Shuls – with a story

Every shul that exists and existed is unique. But some shuls are more unique than others.

Shuls with a Sand Floor

The Beracha Veshalom Vegmiluth Hasidim (or St. Thomas) Synagogue on the island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands has two claims to fame. Let’s cover the boring one first. In 1997, the USA declared it a National Historic Landmark for the simple reason that it is the longest used shul under the American flag. The designation stated:

“Saint Thomas Synagogue, built in 1833, is the second-oldest synagogue building and longest in continuous use now under the American flag. The synagogue, fourth on its site, was built to house a congregation founded in 1796 by Sephardic Jews who had come to the Caribbean Basin to finance trade between Europe and the New World. The congregation reached its zenith in the mid-19th century, declined in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with the fortunes of the Danish Virgin Islands, and grew again in the late 20 th century.”

A more pulse-quickening feature of the shul is its inconvenience of having a sand floor. Although the shul has sadly fallen into Conservative hands, even their reforming tactics and the tedium of vacuuming sand from cars and floors have not interfered with this tradition. What inspired the use of granular flooring medium? It appears that no one really knows. Some islanders say that the sand floor represents the Jews’ journey through the desert after Yetzi’as Mitzrayim, while others say it is in memory of conversos who scattered sand over cellar floors to muffle their secret prayer meetings.

There is yet another shul with the same distinctive flooring. This is the Mikveh Israel-Emanuel shul of the island of Curacao famous for being the oldest shul in continuous use in the New World.

Wooden Shuls

When Jews arrived in heavily forested Poland during the 12th century they found that timber was the cheapest building material at hand. The result was a unique architecture that historians title “the style of the wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe.” Shuls of this type incorporated multi-layered high roofs, multi-beamed domes, galleries, wooden balconies and arches. Although potential fire traps, they were good places to find a quiet nook for an hour of intense prayer and uninterrupted learning.

Although about a hundred of these shuls still existed in the 1930s in town like Jurborg, Wolpa, and Narowla, not one of them survived the Nazi destruction of World War II. As for the few wooden shuls surviving in Latvia and Ukraine, they are in a disastrous state of repair; no government or private institution has taken any of them under its wing.

To preserve the memory of these unique buildings, Moshe Verbin, a pioneer of Israel’s kibbutz movement, rebuilt many of them on the basis of black and white photographs. The problem was getting inside them. Faithful reproductions of the originals his shuls may be, but no one can fit into a shoebox size model.

In 2002, Jews in Berkeley, California contemplated resurrecting the wooden shul of Przedborz, Poland, that the Nazis burnt down in 1942. Built in 1636, this shul boasted a 40 feet vaulted ceiling carved with Biblical scenes, and timbers adorned with jewels, no doubt posing a challenge for some worshippers to keep their eyes in the Siddur. During the 20s and 30s of the last century, tours used to stop by to view the magnificent building. Now, nothing remains of it but three stairs leading down to the Pilica River and an old water pump.

The Berkeley project collapsed due to lack of funding. The $2 million collected was at least $3.5 million short of achieving the dream.

But hope is not lost. This year, an international team of architects and artists is raising another wooden shul from the ashes. They are in the middle of rebuilding the 18th century Gwo dziec Shul with the aid of 80-year-old black and white photographs including its vivid animal and floral decorations. fy”H, the finished product will be housed in a memorial museum on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto.

Stones front the Beis Hamikdosh

In his famous Medieval travelogue, Rav Pesachya of Regensburg writes of the shuls in the Turkish town of Netzivin that “in one of them, a red stone [Ezra] brought from the stones of the Beis Hamikdosh is set in the wall.”

Another shul said to include stones from the Beis Hamikdosh is the old shul of Peki’in, an Arab town in the Galil where Jews have lived almost uninterruptedly since the Churbon. The modern shul, rebuilt in 1873 after the original building suffered earthquake damage, has two claims to fame. According to tradition, the shul is built on the site of the beis medrash of Rabi Yehoshua ben Chananya dating from 200 CE. and two engraved tablets set in the wall of the shul are said to be remnants of the Beis Hamikdosh.

Another claimant for the distinction of having stones of the Beis Hamikdosh in its architecture is the Alte-Neu Shul of Prague that has survived pogroms and fires for seven hundred years.

