The Twin Synagogues of Nahalat Shiva, Jerusalem

Nahalat Yaakov claims to be the first purpose-built Jerusalem synagogue outside the city walls since the destruction of the Second Temple.

The twin synagogues of Nahalat Shiva in central Jerusalem, one on each side of the cobblestone pedestrian street, at sunset.
Jacob Solomon

Nahalat Shiva today is a noisy, quaint old Jerusalem neighborhood on the south-east side of Zion Square, featuring a plethora of restaurants, bars, and nightclubs as well as small businesses. Established in 1869 with just seven single-story houses, it was the third Jewish neighborhood constructed outside the Old City walls. A daring residential experiment at the time, the quarter was financed and driven by its seven founding fathers who preferred risking the bandits, thieves, and robbers beyond the city limits to the overcrowded, cholera-ridden conditions of the Jewish Quarter within the walls.

From the neighborhood's main thoroughfare, Yoel Moshe Solomon Street, one can turn eastwards into any one of the alleyways and the atmosphere switches abruptly into a quiet residential area. Protruding blue-and-white notices in Hebrew mark two small synagogues that from a distance look like twins, and have been serving the residents from the neighborhood's early days.

They are the Ashkenazi Nahalat Yaakov Synagogue on the eastern side, established in 1873, and almost opposite, the Sephardi Ohel Yitzchak Synagogue, with distinct old-world charm dating back to 1888.

The Nahalat Yaakov synagogue claims to be the first purpose-built Jerusalem synagogue outside the city walls since the destruction of the Second Temple.

Nahalat Yaakov survived two narrow escapes. It was almost permanently shut down after extensive damage suffered in World War 1. Then it was almost completely razed to the ground more recently, when the Jerusalem municipality set to replace the whole area with tower blocks of glass, steel, and concrete, and – following vociferous protests – modified their plans from razor-slashing urbanism to preserving and upgrading existing old-time structures.

To some degree, its modest functional structure and décor of nineteenth century austerity have been masked by its recent wood-paneled refurbishment.

This Ashkenazi synagogue attracts locals and tourists, and the drive is distinctly Chabad, following the liturgy and customs and presence of Lubavitch Hasidim. Its long-standing rabbi, Yosef Yitzchak Slonim, claims that Nachlat Yitzchak is not just a place of prayer, but a spiritual Noah’s Ark which is afloat in the ‘flood’ of ‘confusion’ of the mundane world ‘enabling people to reconnect with their original purpose as Jews’ though its numerous activities. Their work gives the Zion Square area a Chabad presence: passers-by are invited to fulfill religious precepts such as tefillin-on-the-spot, as well as participating in their Chol Hamoed, Chanukah, and Purim activities.

In contrast, the Sephardi Ohel Yitzchak is more ornate and more mainstream. Enter through a low-set stone-framed blue door; if tall, duck. 

Migration from the city center reduced its regulars, but whatever the Shabbat morning congregation lacks in number seems to be made up with vociferous participation. All changes, however, with the opening of the Ark before the Torah reading. The rabbi announces that there will be quiet for silent personal prayer, where for about a minute each person places his or her specific needs and wishes before the Creator.

Sabbath services at Nahalat Yaakov and Ohel Yitzchak happen at sundown on the eves of Sabbaths and Festivals. Sabbath morning services are at 9:00 at Nahalat Yaakov and 7:30 at Ohel Yitzchak. There are also services at sundown during the week. Access: by Jerusalem Light Rail to Nachalat Shiva. Turn south east into Yoel Moshe Salomon Street and then left into the alleyway leading to the two synagogues.