The joys of the Great Synagogue

AS IS usually the case on the High Holy Days, the Great Synagogue was quite full, with a significant percentage of the congregants coming from out of town and from abroad. Although there were a few empty seats on Rosh Hashanah, the synagogue was packed to overflowing on Kol Nidre night and at various stages during the day on Yom Kippur, when many young people who engage in synagogue-hopping included the Great Synagogue in their peregrinations. In addition, early birds who arrived for the 38th annual Feast of Tabernacles being hosted by the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem ensured that many additional people were present part-time for services, not only in the Great Synagogue but also in many of the other synagogues in the area.

Among the more pleasant aspects of the synagogue is the recognition that proper provision has to be made for women. In many other synagogues, the women’s section occupies a tiny fraction of the sanctuary. Not so in the Great Synagogue, where there are 550 seats in the women’s gallery, compared to 850 in the men’s section. On the High Holy Days, additional seats are arranged along the back wall of the women’s gallery.

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Among the joys of the Great Synagogue is the choir, led by Elli Jaffe, which this year truly outdid itself, as did cantor Tzvi Weiss, who has an amazing vocal range, as do the soloists in the choir, who all have fine operatic voices.

The choir’s repertoire was expanded to include Shlomo Carlebach, Leonard Cohen and Chabad, which collectively contributed to the uplifting spirit of the service.

Jaffe, who is an internationally recognized conductor with a wonderful singing voice, lives and breathes music and puts incredible energy into conducting the choir and singing along with it.

His twin brother, attorney Zalli Jaffe, is synagogue president. The Great Synagogue, though a landmark of Jerusalem, is in dire economic straits, and Zalli Jaffe warned on Rosh Hashanah that its continued existence should not be taken for granted. He told congregants that the synagogue has been there for them for 36 years, and urged that they be there for it.

For the past two years, the synagogue’s financial situation has been undergoing an efficiency and rehabilitation plan, and many of its outstanding debts have been paid, but as yet, its administrators are not in the position to renovate the basement ballroom, which used to be a source of income, but which has been closed for almost a decade.

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In addition to the main sanctuary upstairs, there is an exquisite little Sephardi synagogue on the ground floor, which is almost always full to overflowing, and in another basement area, Chabad services are held on Shabbat and holidays, because the adjacent Chabad Center on King George Avenue cannot accommodate as many people. Chabad does not charge for seats, but encourages people to come. Chabad of Rehavia director Rabbi Yisroel Goldberg puts out notices each year with the slogan “We’ve saved a seat for you.”

Whereas some synagogues in Jerusalem have very few young people among their congregants, all three synagogues under the roof of the Great Synagogue have multigenerational congregations that include a lot of children and babies, the future hope of the congregations.

The Great Synagogue also has non-Jewish staff to deal with emergency situations. During a previous High Holy Day period, something went awry with the air-conditioning system, and it was fixed by a non-Jewish maintenance man. This year someone took ill in the women’s gallery. A Muslim maintenance woman, who helped out in other ways during the morning, also cleaned up the mess, and made sure that no trace of it was left.

However, what is annoying about some Great Synagogue congregants as well as those from nearby Yeshurun and the Renanim Synagogue at Heichal Shlomo is that after praying assiduously to be inscribed in the Book of Life, on leaving the synagogues after the service, they cross the road against a red light, totally oblivious to the fact that on Rosh Hashanah, and immediately after Yom Kippur, traffic is running as usual, even if it’s not quite as heavy as it is during the rest of the week.

Equally disturbing is the fact that the fountain at France Square has a shallow pool that is deep enough to drown a toddler. Toddlers try to climb into the pool while their parents or grandparents are preoccupied conversing with their friends. Close to 40 children have drowned in Israel in 2018 – and in most cases because adults were not sufficiently responsible to keep a watchful eye on them.

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