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Blood, Sweat, and Tears

Mishpacha Contributors

Receptacles of tears and prayer, our shuls are so much more than physical structures. Perhaps that’s why so many Jews keep fighting nature, ennui, or city hall to preserve their shuls

Monday, April 09, 2018

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oly Ground

Baal Shem Tov’s Shul

C.S. Teitelbaum

Rabbi Yisroel Meir Gabbai’s official residence is in Israel, but for more than 40 years he’s been feeling an inexplicable pull toward shattered tombstones and hollowed sanctuaries.

“On my first visit to Uman in 1980,” the French-born Breslover chassid explains, “I discovered so many ruined historic and holy sites that I decided to take action.” Agudas Ohalei Tzadikim, which he established in 1989, was the result. Since then he has completed projects in 20 countries, among them Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Yemen.

Over the years, he’s repaired dozens of cemeteries and hundreds of tombstones, built eight shuls near kivrei tzaddikim and given them sifrei Torah, and installed a ner tamid at ten popular kivrei tzaddikim. Yet his crowning achievement is a humble-looking shul in Mezhibuzh, Ukraine, with a humbling past.

“The Baal Shem Tov said that his shul was directly connected to the Beis Hamikdash shel Maalah,” Rabbi Gabbai explains. “The original foundations were still there when we came in, so it really is a shtikel Olam Haba.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha’s Sanctuary Theme Section, Pesach Mega-Issue 5778)


Niggun In A Basement

Montreal’s Bagg Street Shul

Yisroel Besser

Just behind the red-brick shul, an unremarkable building marks the home of Montreal landmark Moishe’s Steakhouse. This world-famous restaurant on “the Main,” as St.-Laurent Boulevard is known, is aware of its iconic status, and the sign is appropriately small.

The restaurant isn’t just a landmark, it’s the story of a generation. Despite the homey name, Moishe’s isn’t kosher.

The first generation of European immigrants who crowded Montreal’s streets could never forget the blows of Russian soldiers and Romanian peasants and Polish nobles. They came desperate for a bit of peace, a warm room for their families, perhaps a nourishing meal. They were soon swallowed up by the surrounding sea of French and English culture and values. So, while Jewish culture — cuisine, drama, and music — still thrives in Montreal a century later, Jewish practice has, in too many cases, been forgotten.

But in front of the steakhouse is another Jewish landmark, which stands like a stubborn child with arms crossed tenaciously. The building goes by the unofficial name of the Bagg Street Shul. It, too, tells the story of Montreal’s Jews. And the story is a counterpoint to Moishe’s Steakhouse, to the generation that had no time for shul. (Excerpted from Mishpacha’s Sanctuary Theme Section, Pesach Mega-Issue 5778)

Neither Rain nor Sleet nor Snow
Rabbi Elkanah Schwartz, who lives in Boro Park, notes that Maimonides Medical Center’s birthing center is just a few blocks from a funeral home. “That’s how it is with neighborhoods. One arrives, another declines,” he says.

And as the neighborhood goes, so go its shuls.

Congregation Kol Israel at 603 St. Johns Place, where Rabbi Schwartz has been the rabbi for the past 42 years, was built in 1928 to seat 400 people. The now-landmarked building was designed in a Moorish Revival style, with arched doorways and stained-glass windows.

But then the shul’s neighborhood deteriorated from an area teeming with shtiblach to a deserted ghetto where people were afraid to walk during the day, let alone at night, and it was sometimes difficult to get a minyan, even on Shabbos. Even on Yom Kippur. The fact that there was no air conditioning — only upright fans provided relief in summer — didn’t help. Nor did the 1991 Crown Heights riots.

But Rav Schwartz didn’t give up on his shul. Today, “Pro-Cro,” the nebulous boundary between Prospect Heights and Crown Heights where the shul is located, is on the upswing again — and so is Kol Israel. (Excerpted from Mishpacha’s Sanctuary Theme Section, Pesach Mega-Issue 5778)

A Landmark Redeemed
Leopold Street Shul in Heide, Belgium

David Damen

Take a trip to Heide, just a few dozen kilometers from Antwerp, and you’ll find an idyllic suburb where picturesque red-gabled homes abut elegant villas. It seems like a typical Belgian upper-crust resort — save for the red-brick building on Leopold Street adorned with Jewish architectural motifs, a house of worship that stands in stark contrast to the non-Jewish area surrounding it.

For more than a century, most of Belgium’s Jews made their living as diamond dealers. Nearby Heide was a perfect weekend getaway for these busy businessmen, and many built homes there as well. Two steady vacationers, Mr. Borak and Mr. Mazal, or “Mazal and Brachah” as they were known, even opened a yeshivah in the late 1920s.

Yeshivas Eitz Chaim, headed by Rav Yitzchak Koppelman, attracted students from all over Western Europe. Many talmidim went on to serve as roshei yeshivah, rebbis, and marbitzei Torah. The yeshivah also had its fair share of prominent visitors: Rav Elchonon Wasserman once davened from the amud during the Yamim Noraim, and Rav Yechezkel Abramsky, the Visheve Rav, and the holy Rav Ahrele of Kozhnitz all visited as well.

