The Moussaieff Synagogue, a Relic of Bukhara in Jerusalem

Built in the early 19th century by a pillar of the Bukharan Jewish community, Moussaieff Synagogue even originally boasted a housing complex.

Jacob Solomon

The Moussaieff Synagogue complex is situated in the Bukharan Quarter, one kilometer to the north of the center of the New City of Jerusalem. Settled at the beginning of the 20th century by initially wealthy and later poorer Jews from that part of Central Asia, they did not build a central synagogue, but put up smaller structures for worship, courtyard by courtyard.

Shlomo Moussaieff (1852-1922) was one of the wealthy pillars of the Jewish community of Bukhara. He was responsible for organizing its migration to the Holy Land – and put together the infrastructure for its wholesale arrival within the vicinity of his family courtyard.

His plans were more comprehensive than just another place of prayer. They included a mikva, a hot Turkish-type hammam bath house, a small museum (with several manuscripts of Maimonides) and a modest housing complex for his poor of his community which settled in Jerusalem in the early years of the 20th century.

Since then, the core of Bukharan families in the neighborhood has dwindled. They have been largely succeeded by predominantly ultra-orthodox Sephardi families, effectively putting the synagogue’s location within an annex of neighboring Me'a Shearim. It is indeed that fast-growing population that pushed the growth of Moussaieff from a small synagogue to a complex of eight sanctuaries of worship.

Services at Moussaieff follow the traditional Sephardi Jerusalem rites, with a large core of regulars attending the packed services, shiurim, and Torah learning from the crack of dawn until late at night. Many enthusiasts will exclaim “The Western Wall” and “Moussaieff” in the same breath. (That may not be mere hyperbole. Word has it that the northern wall of Moussaieff includes two Herodian stones once built into the Second Temple complex.) 

A good time to visit is during the “rush hour” weekday evening hour of dusk. Moussaieff will be thronged, with a new service firing off every couple of minutes. Shiurim will be dotted around the complex, and expect a microphone-aided distinguished rabbi, Yeshiva-head, or kabbalist (sometimes a mixture of all three) imparting the secrets of Jewish teaching and tradition to a standing-room-only learned audience.

Plenty of people will be competing for your attention in financing good causes, though not on Shabbat. Those technologically up-market may donate though Moussaieff’s recently installed machine which reads your credit card, displays a list of charitable causes, and then you take your pick and put in how much you want to give – again, weekdays only, not on Shabbat.

As is the norm in Orthodox synagogues, women visitors will have fewer options, though some of the activities are open to them with the seating in the galleries.

With 3,000 daily worshippers – though not all simultaneous, Moussaieff is strictly Orthodox (and some trappings of ultra-Orthodoxy are not hard to find within), but with a relaxed ambience of a home from home for not only Sephardim, but for many of the Ashkenazi community of different shades.

Moussaieff also sponsored religious – and particularly kabbalist - texts produced in the-then impoverished Jerusalem by its luminaries; including rabbis Chaim Saul Dwek, Avraham Adess, Yeshaya Orenstein, and Akiva Porush. Indeed, the Moussaieff synagogue’s distinguished associations have continued right up to the present era with late Rabbis Yitzchak Kadourie and Ovadiah Yossef among its frequent worshippers. 

Sabbath services at Moussaieff begin at around sundown in the evening and in quick succession from dawn until 11:00 am. Services during the week extend from dawn until 11:00 am, and reach a crescendo with shiurim in the hours around nightfall. Best reached by bus routes 9 22 34 36 39 51 55 56 59 71 72 and 90 to Yechezkel Street. Turn eastwards into Adoniyahu HaCohen Street and walk for couple of minutes to the corner of Yoel Street – the place of the synagogue complex. If you miss it, call it by name: just ask for Moussaieff.