May there be a good sign and good fortune for us and all of Israel. Amen. — From the prayers for the New Moon.
I am walking through empty markets stalls, littered streets, stained asphalt. Cats scurry in corners over garbage left behind from the thousands of shoppers who crowded the streets yesterday. Wrappers, crumbs, pigeons cooing, strutting amid cigarette butts and cans that line the drainage ditch that runs the length of the street on my way, this Shabbos morning. This shabbos morning that I walk in my mind from time to time. This shabbos morning walk across the innards of Jerusalem, from Rechov Narkiss 7 where we lived to Tiferes Yisrael, across Nachlaot, stone homes, shuls, across empty streets, finally into Machaneh Yehudah. Wide empty street. Wooden carts, awnings covered in Hebrew script from my siddur. Across the markets, and through Geullah up and down hills, across Yafo. No belching busses today. No lines of old women today holding too many bags, and beggars and shnorrers. White taleisim flying in the morning breeze over the shoulders of larger than life Ger Chasidim, proud spodek wearing tribe, flow across the streets silently on their way. The clouds overhead but a whisper, mostly blue deep blue sky over head. The water trickling through this alley I avoid. A few cars pass by, and I don’t really see them, this morning. Tiferes Yisrael rises above the worn homes and streets of Guela, high on the hill, many stories tall, in smooth stone. She is all of Israel for me.
* * *
The original three story synagogue was completed in 1871 and inaugurated on August 19 1872, 29 years after the land had been purchased. For the next 75 years the Tiferes Yisrael synagogue served as the centre for the Hassidic community in the old city. This domed masterpiece of 19th century Jewish architecture was the reunification of chassidus with eretz yisroel. It was the synthesis of the Ashkenazi with the Yerushalmi. It towered over the ancient Jewish quarter with its proud dome – unlike any Ashkenazi shul ever built in Hungary or Poland, lest it compete with a church. And the domed roof in keeping with the local architectural mores and tastes. It even had two names. Some called it the Tiferet Israel synagogue, after Rabbi Israel of Ruzhin, the founder of the Ruzhin and Sadigura Hasidic dynasties, that aided in its construction. Jerusalemites, however, knew it as the Nissan Bak Synagogue, after the son of Rabbi Israel Bak and one of the community’s leaders. It as through the leadership of Rabbi Bak, owner of the first Hebrew Printing Press in Jerusalem, that the land was purchased for the shul in 1843.
During Israel’s war of Independence, the Jordanian Legion captured the old city and the synagogue, which had served as a position for the defenders of the Jewish Quarter, was blown up one hour after midnight on the night of May 20-21 1948. The story of its destruction is captured her in O Jerusalem (1973):
The first major Haganah stronghold to fall was the Nissan Bek Synagogue, the building whose dome had been donated by the Emperor Franz Joseph. It was essential to Rusnack defence plan and the Haganah fought tenaciously to hold on to it…Fawzi el Kutub finally ordered eight of his men to rush across an open space and place a charge at the base of the synagogue. All of them were killed or wounded. No one would volunteer for a second try. Hoping to force his men’s hands by his example, Kutub sprinted across the space himself. When he got to the base of the synagogue, he saw that no one had followed him. Like a spider he pressed himself up against its wall until finally the Tunisian to whom he had promised a wife rushed out to him carrying a fifty-five pound charge. The explosion barely chipped the wall. Three more unsuccessful attempts were required before Kutub managed to blow a hole in the synagogue wall and a party of Legionnaires rushed through the smoke into Nissan Bek’s interior. Sure that the Haganah would counterattack and that the irregulars swarming into the synagogue would quickly turn to looting, Kutub decided to destroy it with a 220-pound charge. His strongest follower, a one-eyed former porter in the railroad station nicknamed the Whale, staggered up with the explosive. A terrible roar shook the quarter and blew out the heart of the building. As the smoke cleared and the frightful devastation caused by the bomb became apparent, Kutub heard a cry of consternation rising from the Jewish posts around him. It was quickly replaced by a triumphant yell. A small group of Haganah led by Judith Jaharan counterattacked and took the smoking ruins of Nissan Bek from the Arabs. As Kutub had suspected, the irregulars had spent their time looting the synagogue. The Haganah found the bodies of Arab irregulars killed in their counterattack with altar cloths around their waist, pages of the Torah stuffed into their shirts, pieces of chandeliers and lamps in their pockets.
* * *
In 1953, Rabbi Mordecai Solomon Friedman, the Boyaner Rebbe, laid foundations for a new Hassidic centre in the new city of Jerusalem, and in the 1960’s a new synagogue was built resembling the original design of the Tiferes Yisrael synagogue of the old city. Called Mesivta Tiferet Israel of Ruzhin, it is home to a large yeshiva, and during Shabbos, services are presided over by the current Boyaner Rebbe, Rabbi Nuchem Dov Brayer, whose grandfather laid the foundation stone for the building.
The Boyaner’s followers make me feel at home when I arrived there for the first time with my spiritual mentor, Rabbi Chaskel Besser. Rav Besser’s father in law was one of the leading Boyaner Chassidim of pre-war Israel, who literally fed thousands of hungry Jews. I look up at the aron hakodesh and the ceiling, rows and rows of pews, and while it is very 1960’s it is still very much an awe inspiring place. Every time that I walk through the doors of the shul I feel the touch of a hand on my shoulder welcoming me, finding me a seat, a siddur, and aliyah, a piece of shiraim from the tisch, a place to stand, a cup with wine, a great warmth of Ahavas Yisroel, of love for a fellow Jew.
* * *
The old Tiferes shul is still in ruins in the heart of the Jewish quarter and was never rebuilt. Only it’s western wall remains. The old home and magnificent court of Boyan lies in ruins in Ukraine. However in New Jerusalem, Boyan and Tiferet Yisrael are packed on Shabbos.
I walk back after Kiddush levanah with my wife Rachel and the city has already restarted, cars rushing everywhere, music, traffic, horns blowing, but we glide through Geula, across Yafo, into Machaneh Yehudah, some stores opening already, across Nachlaot, passing othr shuls emptying out or outside praying at the moon, thi
The Maharsha explains, writes Eluyahu KiTov, “that when Israel is in Exile, we are unable to ascend to Jerusalem to be in the presence of the Shechinah as we were in the time of the pilgrimage Festivals. Nevertheless, we have never stopped yearning to do so, and whenever we see the moon renewed, we are reminded of God’s promise that we will also be renewed, that we will once again attain the merit of ascending and being seen in the presence of the Shichinah.” When we go out to view the moon’s renewal, and bless it, “our inner thoughts are on our own renewal” on our return to service of God.