War of Independence sort of gratuitously.  Only the arch from the large dome-like structure still stood.  When the Old City was recaptured by Israel in 1967, the original decision was just to leave the arch without rebuilding.  Eventually, some U.S. donors decided to restore it to its former glory.  It is certainly a beautiful synagogue, but the service was almost all Ashkenazic mumbling.  The participants are the black velvet wearing kippa crowd, and not a soul talked to any of us.  They also do not do the prayer for Israel or the Israeli army.  It's almost a non-'Zionist relic stuck in the middle of Jerusalem, very strange and unsatisfying to us.  Fortunately, all the people we spent Shabbat with later in the day made it holy instead.


Hod v'Hadar in Kfar Saba
Because we were not in Jerusalem, we had to drive to synagogue this Shabbat, and we drove to TBA's sister synagogue in Israel, a Masorti/Conservative synagogue called Hod v'Hadar in K'far Saba.  It was nice to be able to sit together as a family, and even nicer that Karen got the Aliyah instead of me this week.  There was a Bar Mitzvah there, but an Israeli Bar Mitzvah is incredibly informal, really just a small part of the service.  The kid was sweet and adorable.  The place felt like home to us, very similar to a TBA service and atmosphere, and the degrees of separation in the game of Jewish geography were very small there.  We ran into both a former Cantor of Torat Yisrael in Rhode Island, where I used to work, a man named Shimon Gevirtz (we were there 20  years apart so we knew each other only by name), and a woman who was married at TBA many years ago named Beverly Shulster, who had none other than the Pencovic's sign her Ketuba!  It was a lovely Shabbat.

Moreshet Avraham in East Talpiot
This synagogue was a bit far away (a 45 minute walk) and is the main "regular" Conservative synagogue in Jerusalem.  It is mostly Anglo, but the service, sermon, and announcements are all in Hebrew.  They have great family programming--kids' services for both 4-10 year olds and 11-12 year olds.  Micah actually has a couple of friends there, so it was easy to get him excited for shul this week.  The tunes are Carelbach-ish on Friday night and fairly standard Conservative on Saturday morning.  It was very standard during Shacharit, since I actually led it.  Ruach was a bit mediocre.  We have made some friends who go there, which was nice, and the overall atmosphere was friendly and war, though not quite as cheery as at our sister Conservative synagogue in Kfar Saba, Hod v'Hadar, where we were the week before.  Still, if we lived here, it's a place we might join.  Between this and Mizmor l'David, I guess we'd have to live in East Talpiot!

Moreshet Yisrael in Rehavia
The "Inheritance of Israel" is the synagogue attached to the Conservative movement/USCJ facility in the center of Jerusalem.  We were welcomed warmly by Rabbi Adam Frank, the brother-in-law of TBA member Debbie Weinstein.  The service feels just like a Conservative synagogue in the U.S.  They use Sim Shalom and Etz Chayim, and give the sermon in English.  We also saw many other people we knew, including Kayla Ship, who is in charge of the congregational Israel trip through Keshet, Rabbi Jerry Epstein, past Executive VP of United Synagogue, Rabbi Danny Schiff, who is a rabbi I have known in both Pittsburgh and Australia and, a man named Yehiel, who used to frequent TBA but now lives in Israel  (he wears white and looks very Chasidic; many of you would recognize him).  I was roped into doing Haftarah, which I don't mind, and it was a very comfortable place to be.  When we arrived 5 minutes after the service started, we were literally the only people in the room besides the person leading and the Rabbi), but the place eventually filled up with regulars (mostly elderly) and Day School groups from Florida and Connecticut.  With all of the visitors, it's virtually a different shul every week.    This was our week, as next week, I think we'll try the more Israeli Conservative synagogue.

Kol Hanishama--German Colony/Baka Border
Kol Hanishama was where I spent most of my Friday nights in Rabbinical School.  Reform services in Israel are almost entirely in Hebrew, and Kol Hanishama is known for their wonderful singing and energy.  Some of the tunes we use often at Beth Abraham come from here, including the song "Kol Hanishama" and one of the melodies we use for Lecha Dodi. They still draw a large crowd, and we enjoyed ourselves, though we did not enjoy being relegated to the back in the "non member" section.  On the one hand we understand that the regulars need places to sit, but it's not the warmest feeling when you walk in. 

Hebrew Union College
On Saturday morning we went to Hebrew Union College on King David Street, which is where I attended my first year of rabbinical school.  They do not have services every week there anymore, but this was a week in which they did hold them.  I was pleasantly surprised by the ruach in the room compared to when I attended 21 years ago.  With a congregation made up mostly of rabbinical students and alumni rabbis, though, I shouldn't have been that surprised.  I did see some old colleague/friends that I hadn't seen in many years.  I enjoyed many of the tunes, though they go very, very slowly, so some of them seem to take forever.  The boys commented that the singing was a "little too much like the opera," though, having never been I'm not sure how they would know that.  The Torah reading was very short (only three small Aliyot).  I didn't mind, but it was strange for us.  Still, it was fun to remember what it was like praying in that very same chapel as a student 21 years ago!

