The Many Yemenite Synagogues of Rehovot

Approximately 9,000 ethnic Yemenites live in Sha'arayim, a southern Rehovot area that offers a choice of 22 synagogues including four just on Yaakov Madhala Street, a small road on the outskirts of the neighborhood.

Approximately 9,000 ethnic Yemenites live in Sha'arayim, a southern Rehovot area that offers a choice of 22 synagogues including four just on Yaakov Madhala Street, a small road on the outskirts of the neighborhood. Three of them are private synagogues that were built in the courtyards of homes, whose owners are now having a difficult time rounding up a minyan (quorum of 10) for the evening prayers. Nevertheless, amid much fanfare and a colorful procession, a Torah scroll was installed two months ago in a new private synagogue, where the liturgy differs from the others on the street.

The new synagogue is owned by Gershon Masoud Levy, a retired Egged employee who is disabled in both legs. Levy devoted his energy and money to carrying out the will of his aunt, Shoshana Najar, who asked that a synagogue be built in the home where she had lived. A large central synagogue is planned for the neighborhood, but Levy is not concerned. He says that even in Yemen, "each family observed its own customs. Our melodies, sung by those who came from the Sharaf region, are different from those of the families that came from Sana or Sharab. So each family built itself a synagogue in its own style."

The "Ohel Shoshana" synagogue that Levy established is the first Shami synagogue on the street. He says that those who pray in the Shami liturgy are invited to pray with him whenever they want, but one resident of the neighborhood says the sharp disagreement between Shami and Baladi worshipers, which began 300 years ago in Yemen, is also generating tensions in 21st century Sha'arayim.

There is already a "kollel" (yeshiva for adults) up the street in a three-story building, which houses classes for Torah studies in the morning and prayers and adult classes in the evening. The kollel was built by the Yad Leshavim non-profit association six years ago, despite opposition by secular residents who opposed its construction and tried to prevent it.

Hanania Sofer, director of the properties division of the Rehovot Municipality, and a resident of Sha'arayim, has initiated the construction of a new central synagogue in the neighborhood. The plot is ready, as is the construction permit, and now Sofer is waiting for a contribution that has been pledged to allow the construction to begin.

The aim of a central synagogue, he says, is not to obviate the need for the family houses of worship, but to provide a hall for events and holiday services that the smaller synagogues cannot host. Sofer says that the current trend is not to the benefit of the small synagogues, which have become real-estate assets. He claims that there is a good deal of friction because "members of the third-generation of the synagogue founders want to realize their assets, and the synagogue in the courtyard is stuck like a bone in their throat."

Aside from the minor variations in customs and melodies, the synagogues of the neighborhood are also differentiated by the "Shami" and "Baladi" prayer liturgies. The Shami synagogues introduced additions to the prayer book, based upon innovations made by the Safed kabbalists in the 16th century. The Baladi ("local" in Arabic) liturgy gets its name because it is the original prayer book of Yemenite Jews.

Levy spent NIS 120,000 of his aunt's legacy and his own savings to renovate the house and purchase religious books. The worshipers have not yet been asked to make any contributions because Levy is not yet selling seats, as is the custom in other synagogues. Sephardi and Yemenite synagogues generally finance their operation by selling the right to recite a blessing on the Torah on Sabbath, but Levy has been asking for a token contribution of no more than NIS 20.

Now he realizes that if he wants to purchase a worthy holy ark or build a pergola for outdoor events, he will have to raise contributions. He lives on an Egged pension, and in his spare time teaches Torah to kindergarten children in the neighborhood, in the same rote style as he himself learned in a Yemenite "heder." Levy dreams of transferring the studies to the synagogue and making it a "bet midrash" (house of study), but his wife asks that he continue teaching at home, as the learning imbues it with a holiness.

Sofer projects that the situation will only be aggravated in years to come. Gershon Masoud Levy, however, is convinced that his aunt is smiling down on him from above.