Tag Archives: Synagogue

From the Archives: My House Shall Be a House Of Prayer For All

By Lynne Schreiber
From Moment Magazine, December 2005

One day last summer, as my friend Katie and I sat beneath an umbrella at a sidewalk café sipping coffee, I mentioned that I needed a quote for a talk I was to give on spirituality in America at my Orthodox shul. Katie, whom I’d met at a poetry seminar in college before I became observant, lit up. “Rabbi Levy said something once about God being in the silence,” she said. “You should ask him for the source.”

It took me a moment to remember why Katie, a member of an Episcopalian parish in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was quoting a rabbi. Her church, St. Clare of Assisi, shares a sanctuary with a Reform synagogue, Temple Beth Emeth. Once a year, Beth Emeth’s rabbi, Robert Levy, delivers a sermon to St. Clare’s parishioners, and Katie, who is as drawn to the spiritual as I am, absorbs nearly every word.

I called Levy, and he knew exactly what Katie was talking about: a reference in Kings to Eliyahu experiencing God’s presence on the mountain as “a still small voice.” I wove the quote into my speech, which I gave before a pin-drop crowd, delighted that my non-Jewish friend had helped me to better understand my heritage—simply because she attended a congregation whose building, like our friendship, transcended religion.

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The Golem in the Attic

By Kayla Green

Tucked away in the snowy cobblestone streets of Prague’s Jewish Quarter stands a synagogue that is as old and significant as it is beautiful. With its high, pointed brown roof and few windows, the Old-New Synagogue  maintains old-world style without revealing its true age; built between 1270 and 1280, it is the oldest synagogue still in use in Prague. It defined the Jewish Ghetto, survived the Pogroms and the Holocaust and continues being used today. Embedded in the Shul’s ancient walls lies the history of Prague’s Jews, making it a riveting symbol of the community’s remarkable past.

From the beginning, the Old-New Synagogue reflected the troubles of the Jewish community in Prague; hardships and anti-Semitism hindered the process of building the synagogue in ways still visible in its physical structure.  Because it was illegal for Jews to hold jobs when the synagogue was built in the 13th century, they had to employ Christians to build their house of worship. As a result, the synagogue’s Gothic style included vaulted ceilings whose beams intersect in “cruciform” (the form of the cross). The Synagogue added an additional beam so the intersecting lines would form something that resembled an asterisk rather that a cross, exemplifying Jewish techniques for complying with the law while remaining true to their Jewish identity.

Between the 15th and 16th centuries, the Old-New Synagogue experienced more changes, but this time it was from the community itself rather than from outside. Jewish women, who at the time were not allowed in the all-male congregation, demanded a space to accommodate them for prayer. Architecturally, it would have been impossible to add a balcony or another floor, so an oblong room was built alongside the Synagogue in which the women could watch the sermons through a window. Unfortunately, the delicate Gothic structure would not permit windows large enough for all patrons to get a complete view, so the “windows” more closely resemble holes, about one foot tall and two feel wide, placed at eye-level. To this day, women who attend service at the Old-New Synagogue can be found, faces pressed against the window, prayer book clutched in hand, straining to hear the words of the Rabbi. The dedication of these women, who strictly believe and observe words they strain to hear, provides a fascinating insight to the history of the Jewish women’s movement, demonstrating how the Jewish people have adapted to new ideas, accommodating change yet stay true to their beliefs.

In the main room, what appears to be a heavily vaulted chest conceals the true treasures of the synagogue and represents yet another example of the challenges of Prague’s Jewish community. This chest is in fact a locked closet that was created to hide Torah scrolls during Pogroms, a constant reminder of the history of persecution.

While the architecture, closet and women’s gallery are all essential to the preservation and adaptation of Prague’s Jewish community, they are not the only protectors of the Jewish people present in Old-New Synagogue; the building was also said to be the home to the mythical Golem, an animated being in Jewish folklore.   Rabbi Judah Loew Ben Bezalel, the chief Rabbi of Prague in the late 16th century was said to have created a Golem out of clay from the banks of the Vltava River and brought it to life through rituals and Hebrew incantations to defend the Prague ghetto from anti-Semitic attacks. The legend adds a mythical layer to the already complex and awe-inspiring Synagogue. Though the Golem is rumored to have been driven out of the Shul’s attic during the reconstructions, it is certain that even without it’s mythical protector, the Old-New Synagogue will continue thriving and prospering, much like the community it represents.