Beit K'nesset H'klali.
We went to this one only on a Friday night, because it was advertised to us by a friend as a Bratslav (a particular Chasidic sect) style synagogue with lots of ruach.  I don't know if we hit a bad night, but it had neither ruach nor Bratslaver Chasidim.  It was hot, crowded, and smelled like smoke, but their version of L'cha Dodi was spirited and unique.  Micah loved it, though, because one of his friends from camp was there.  

Chesed v'Emet
We were only on a Saturday morning, and they begin their services at 7 AM!  I know that sounds frighteningly early to most of you, but we're up at that hour in Jerusalem .anyway.  It came highly recommended by, of all people, a wine steward at the restaurant Gabriel.  It was Sephardic, mostly older people, but with a certain amount of spirit and uniqueness to it.  The men took turns reciting Psalms from their seats at the beginning, which is a custom in many Middle Eastern communities, and that's always interesting to see.  

Yemin Moshe
After that we went to the Ashkenazic synagogue in Yemin Moshe, which is known for their great Kiddushes. This synagogue felt very familiar, much like any Conservative service in America, except with a Mechitza.  Othewise, both the atmosphere and the tunes were familiar, and there was even a fairly traditional Bar Mitzvah (but the kid read the entire full Torah reading!).  And, yes, the Kiddush was really, really good.


Berav Synagogue in Safed
On Friday night we drove to Safed to find a place to welcome Kabbalat Shabbat.   We very much wanted to be there on Friday night, because Kabbalat Shabbat (the part of the service that goes from Yedid Nefesh through L'cha Dodi) was invented in Safed in the 16th Century by the Jewish mystics or Kabbalists.  Every Friday after candlelighting they would gather to ecstatically greet Shabbat like a bride.  That mysticism and religious fervor, along with many artists, is still the most prevalent thing about Safed today.  I have been there many times, but never without a tour guide, so we had a very difficult time finding anything.  We had intended to visit both the Ari Synagogue (the synagogue in the name of Rabbi Isaac Luria, who passed down the Kabbalah that we know today) or the Caro Synagogue (the Rabbi who wrote the Shulchan Aruch, the law compendium we still follow today).  Unfortunately, we couldn't find either.  We did enter the Bratslaver synagogue (famous for the great Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, one of the greatest storytellers in Jewish history), and settled into the Beirav synagogue.  While the Beirav synagogue building is nothing special, built in the 1800's and looking like a run down schoolroom, they are famous for having the most spirited Jewish services in the world.   Not much spirit on the women's side, unfortunately, but the men's side was a party.  Dancing and singing and jumping everywhere you turn at every prayer.  It was part spiritual ecstasy, part hora, part fraternity party.  I had a great time dancing with Micah, Jonah, and a bunch of happy strangers I will never see again.

Tiberias Synagogues

The next morning we searched for a synagogue in Tiberias.  We started at the Great Synagogue of Tiberias, which is a Rav Cook synagogue.  Rav Cook was the first Chief Rabbi of Israel and one of the very few Orthodox rabbis who was a Zionist early on.  The place was very Israeli and had some vibrancy to it.  We probably should have stayed, but we were too late to find a seat.  We next tried the Orbach Shul, known as the Shtieblach.  There are a few different minyans going on at once there in different study rooms.  There were no seats in any of them, and the davening was almost entirely silent.  We finally made our way to a Chabad synagogue, where they had seats, but unlike most Chabad houses, very little joy.  I had an Aliyah which I tried to mumble as fast as possible in imitation of the other Aliyot.  It was still a little too audible. I did enjoy the sermon, however, which was about the menorah in the parasha Beha'alotecha, and how every tribe leader had to help light it, not just the High Priest.  All of us, in the Jewish community, need to follow their example and help to light our own souls, not just rely on our leaders.  I liked the message, but I mostly liked it  because I could understand it even though it was all in Hebrew.  The American accent and simple Hebrew of the Chabad Rabbi helped.  Plus, if it's about the Torah portion, I usually know most of the words already and what they are likely to say.  This is much easier for me to understand than a simple news broadcast.

Ofra Community Synagogue in Ofra
The synagogue there was quite interesting.  They have one large synagogue which almost the entire community attends each Shabbat,   The Shaliach Tzibur (prayer leader) decides each week whether they will use the Ashkenazic or Sephardic minhag (custom).  In our case, Shacharit was led Sephardically and Musaf Ashkenazically.  The mix of people is incredible.  There are Ethiopian Jews and Yemenite Jews and quite a few B'nai Menashe, which are Jews from India who are ethnically Tibetan/Chinese.  The place is a real melting pot, and nearly everyone knows each other.

1 comment:

  1. kosher food is the official Jewish Directory for Jews on the Internet. Find Kosher Restaurants - Shuls - Mikvahs - Business and Residential.