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Portraits of Prayer

Eliezer Hayoun

With a keen eye, a listening ear, and a ready camera, a team set out to capture the enduring images and untold stories of notable shuls throughout the Holy Land

Monday, April 09, 2018

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The Abuhav Shul

Mysteries and legends surround this 16th-century shul in Tzfas’s Old City. Was it named after Rabbi Yitzchak Abuhav, the 14th-century Spanish chacham and author of Menoras Hame’or? Or was its namesake the 15th-century Rabbi Yitzchak Abuhav who was the last of the Castilian geonim, the rav of Toledo, and a master of Kabbalah? It seems to be the latter, because legend has it that the shul’s famed 500-year-old Torah scroll was written by the “last Gaon of Castile.”


“The Belzer Beis Hamikdash” may be famous for its magnificent sanctuary, but the ten-story complex, which took 18 years to plan and build, is a round-the-clock hub of activity. Located within the massive landmark structure are mikvaos, nine shtiblach for weekday davening that are open 24 hours a day, simchah halls, libraries, kollelim, and dormitories with 1,000 beds for out-of-town chassidim. A new wing has a huge hall for tishen; this is also where the massive simchahs of the chassidus take place. The comprehensive otzar sefarim includes about 150 sets of Shulchan Aruch and hundreds of sets of Shas.

Tirat Carmel

Beit Tanchum Caucasus Shul

The “Mountain Jews” of the Caucasus mountain range always had a strong affinity for Eretz Hakodesh, and in 1907, the first group of Jews from the region settled in Eretz Yisrael. But the Holocaust years and decades of oppressive Soviet rule took their toll on those who remained, and by the time the Soviet Union fell and a new wave of immigration to Eretz Yisrael began, many Caucasian Jews had become distant from Torah and mitzvos. The Beit Tanchum Caucasus shul, located in the Haifa district, is at the forefront of this community’s spiritual revival. One of the most beautiful and ornate shuls in Eretz Yisrael, it was built less than 20 years ago, but it is active all day long, with brissim, bar mitzvos, and the occasional wedding signaling the rebirth of this ancient community.

Moshav Nevatim

The Cochin Shul

When most of the Jews moved from Cochin, India to Eretz Yisrael a few years after the founding of the state, they built shuls wherever they settled. The largest was built in 1975 in Nevatim, a moshav about eight kilometers southeast of Beersheva, as an exact replica of the community’s shul in India, albeit on a larger scale. In fact, the bimah and aron kodesh were brought from the Cochin town of Ernakulam, and more than half of the sifrei Torah were also brought from Cochin. At one time, the shul had a stunning collection of gold and silver crowns and ornaments, but they were stolen about ten years ago and never recovered.


Lifta Shul

Only 20 to 30 families still live in Lifta, the small village located just outside the entrance to Yerushalayim, but the community can boast of a beautiful shul that is open for daily minyanim. Jews settled in the village after the Arabs fled during Israel’s War of Independence. While at first the community was a mix of Ashkenazim, Yemenite, and Kurdish Jews, today, according to Motty Shimon, the shul’s gabbai, only the Kurds remain. The shul’s aron kodesh was made by Shimon’s father more than 40 years ago, while the benches, which have been repaired and reupholstered, are castoffs from Yeshivas Mir.

Bnei Brak

Tiferes Tzvi (Itzkovitch Shtiblach)

Everyone knows the Itzkovitch shul is a minyan factory, with some 17,000 people passing through its doors every day. But who was Tzvi Itzkovitch? According to the story, Itzkovitch was a ger tzedek who lived in Bnei Brak during the British Mandate. He wanted to close the road next to his house to traffic on Shabbos, and at the advice of the Chazon Ish, he turned one of the rooms of his house into a shul. (According to the Mandate laws, any street with a shul would be closed to traffic on Shabbos.) Soon afterward, Itzkovitch turned his whole house into a shul, and he and his wife moved into the barn in the yard. Today, the shul is comprised of six smaller rooms (shtiblach), as well as the large beis medrash on the second floor, which includes an ezras nashim. The shul is managed by devoted gabbai Rav Yitzchak Sheinin, who often stays on premises 20 hours a day, ensuring the smooth running of minyanim.

Mazkeret Batya

The Great Synagogue

The name Mazkeret Batya might ring a bell if you know something about the history of shemittah observance in Eretz Yisrael. The moshavah was founded by Rav Shmuel Mohilever, one of the leaders of the Chovevei Tzion movement, and financed by famed philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild. The moshavah was originally named Ekron, after the village from the Tanach, but in 1887 Baron Rothschild renamed it Mazkeret Batya after his mother, who had passed away that year. The year was a shemittah year, and the chareidi farmers were eager to observe shemittah k’hilchasah, as per the opinion of the Eidah Chareidis in Yerushalayim. But the Baron and his officials felt that in times of scarcity, the lenient opinion of heter mechirah, which authorized the sale of the land to a non-Jew, could be relied upon. Ultimately, the farmers won and Mazkeret Batya was one of the few moshavot that strictly observed shemittah. Despite the bitter conflict that had ensued, Rothschild later gifted the moshavah a beautiful new shul — which is still in use today.

Be’er Sheva

The Pyramid Shul

If it’s called the Pyramid Shul, it must be for Egyptian Jews, right? Wrong! The shul was built for the Iraqi community — and despite its name, the shul is actually in the shape of a huge Magen David. When the Iraqi Jews moved en masse to Eretz Yisrael after their rich 2,600-year history in Bavel, many settled in Be’er Sheva, the Negev’s capital. At first, they lived in tents and davened in private homes. Their first shul was a large wooden shack, and then they built the Pyramid Shul, which was inaugurated in 1980. On Yamim Tovim, outside lights are turned on and the shul looks like a shining star.

Beit Shemesh Railway Tracks

The Train Shul

If you’re a Levi looking for a Shacharis minyan where you can almost always get an aliyah — and you don’t mind a little additional swaying — we’ve got the perfect minyan for you: the train that leaves the Beit Shemesh station for Tel Aviv a little after 6 a.m. While the regular minyan has lots of Kohanim and Yisraelim, they are short on Leviim, and so the gabbai, David, is always happy to see a new face. The “shul” may not be one of the most beautiful structures in the world — some might say it’s strictly coach — but it does have a miniature aron kodesh, in which resides a tiny, mehudar sefer Torah, donated especially for the minyan.


Ohr Torah

There are shuls that represent the vision of an entire community, and then there are shuls that express the soul of just one man. The Tunisian Shul in Akko is the latter type. Tzion Badash, the shul’s 86-year-old gabbai, built the shul after he and his wife immigrated to Eretz Yisrael in the 1950s. To find inspiration for the décor, he traveled throughout the country and visited various batei knesset. He finally decided that the mosaic was the best artistic and decorative medium for what he wanted to achieve. After meeting artists in Kibbutz Eilon, Badash ordered his first mosaic — and they’ve been working together to produce mosaic artwork for the shul ever since. A plethora of subjects and motifs adorn the shul: the Beis Hamikdash and its vessels, Har Habayis, the gates of Yerushalayim, musical instruments, coinage from various periods, Shivas Haminim and other fruits, historic renditions of scenes from Tanach, scenes from the Mishnah and Gemara, and even scenes related to the Holocaust and the state of Israel. Despite the passing years, Badash’s enthusiasm hasn’t dimmed. In fact, he has plans for future projects, declaring that the work is not yet over.

(Excerpted from Mishpacha’s Sanctuary Theme Section, Pesach Mega-Issue 5778)

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