An Ancient Synagogue in Damascus

By Samantha Sisskind

If you go to the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in Damascus, Syria, you’ll find hardly any obvious traces of Jewish life.  There remains a school that is unidentifiable as a Jewish institution, a few doors with the Star of David engraved in the granite lintel of the doorways, a small unobtrusive synagogue, abandoned houses and storefronts and some dusty narrow streets.  If you didn’t know it was there, it would be virtually unrecognizable as a relic of a once-vibrant Jewish community with a heritage and history centuries long. However, the major monument to Jewish life in the country lies in the National Museum of Syria, just a few minutes outside of the Old City. At the very end of the classical period wing, past the Greek, Roman and Palmyrene exhibits, you’ll find a reconstruction of a third century synagogue from the initially Syrian Greek city of Dura Europos, a trading hub along the Euphrates River. Not only will you see beautiful clay wall and ceiling tiles painted with flora and fauna, but also frescoes from the walls of the synagogue depicting scenes from the Torah and portraits of Abraham, Ezra and Moses.

The frescoes from the synagogue at Dura Europos tell a fascinating story of one of the first synagogues erected in the Jewish Diaspora. Hidden under a ramp built by the Persians at the end of the third century C.E., the synagogue’s frescoes were undisturbed for over fifteen hundred years afterward until its discovery by the British military in 1921. The style and character of the frescoes at the synagogue borrow from Hellenistic art, and the architecture draws from the dominant Byzantine religious art culture of the time of the temple’s construction. Of the four frescoed walls, the best preserved is the Western Wall, which benefited from the ramp’s direct protection and faces Jerusalem. Surrounding a permanent ark niche carved into the wall are paintings of David as the King over Israel; the Red Sea crossing; the infancy of Moses; the anointing of David; Solomon and the Queen of Sheba; the sacrifice of Isaac; Moses receiving the tablet and many other biblical stories. The lack of any archaeological evidence for a gender separation barrier in the prayer room makes the worship culture of the Dura Europos Jews even more curious and divergent from the traditional Jewish practices.

While artistic renditions of animals and scenes from the Torah have been found on Jewish artifacts from that time period, nothing of this magnitude and detail has ever been discovered.  Some scholars maintain that the Jews in Dura Europos were influenced by the decorated Christian churches in the same city and Dura Europos was home to several religious groups and tolerant of the faiths of all its residents.  Yet the more prevalent theory is that the synagogue was decorated and painted to resemble a Roman temple so that worshippers could avoid religious persecution.

On the surface, it appears that the Jews of Dura Europos diverted from their faith in order to avoid punishment from the Romans. However, upon second glance, they seem more like Hannah and her sons in the Hanukkah story, who refused to break the commandments or apostatize, even when faced with execution. Like them, the Jews of Dura Europos prayed under the Romans’ noses and defied Roman law in order to stay true to their Jewish heritage while they were far from the Holy Land.

The Dura Europos Jewish community’s beliefs and interpretations of the Torah remain a mystery to this day, but the synagogue is a monument to the development and transition of Jewish faith and practices in the Diaspora. It is a testament to the existence of Jewish life outside the Holy Land, and a rare example of the resilience of a Jewish community in the face of unfriendly foreign occupation.

Traveler’s Note: If you are able to pay a visit to Syria and you’d like to go to the National Museum in Damascus to see the frescoes from the synagogue at Dura Europos, don’t plan your trip for the upcoming year. The entire classical wing is currently closed for renovations, and a few other exhibits are closed for renovations as well. Visiting to the ruins themselves may be slightly disappointing as little remains but rocky foundations, and would require much imagination to picture the city as it once was. However, viewing the museum in Damascus first and then traveling to the historical site near the modern town of Salhieh will give you more context and insight, and would be a much more educational and beneficial experience.

This article referenced the book “Dura Europos,” written by Bashir Zahdi and published by the National Museum of Syria in Damascus, as well as a very well synthesized and researched article analyzing the historical significance of the art and architecture of the synagogue.

Judaism’s Price

By Symi Rom-Rymer

I’ve never really thought about how expensive it is to be Jewish.  I’m not talking about the cost of being culturally Jewish, but rather about the financial burden one must assume to be at least a semi-observant, synagogue-belonging Jew.   One reason is because I don’t have any kids, so I’m not shopping around for good Hebrew schools.  Also, I didn’t make it a habit to scan my parent’s temple bills as a child.  So I was content in my bubble of ignorance until I picked up a copy of Newsweek and saw this: The Cost of Being Jewish.

In TCBJ, author Lisa Miller argues that to belong to a synagogue today, one typically must pay upwards of $3100 a year.  To her, that fee, especially in a recession, is “troubling…and onerous to families having to choose between Hebrew school and math tutoring.”   In smaller cities, that fee is less–closer to $1,100 annually for everything from synagogue membership to High Holiday tickets—but still expensive.

What Miller proposes then, is a change in the business model.  Arguing that Jews no longer need Jewish spaces in the same way they did a century or half-century ago when many public spaces were closed to them, she feels it is time for members of the Jewish community to reconsider their behemoth synagogues with their stained glass windows, organ pipes, and basement swimming pools.  Instead, Jews should consider what Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary who paid $4,000 in synagogue dues this year, proposes: downsizing individual communities by making cross-denominational alliances and sharing Rabbis and other staff. Continue reading