Storied Synagogues Around Israel Need Vital Restoration

From Rosh Pina in the north to Tel Aviv and beyond, gem shuls could use a refit, but the municipalities need to get on board.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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The inauguration of the synagogue in Sde Yaakov.
The inauguration of the synagogue in Sde Yaakov. Credit: Emek Yizrael Regional Council
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

To visit the synagogue on Moshav Sde Yaakov in the Jezreel Valley, whose construction was completed in 1956, you have to plead with the guard through a locked gate.

Zeev Levin is a third-generation resident of the moshav, the first established by the religious Zionist movement Hapoel Hamizrachi. It was set up in 1927 by religious pioneers from eastern Europe. Levin’s grandfather uttered a prayer of thanks when the synagogue was finally built, and his grandchildren study at the school next door.

“The synagogue was built by moshav residents who contributed a percentage of their agricultural produce to finance its construction and donated one day a week to building it,” he said. Its dome, built to be visible from afar, stands higher than the crumbling water tower nearby. The goal was for everyone who passed through the valley to be able to see it.

The synagogue’s external beauty isn’t matched by its interior. The building has been classified as dangerous and is closed to the public. The ceiling is cracked, the floor is covered with bird droppings, and the Torah scrolls are gathering dust. But by next Rosh Hashanah, residents hope the synagogue’s restoration will be in full swing and they’ll be able to pray there once again.

The inauguration of the synagogue in Sde Yaakov. Photo: Emek Yizrael Regional Council

The Synagogue today. Photo: Tomer Appelbaum

After a three-and-a-half-year battle, it seems this hope may finally be fulfilled. With help from the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, old-timers managed to defeat a plan by newer residents to raze the old synagogue, with all its history and symbolism, and build a modern one in its place.

Some 45 kilometers northeast of Sde Yaakov, in Tiberias, is the El Senor Synagogue, one of the last remnants of Jewish life in the Old City. The synagogue was built by Rabbi Chaim Shmuel HaCohen Konverti in 1836. Located in a small alleyway between hotels and fast-food restaurants, it’s in poor condition.

Rafi Ninio, a descendant of Konverti – the “señor” for whom the synagogue is named – said his family had sought help from government offices.

“They all want to help and made promises,” Ninio said. “But in the meantime we’ve reached a situation where it’s impossible to enter the synagogue because the plaster walls have collapsed. So we collected money from the family so we could keep praying there over the High Holy Days.”

The preservation society helped stabilize the building — now they’re looking for a way to renovate and maintain it. The plan is to turn it into a school of liturgical poetry.

The El Senor Synagogue in Tiberias. Archive photo: Rafi Ninio

The El Senor Synagogue in Tiberias. Photo: Tomer Appelbaum

Bickering with Chabad

Not far away, in Rosh Pina, the ancient synagogue is well maintained. Descendants of the original residents pray in the shul, which was built in 1887 with funding from Baron Rothschild, as do Chabad Hasidim. The latter recently tried to bring in plasma screens so they could broadcast sermons by the late Lubavitcher rebbe.

The veteran residents stopped them, said Dr. Smadar Sinai, director of Rosh Pina’s preservation district. But they haven’t managed to remove the black curtains that Chabad hung in the synagogue’s women’s section.

“There’s one female worshipper, a sixth-generation descendant of the original residents, who’s bursting with rage,” Sinai said.

The synagogue in Rosh Pina in 1962. Photo: GPO

The synagogue today. Photo: Tomer Appelbaum

This dispute poses a problem for Uri Ben Tzioni, the preservation society’s director for the north. On the one hand, he wants to preserve the building in its original form, with no black curtains or plasma screens. On the other, he wants it to remain an active synagogue.

Rishon Letzion also has a synagogue built at about the same time where people still pray 130 years later. The impressive building overlooks Founders’ Square, where the blue-and-white banner that became Israel’s flag was first waved and where Hatikvah, which became the national anthem, was first sung.

The façade underwent preservation last year with help from the Prime Minister’s Office, and this year internal renovations will begin. Bits of an old mural discovered under the paint attest to the work that needs to be done.

The synagogue and founders' square in Rishon Lezion in 1924. Photo: Rishon Lezion Museum

The synagogue today. Photo: Tomer Appelbaum

Not far away, on Nes Tziona’s Tel Aviv Street, sits another impressive synagogue. Haim Tefer, a farmer who became an engineer, architect and builder, presided over its construction, which lasted from 1912 to 1926. During the Arab riots of 1929, the synagogue served as a refuge for the town’s residents.

Ricki Lehrer-Shapiro, director of the Beit Rishonim Museum and a great-granddaughter of two of Nes Tziona’s founders, is still waiting for money to preserve the synagogue, where murals have also been discovered.

The synagogue in Nes Tziona in the 1970s. Photo: Beit Rishonim, Nes Tziona

The synagogue today. Photo: Tomer Appelbaum

Pretty on the inside

In neighboring Rehovot, preservation of the Ohel Sarah synagogue, built in 1903, was completed this summer. Mayor Rahamim Maloul led the efforts, and preservation society officials say such backing is vital.

The synagogue in Rehovot in 1912. Photo: Rehovot city archives

The synagogue today. Photo: Tomer Appelbaum

But municipal preservation efforts don’t always succeed. In 2009, an external wall of the Great Yeshiva in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood collapsed, and part of a mural in a synagogue next door was damaged. The municipality has repaired the building but hasn’t yet found money to restore the mural.

The synagogue, built in 1887, isn’t open to the public and can be visited only with permission from the yeshiva. The expansive murals that adorn its ceiling, laden with biblical motifs, were done by artist Yitzhak Beck in 1950. Still, “nobody wants to contribute to preservation here,” said Itzik Shweki, the preservation society’s Jerusalem District director.

The Great Yeshiva in Jerusalem in 1966. Photo: Moshe Frieden, GPO

The synagogue today. Photo: Tomer Appelbaum

The Great Synagogue on Tel Aviv’s Allenby Street is also awaiting money. It has undergone many changes since it was built in 1911, and its façade has been altered beyond recognition. The last renovation, in the late ‘60s, left no trace of the historic building.

From the outside, the building looks like a neglected concrete fortress, but inside it’s stunningly beautiful.

“The Tel Aviv municipality ought to be proud of this heritage, like other major cities worldwide that have renovated and preserved synagogues that have become tourist attractions,” said Tamar Tuchler, the preservation society’s director for the Tel Aviv area.

The synagogue in Tel Aviv in 1934, before the renovations. Photo: Zoltan Kluger, GPO

The synagogue today. Photo: Tomer Appelbaum

This week she met with the synagogue’s new president, Shlomo Pivko, a young man of 32 – his predecessor was over 80 – who is trying to breathe new life into the dying institution. His first success was to reopen it after it had been locked for years.

The coming years will tell if the building can be restored to its former glory. If so, maybe the same thing will be done for other abandoned synagogues in the first Hebrew city, like the nearby Moshav Zkenim, built by the same architect.

That synagogue, however, is still closed, and the sign on the door – indicating that it serves as an office for Yad L’Achim, an organization that combats missionaries and intermarriage – doesn’t bode well.

The synagogue in Rishon Lezion in 1922. Credit: Rishon Lezion Museum

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