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Haifa, the Central Synagogue, and Orthodox Variations


Our son, Ezra, and his wife, Shiri, recently relocated north, a result of the prohibitive housing costs in Israel’s central region, and because Shiri’s family still lives in Haifa, where she was raised. (Here are Marian and Talia in their apartment, baking brownies for Pesach.)

Haifa is Israel’s major port city. We were in the k’raiyot, Haifa’s suburbs. These suburbs are city-like -- everything is paved, there is little grass, and houses are bunched close together (see photo). However, I saw a range of dwellings from the outside -- from shoddy-looking properties with garbage left outside, to relatively large houses with an outdoor area for a car, a playground, and a place to gather and eat.

Ezra and Shiri live in Kiryat Hayyim, a block from Kiryat Shmuel. The significant difference between them is that Kiryat Shmuel is religious; on Shabbat and holidays the entrances to it are blocked from vehicle traffic. The Central Synagogue of Haifa, where I davened, is an 8-minute walk away.


The synagogue is the most interesting part of this blog (pictures below). Apparently, it is one of the few Ashkenazic synagogues among many, many Sephardic ones, and it is relatively large. Its main sanctuary seats about 400 men with a balcony for (I am guessing) 200 women. There were two Shabbat shacharit (morning) services that were filled, and three weekday shacharit services with about 30-40 attending each.

What particularly caught my attention was a plaque commemorating the synagogue. You can see 1858 in the picture below. The founders were from Italy -- Reggio Emilia. The inscription reads:


This is a House of God.

The Jews of Reggio Emilia dedicated on the 15th of January 1858 this sanctuary -- testimony to the faith they preserved with a proud heart, with hope for our revival (the Jews of Reggio Emilia) and of Italy. The Israelite (Jewish) community thanks all those who initiated and completed this project, on the anniversary of this celebration, and to the memory of those who established this sign so that the coming generations will observe, together with the religion of their ancestors, love of their birthplace (Italian).


Another davener saw me take this photo and approached me and told me that if I were interested he would introduce me to someone who knew more about the history. After services I listened to him.


Yoseph is a 10th-generation Jerusalemite who lived in Mishkenot Sha'ananim -- outside the old city which was funded by Moses Montifiore in the 1860’s. (For more on its significance, see Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mishkenot_Sha%27ananim.) Yoseph’s wife was instrumental in his move to Haifa because her family lived here. He became intensely interested in the history of the synagogue.


This synagogue is a larger version of the one in Reggio Emilia, near Milan (northern Italy). Yoseph told me that his research took him to Italy several times, and there are no longer any Jews left in Reggio Emilia. At one point, 39 wooden arks were transplanted from Italy to Israel, but only one marble one -- here. The word שירו in the middle of the inscription on the top pillar indicates the year 1756 (more precisely the Hebrew date of 5516, or 267 years ago). I think that was when the marble was made and dedicated.

On my first Shabbat, it happened that the congregation had a special service featuring a Hazzan and a male choir from Yerushalayim. It added about 45 minutes to an otherwise half-hour service. Most compositions were either classic or original and I could not identify them. However, “v-Shamru” was sung to the melody of “Memory” from “Cats.” (The choir and Hazzan also “performed” at Shabbat shacharit.)


As expected, their voices were beautiful. But what was also notable was the composition of the group. Including the hazzan, I counted ten men. Most looked like “modern Orthodox” Jews. However, one very young looking man had pei’os (long curled sideburns), and another wore a shtreimel (large fur-covered Hasidic hat).


The services in Orthodox synagogues are basically the same, and not much different from ours, aside from the Mechitzah. Still, there are significant differences within Orthodoxy. Like TICK, and unlike other Ashkenazi shuls, most Ashkenazi shuls in Israel daven nusach Sepharad. This “rite” is a slight modification of almost every prayer, including the kaddish, and has a different order at the end of prayers.


Aside from that difference, in Israel most shuls duchan, that is, the kohanim bless the congregation -- every morning. The one in Haifa did not, and even posts a sign letting people know that it is not their minhag to do so. Most daven much too fast for me, but some are at a moderate pace enabling me to daven with kavannah (intention.)


We left Haifa after Shabbat to stay with our son Micah and his family in Modi’in. My blog about this, more of a personal writing, was previously posted.


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