Jerusalem is estimated to possess some 200 churches, 40 mosques, and well over 1,000 synagogues. Most Jewish places of worship in the city are small, easy to miss, and reflect the character of their immediate neighborhoods. Most of the synagogues are also Sephardi.
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Whereas centrally-located Ashkenazi synagogues tend to be large in size and doughty in presence, their Sephardi counterparts tend to be more restrained in decor, with a warm, relaxed intimacy, and a deep-seated pride in their cultural identity and traditions. They are also more ubiquitous: choose at random a Jerusalem synagogue and it is most likely to be Sephardi.
Those in the more-than-a-century-old district of Nachlaot are especially revered as founder-Sephardi synagogues in the New City. Most continue have their small but devoted hard-core cohorts who keep the Sabbath and weekday services well-above the minimum quorum of the ten males required for full services.
Their numbers rise exponentially during the Selichot period in the 40-day penitential period preceding Yom Kippur, and the rising inflows of visitors and tourists packs out their sanctuaries in the pre-dawn hours. These pilgrims happily trade a good night’s sleep for the unforgettable Sephardi prayer-fervor and traditional melodies. And there is also the sense of being a latter-day hanger-on to the tradition of the beadles of yesteryears’ pre-dawn watch knocking on the doors to round up the locals to prayer. Visitors are welcome and you might want to visit more than one, for the experience. Services are slow-paced enough for a well-seasoned hopper to manage half-a-dozen on a Shabbat morning, and more than a couple on Friday night.
But if you’ve only one to choose from, consider the richly-decorated Hessed Ve-Rahamim ("kindness and mercy") Synagogue on HaCarmel Street, in central Jerusalem.
Like most places of worship in the neighborhood, it follows the authentic Sephardi Jerusalem liturgy and full-throated singing. Its Iraqi-accented origin is best tasted on Simchat Torah – with the kubbeh metugan (fried cracked-wheat dish) stuffed with mincemeat, hard-boiled eggs, and pickled cucumbers, served after the morning service.
In the gathering dusk and from a little distance, its iron-hammered logos of the Twelve Tribes and the Eshet Chayil (Woman of Valor) prayer evoke the facade of the house of the Gingerbread Man – an impression that is not entirely misleading, as some 90 years ago the building was a pub.
According to local lore, Jewish butcher Isaac Emosa changed all that by buttonholing the owner with £10 sterling in exchange for an instant quit.
Today, services are led by his descendant, the Cantor Mori Emosa whose utterly-precise cantillation is operatic aria, and who simultaneously conveys the meanings of the weekly Reading of the Law. The family also continues to ensure that the same Saturday morning service ends with burekas - savory pastries - for all worshippers.
Like all Orthodox synagogues, Hessed Ve-Rachamim is gender-segregated, with the women upstairs in the gallery. They do, however, fully participate from above in the time-honored Sephardi tradition in calling out bids during the auctioning of aliyot and other mitzvot – though they pass these on to the men of their choosing.
Yet regulars - to a great degree fruit and vegetable sellers in the Mahaneh Yehuda market - are dwindling, as their children and grandchildren have been moving out to the Jerusalem suburbs. Many however continue their link with local tradition by making a point of praying with their elders for the High Holidays.
Part of the Yom Kippur service is farmed out to the congregation in turn, and the act of a very young boy-soloist trilling “Aneinu” (Answer Us) in the same style and range of notes as his octogenarian elders sends many a mother/grandmother into paroxysms of pride as the sacred Sephardi traditions pass into the safe hands of the generations of the future.
Main Sabbath services are near sundown in the evening and at 8am in the morning. Weekday services happen soon after dawn in the morning, and near sundown in the evening. At other times the synagogue may be locked.
Get there by taking the light railway to the Machaneh Yehuda Shuk. Go through the entire length of the covered market, cross over Agrippas Street and continue just a few paces along a walkway to HaCarmel Street. Turn left and continue for a minute or two: Hessed VeRahamim Synagogue is on the left hand side.