Category Archives: Synagogue

Mount Arbel

Rising majestically above the western shore of the Sea of Galilee (in Hebrew, Kinneret) are two sheer limestone and dolomite cliffs, facing each other. The Arbel stream flows in the valley between them past Migdal (the home town of Mary Magdalene). Part of a national park and nature reserve, it’s a great place to hike.

The higher mountain is Mount Arbel, 181 meters above sea level but since the Kinneret is the lowest freshwater lake in the world at 209 meters below sea level Arbel is actually 390 meters above the valley and lake below. The second mountain, north of the stream, is Mount Nitay (98 meters above sea level) but this part of the reserve is closed to visitors to protect the flora and fauna. Looking down over the cliff it is easy to forget that you are standing on a broad plateau and not flying over the valley.

As early as the Hasmonean period there was a town Arbel that overlooked the ancient road from Galilee to the town on the Kinneret. The sage Nittai of Arbela, one of the Tanaim is recorded in Mishna Avot 1,7 where he advises “Keep far from an evil neighbor and do not associate with the wicked and do not lose belief in retribution”. Josephus mentions Arbel when he describes the battle in 37BCE between Herod and Jewish rebels who barricaded themselves in the caves in the cliff. Because the access to the caves was by extremely narrow paths, Herod had soldiers lowered over the cliff in baskets to reach the caves. In the early first century CE, Jesus of Nazareth performed miracles at the foot of the Arbel, moving between Migdal and Capernaum with his followers.

Outside the park, closer to Moshav Arbel are the remains of an ancient synagogue from the 4th century . It was first discovered in 1852 by the explorer and scholar Edward Robinson (who also recognized Herodium, Ein Gedi and Masada and after whom the arch at the the southern end of the Western Wall is named). Situated in the center of the village, it was built from large limestone blocks, in contrast to the other buildings which were of black basalt common to the region.

Drawing of Arbel synagogue by Leen Ritmeyer

The synagogue’s facade faced east which was rare for Galilean synagogues. The entranceway was cut out of a single large stone – three quarters of the frame remain in situ.  The synagogue consisted of a main hall with three rows of columns topped by Corinthian capitals in the shape of a “U” that supported a second-story gallery. The hall was lined with stone benches and the floor was about 1.5 m lower than the threshold alluding to Psalm 130 “Out of the depths have I called you O Lord”.

The building seems to have been destroyed and rebuilt in the 6th century. At this time the orientation was changed – a doorway in the northern wall, a round niche in the southern wall facing Jerusalem for the Torah scroll and a platform for Torah reading were added. This synagogue was apparently destroyed by a fire in 749CE, conceivably resulting from the devastating earthquake that destroyed Bet Shean, Zippori, Sussita and other sites.

Hurva Synagogue

In the winter of 1700, charismatic rabbi Judah he-Hasid Segal arrived in Jerusalem from Poland with about 500 followers (some say as many as 1000). You can imagine the reaction, at a time when the entire Jewish population of Jerusalem was about 500 people. They were mystics who were intent on bringing the Messiah and some say believers in the false messiah, Shabbetai Zvi. Within a few days of their arrival the rabbi died, some say he was poisoned. His followers struggled without a leader but managed to build forty dwellings and a small synagogue in the Ashkenazic Compound. Then they began to build a larger synagogue, but between bribes to Ottoman authorities, unexpected construction costs and other financial burdens they exhausted their funds. They took loans from local Arabs to complete the project. When the loans were still outstanding in late 1720, the Arab lenders lost patience and the synagogue was burned down, some say that 40 Torah scrolls were destroyed in the fire. The Ashkenazi Jews were banished from the city and the synagogue was left in ruins and became known as the Hurva, the “Ruin of Rabbi Judah he-Hasid”.

It took almost 100 years, in 1815, when Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov, leader of the Tzfat Perushim, moved to Jerusalem with a group of followers, disciples of the Vilna Gaon. They wanted to reclaim the Ashkenazic Compound and to rebuild the Hurva synagogue, which had symbolized the expulsion of Ashkenazi Jews from Jerusalem. They believed that the “repairing” of an earlier destruction would have kabbalistic significance and be a prerequisite for bringing the Messiah.