This claim provides a novel explanation of the shul’s name. It is generally believed that the shul was called the Neu (New) Shul when it was newly built, and became known as the Alte-Neu (Old-New) Shul after newer shuls sprang up in the vicinity. According to another view, the name reflects that the shul was built al tenai. After the Churbon, it is said, when angels took stones from Har Habayis to place in the shul’s walls they declared to Hashem: “Ribon Ha’olamim! We are taking these stones on condition that we will return them to their place when the Beis Hamikdosh is rebuilt.”

According to a more prosaic theory, the name reflects the statement of Chazal that all shuls in the Diaspora are built al tenai (on condition) that they may be used for certain non-sacred purposes discussed in Halacha (see Megillah 28b).

A third candidate of the inclusion of Beis Hamikdosh stones in its décor is the El Ghriba shul of the Tunisian island of Djerba off Tunisia, the best known of the numerous African shuls bearing that name. According to tradition, the first Jews to settle on the island were a group of kohanim who arrived there after the destruction of the first Beis Hamikdosh, bringing with them one of its doors and a stone from its mizbe’ach. Come to the shul, and people will eagerly show you the stone in one of the shul’s arches. Despite two terrorist attacks in recent years, the shul is visited every years around Lag Ba’omer time by a large contingent of Jews.

The Shul that Moved Twice

One of the oddest ventures of this century was the “Little Synagogue on the Prairie Project” that involved transporting an old shul over a hundred miles to the Heritage Park near Calgary. A fund raising brochure explained that the ambition was “to restore and interpret a 1913 historic prairie synagogue building at Calgary’s Heritage Park Historical Village for the education and enjoyment of the park’s visitors, in order to build bridges of understanding among people of all cultures and religions.”

The brochure explains that although Jews had lived in Calgary since 1889, no Jewish artifact could be found for the national park. Plans to move a synagogue of downtown Calgary to the park in the late 60s came to nothing and the building was demolished. Now, it was decided to transport one of the last old prairie shuls to the park at the cost of a million dollars.

The shul chosen for this honor was the grandiosely named Montefiore Institute, actually, a small wood-frame structure built on the farm of Joseph, Fanny, and Dov Chetner to serve the thirty some families of the Montifiore colony that settled there in 1910. This building served as a shul and community center until years of drought drove away most of the Jewish population. In 1937, the abandoned shul was sold for $200 and moved to nearby Hanna, Alberta, where it spent seventy undistinguished years serving as a two room private home.

Thanks to the work of dedicated volunteers, the fully refurbished shul was inaugurated into its new home with a grand opening ceremony in June 2009. Replete with a new aron hakodesh and sefer Torah, the shul is a popular destination at the park. Whether you can daven Minchah there is something you’ll have to clarify with the park management.

The Shul that Doffed its Hat

For many years, chassidim of Yerushalayim had no shul of their own. In 1843, the well known Yerushalmi chassid, Nissen Back, visited Rav Yisroel of Ruzhin and warned him that Czar Nicholas of Russia was plotting to buy a plot of land near the Kossel to build a large church and monastery. In response, the Ruzhiner handed Nissin Back a sum of money to purchase the said plot for a shul. Building the shul was easier said than done. Despite the legal purchase of the land, local Moslems prevented Back from digging foundations until the Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph, intervened.

Disaster threatened when workers digging the foundations found the tomb of a Moslem kadi (religious judge). Back was planning to move the body to a cemetery when a Moslem neighbor claimed the kadi had come to him in a dream and pleaded that his tomb stay put. The neighbor’s friends threatened to riot. Somehow, Back persuaded the religious head of the Mosque of Omar to intervene.

On the following Friday when the Temple Mount mosque was packed with worshippers, the religious head announced that the dead kadi had appeared to him in a dream and said: “For preventing the Jews from building their house of prayer I was called to Ibrahim in the Garden of Eden. He berated me, saying, ‘Why do the children of your nation prevent the children of my nation from building a house of prayer in Jerusalem, the Holy City? Instead of deterring them, they should help them. Stop the bickering and let the building proceed.’”

Funds were scarce and construction crawled. When Franz Joseph was passing through Yerushalayim on his way to inaugurate the Suez Canal in 1869, he inquired why that the shul still lacked a roof. To this Back wittily replied, “The shul has doffed its hat in honor of your majesty!”

With a smile, the emperor handed him a thousand francs to complete the shul; its dome became known as “Franz Joseph’s cap.”

The Arab Legion blew up the Nissim Back or Tiferes Yisroel Shul on the night of May 20-21, 1948 and only its western wall survives. At the dedication of the reconstructed Churva Shul in 2010, the sponsors announced plans to rebuild the Tiferes Yisroel Shul as well. May we soon see its restoration together with the binyan bayis sholeim!


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