Synagogues in Israel are mostly neighborhood-based, Orthodox, and starkly functional. Few are housed in the ornate cathedral-type structures or community centers familiar to European and North American Jews. Most Israeli shuls are diminutive, intimate, and crowded – at least on Shabbat.
Not many go in for professional clergy. Typically, members and sometimes visitors take turns in leading the services, with ample vocal and choral participation from the rest of the congregation. People go there to pray, with perhaps a shiur (study session) or two on the side. That might include the daf hayomi, the daily page of Talmud synchronously learnt worldwide on a 7-year cycle.
There are about 3,000 synagogues in Jerusalem alone, and within its modest building, the Ashkenazi synagogue of Beth Yisrael in the quiet neighborhood of Yemin Moshe is a rare gem.
The building's highly-placed Ottoman-style arched windows look over to the walls of the Old City and the Tower of David, which reflect the morning sunlight back into the synagogue itself.
Founded in 1899, Beth Yisrael is one of Jerusalem’s oldest continually functioning synagogues, with strong Anglo connections.
At the time, Jerusalem's Jews did not live outside the confines of the Old City. The British chief rabbi, Hermann Adler, had faith that the Jewish settlement would grow beyond the Old City walls and gave 213 pounds, 8 shillings – that had been given by one Israel Levy – to finance the synagogue outside, if near, the walls.
Surrounded by war
Half a century later, the synagogue found itself at the front line of the simmering hostilities and frequent sniping of the 1948 War of Independence. Look for the synagogue memorial tablet to member Avraham Michael Kischenbaum, shot to death in the sniping. Services nevertheless continued through those dangerous times.
Soon after the war, Beth Yisrael's present largely English-speaking congregation took root. The century-old buildings were restored, the footpaths were vegetated and manicured. The Anglo-connection has continued, with the second and third generations of the original congregants often leading the services.
Derashot – sermons - are usually delivered in English are satisfying and short. Seldom do the proceedings go into overtime. At the end, all come together on the veranda for Kiddush.
As is the way of Orthodox synagogues, Beth Yisrael is segregated. The ladies’ gallery is illuminated with a 300-year old Swedish brass chandelier. Its previous owner stipulated in his will that it must never give out electric light, but continue to burn candles. Beth Yisrael duly rose to the situation and it has been suspended over the women’s section for the last quarter-century.
When: Sabbath services at Yemin Moshe begin at around sundown in the evening and at 8:15 am in the morning; weekdays at 6:15 am.
How to get there: Buses that reach the neighborhood (not on Shabbat!) are 7, 18, 21, 71, 72, 74, 75, or 78. Get off at the windmill at the junction of King David Street and Keren HaYesod. Follow the path descending past the left side of the windmill to the sixth level of houses down the steps. Turn left, and it’s a two-minute walk to the Yemin Moshe Synagogue at #2 Pele Yoetz Street.
The Beth Yisrael Synagogue in Yemin Moshe, Jerusalem
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