“I remember Rav Ahrele walking around in the heichal of the yeshivah totally immersed in his lofty thoughts, pacing back and forth in a very unusual manner, as the Rosh Yeshivah gazed at him in reverent awe,” Antwerp av beis din Rav Dovid Moshe Lieberman once related. (Excerpted from Mishpacha’s Sanctuary Theme Section, Pesach Mega-Issue 5778)

Open Door in Sioux City
United Orthodox Synagogue

Margie Pensak

For more than four decades, the residents of Sioux City, Iowa, could set their clocks to Rabbi Maximo “Mordechai” Shechet and his sons walking past their homes, as the Shechets headed to the 9 a.m. Shabbos morning minyan.

The Cuban-born octogenarian can still feel the brutal bite of the 25-degree-below-zero cold and the howling wind on that walk to Sioux City’s United Orthodox Synagogue. Bundled well, he and his sons often made that five-mile round trip twice on Shabbos day. Once inside the wooden Prairie School–style building, dating back to the turn of the 20th century, they were warmed by its ambiance — the massive, elevated, rounded aron kodesh; cozy, plush theater seating split in two by the mechitzah; and natural light filtering in through its multiple windows.

Even after Rabbi Shechet was widowed and remarried and moved to Omaha, Nebraska, his allegiance to the shul motivated the faithful Iowan to make a 110-mile, one-and-three-quarter-hour drive back to Sioux City for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, so he could lead the davening as he had for 45 years. (Excerpted from Mishpacha’s Sanctuary Theme Section, Pesach Mega-Issue 5778)

Holy Battle in Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv’s Ohel Shem Shul

Gedalia Guttentag

It’s a sticky Shabbos morning in Tel Aviv. The famously bohemian Rechov Shenkin is bustling with activity that feels very far removed from the holy day. But right nearby, inside a nondescript shtibel just 70 square meters, you can taste the flavor of a chassidic Shabbos in Poland.

With wooden benches, whitewashed walls, a lace curtain demarcating the women’s section, and a sign on the wall reading “Skernevitch,” this little shul evokes the simplicity of bygone days. It’s hard to believe that the humble house of worship is also a fierce victory in the ongoing battle to save Tel Aviv’s shuls.

The Skernevitch chassidus counted three rebbes in Poland, with satellite shtiblach in Haifa and Tel Aviv. After the small chassidus was decimated in the Holocaust, the Tel Aviv shul became its last memory. Rav Shach, who lived in the area for a time, learned here in the 1950s. But as religious Jews fled the city from the ’60s onwards, it dwindled to barely a minyan, and the shul was threatened with closure and takeover by City Hall.

Then Avi Yakir, a famous Tel Aviv actor who became a baal teshuvah, discovered the little gem and fought to keep it open. Today it draws 50 to 60 people on Shabbos, many of them well-known personalities in the media and entertainment industries. Skernevitch is probably a unique story: a chassidus that has disappeared, but whose shul still thrives. (Excerpted from Mishpacha’s Sanctuary Theme Section, Pesach Mega-Issue 5778)

By Water and by Fire
Kneses Israel of Sea Gate

Barbara Bensoussan

Kneses Israel of Sea Gate is a 100-year-old shul in the old European style, a regal three stories high. It has eight sifrei Torah, some brought over from Europe, and originally boasted beautiful stained-glass windows on the upper level. Yet this old grande dame has been afflicted in Biblical proportions: First she was drowned by water, then consumed by fire. Today, those who love her are struggling to restore her former glory.

Rabbi Chaim Brikman and his wife Rivkah came to Kneses Israel 26 years ago as Chabad shluchim. “There were many rabbis before us, but they didn’t last long,” Rabbi Brikman says. “The kehillah needed the energy of Chabad.”

While there were a few old-timers who remembered the days when the shul was full, by the time the Brikmans arrived, there was barely a minyan. They had to scour the neighborhood to pull in people. Little by little, the kehillah grew, and now the Brikmans proudly report that they sometimes have as many as 120 people on Friday nights (when they offer Shabbos dinner). (Excerpted from Mishpacha’s Sanctuary Theme Section, Pesach Mega-Issue 5778)

Ark of Truimph
Congregation Bikur Cholim of Seattle

Rachel Ginsberg

One of the most beloved religious structures in Jewish Seattle is the iconic aron kodesh of the Bikur Cholim-Machzikey Hadath shul. But today even most of the locals aren’t aware that the aron was almost trashed when the shul moved locations back in 1972.

The “old shul” of the Bikur Cholim congregation (the kehillah was founded in Seattle, Washington, in 1891), was a masterfully constructed edifice built between 1909 and 1912, designed by renowned architect Benjamin Marcus Priteca, who eventually became a nationally renowned theater designer. Priteca was born in Scotland in 1889, and relocated to Seattle in the early 1900s. He was just 20 years old and fresh out of university when he embarked on the shul’s design as a draftsman for the hired architectural firm — it was his first major project, and since he was Jewish himself, it was close to his heart — but then he struck out on his own, and the entire shul commission was transferred to him. His centerpiece creation was the aron kodesh, inspired by Italian design and replete with marble and imported intricate tile work.

Half a century later, as was the case in so many US cities, the neighborhood began to change; frum families started migrating south, to the lakefront Seward Park neighborhood, and when the race riots of the late 1960s put the shul, and the main Orthodox community, smack in the middle of the danger zone (men would get mugged on their way home from shul on Friday nights), the community knew the shul would have to move as well. (Excerpted from Mishpacha’s Sanctuary Theme Section, Pesach Mega-Issue 5778)

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