Why Jerusalem Has Two 'Ramban Synagogues'

One dates back some 800 years to the coming of the Ramban to the city; the other to modern Israel, in the neighborhood called Katamon.

Jacob Solomon
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The entrance to the Ramban Synagogue in Katamon, Jerusalem.
The entrance to the Ramban Synagogue in Katamon, Jerusalem.
Jacob Solomon

There are actually two Ramban synagogues in Jerusalem, one in the Old City that goes back more than 800 years, and a modern one in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Katamon. How this happened is quite a story.

In the year 1099, medieval Jewish life in Jerusalem came to an abrupt halt. The First Crusaders battered down the walls of Jerusalem, killed the entire non-Christian population, and burnt alive the last remaining Jews inside the synagogue where they took refuge.

Nearly 200 years later, hope would come to the few Jews left in the city with the arrival and inspiration of the aging illustrious biblical and Talmudic commentator Rabbi Moses ben Nachman Girondi (1194-1270), better known by his acronym, the Ramban. He initiated a very modest revival of Jewish life by building a synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem, on the site of the current Old City house of worship that bears his name – the Ramban Synagogue.

Fast-forward to the 20th century: The Ramban synagogue together with the rest of the Jewish Quarter of the Old City fell into Jordanian hands.

Less than a decade later, some of the synagogue's veterans would perpetuate the Ramban’s association with the Jerusalem by founding a new Ashkenazi Ramban congregation in Katamon, a neighborhood in the new city of Jerusalem. (Its aging building was subsequently replaced with the current purpose-built structure in 2005.)

Meanwhile, the Ramban Synagogue in the Old City began to revive – and continued to flourish – after 1967. So today Jerusalem has two Ramban Synagogues, by sheer default.

The best or the very best

A Sabbath morning visitor to the Ramban Synagogue in Katamon will find a medium-sized and comfortable sanctuary with a very full congregation, whose veterans create an air of stability and authenticity within a predominantly youngish, well-Jewish-educated crowd.

A distinctly upbeat atmosphere resonates though the proceedings, which are under the spiritual guidance of Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Lau.

The services and Torah readings are conducted by experts, and experts are in considerable supply at the Ramban – falling into the categories of the best, the very best, and the very, very best which it comes to cantillational accuracy and fidelity to the definitive tunes of the day.

Rather surprisingly, the rich congregational singing included a substantial item hardly known outside Anglo-Jewry. I subsequently found that people with those roots were (and are) among the makers and shakers of the synagogue.

Though mainstream Ashkenazi in rite, custom, and clientele, the synagogue has tidbits that give the Ramban Synagogue in Katamon individuality. The prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel is not the standard version, but a composition by one of the congregation’s early leaders. A candidate for the official version in the early years of statehood, it didn’t get to the top of the selection process.

And there is no hiatus during the service’s final chorus. The glass doors slide open to laden tables in the adjoining courtyard, the reader proceeds seamlessly from Adon Olam to kiddush at the reading desk, and after a thunderous Amen, all flow to the eatables and drinkables without delay.

And finally – yes – do come to the Ramban on Shabbat morning if you are single, eligible, and prospecting!

Synagogue services and wide scope of activities:

Main Sabbath services are near sundown in the evening and at 8:30am in the morning. Weekday services happen at 6:00am (5:50 on Mondays and Thursdays) and at 7:00am in the morning, and near sundown in the evening. At other times the synagogue may be locked.

There is a wide range of shiurim, lectures, and activities; for details please click here. Take buses 14, 34, 34a or 77a to the last (southern) stop on Emek Refaim Street. Walk southwards one small block to Asa Street to the right; follow it for a minute until it becomes Amatzia Street. The Ramban Synagogue is at Number #4.

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