There were a lot of difficulties in getting a firman, permission from the Turkish authorities to rebuild the Hurva. In 1829 Shlomo Zalman Zoref, a Lithuanian-born silversmith tried unsuccessfully but in 1836 he finally got a firman. Some say that it did not include permission for a synagogue in the Ashkenazic Compound but only for dwellings in the area. They managed to build two small synagogues. Although there was an injunction which absolved the Ashkenazim from repaying the debt and the Turkish Statute of Limitations cancelled out the debts of Judah he-Hasid’s followers Arab creditors interfered with the work and Zoref had to appease them with annual bribes. In 1851, Zoref was struck on the head with a sword and three months later died of his wounds.

Only in the early 1850s were the Perushim ready to attempt the building of a larger synagogue on the Hurva’s original site. With the help of the British they finally received a firman from the Ottoman sultan Abdulmejid I in 1854 to rebuild the synagogue according to a plan by his official architect, Assad Effendi. Built in neo-Byzantine style, it was supported by four massive pilasters at each corner over which soared a large dome that stood 24 meters high. The inside of the dome was painted sky-blue and strewn with golden stars. Numerous crystal chandeliers hung from the dome. Frescoes with religious motifs, such as the Star of David, the menorah, Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments, adorned every wall. In the four corners were drawings of four animals in accordance with the verse in Pirkei Avot:

Be strong as the leopard and swift as the eagle, fleet as the deer and brave as the lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven.

The Holy Ark had the capacity to house 50 Torah scrolls and was built on two levels. It was flanked by four Corinthian columns surrounded by Baroque woodcuts depicting flowers and birds. The Ark together with its ornamental gates were taken from the Nikolaijewsky Synagogue in Kherson, Russia, which had been used by Russian Jewish conscripts, forced to spend twenty-five years in the Czar’s army. The synagogue was dedicated in 1864 and called Beis Yaakov, in memory of Jacob Mayer de Rothschild but it continued to be referred to as the Hurva. It stood as a beacon above the walls of the Old City along with the dome of the Tiferet Israel synagogue.

On May 25, 1948, during the fighting in the Old City Major Abdullah el Tell, commander of the Jordanian Legion, wrote to Otto Lehner of the Red Cross that unless the Haganah abandoned its positions in the Hurva synagogue and its adjoining courtyard, he would be forced to attack it. Moshe Russnak, commander of the Haganah in the Old City, ignored his request, knowing that if the Hurva fell, the Jewish Quarter would be lost. On May 27, el Tell, after receiving no reply, told his men to “Get the Hurva Synagogue by noon.” Fawzi el-Kutub executed the mission by placing a 200-litre barrel filled with explosives against the synagogue’s northern wall. The explosion resulted in a gaping hole through which the Legionnaires burst through. A short while later, after the Arabs had captured the area, another huge explosion reduced the 84 year old synagogue together with the Etz Chaim Yeshiva to ruins. The Tiferet Israel synagogue was also destroyed.

Following the Six-Day War, plans were sought for a new synagogue to be built on the site, part of the overall rehabilitation of the Jewish Quarter. Leading the campaign to rebuild the Hurva was Zoref’s great-great-grandson, Ya’acov Salomon. He consulted Ram Karmi, one of Israel’s leading young architects, who magnanimously recommended Louis Kahn, a world-renowned architectֿ for the job. Kahn came to Israel to tour the site in the Jewish quarter and made a trip to the nearby Judean desert to visit two isolated Greek Orthodox monasteries, St George’s in Wadi Qelt and Mar Saba in the Kidron. Kahn was deeply moved by the experience and inspired to design a synagogue that he felt expressed the spirit of Jerusalem, its history and religion.


Kahn model Hurva Synagogue, from Kent Larson

Kahn model Hurva Synagogue, from Kent Larson

Between 1968 and 1973, Kahn presented three plans for the reconstruction. Each left the ruins of the Hurva in place as a memorial garden, with a new structure on an adjacent lot and a promenade, the “Route of the Prophets”, leading to the Western Wall. Kahn proposed a structure within a structure, the outer one composed of 16 piers covered in Jerusalem stone cut in blocks of the same proportions as the Herodian stones of the Western Wall. In the bases of the four corners of the two-story, 12 meter high structure would be small alcoves for meditation or individual prayer. The inner chamber, made of four inverted concrete pyramids supporting the building’s roof, would be used for larger communal prayer services.

Model of Kahn's Hurva synagogue, from Kent Larson

Model of Kahn’s Hurva synagogue, from Kent Larson

Unfortunately, Kahn died of a heart attack in the men’s washroom at Penn train station in New York City in 1974, a few weeks before he was to return to Jerusalem for consultations on what many regard as his greatest unrealized plan, the reconstruction of the Hurva synagogue. With Kahn’s passing his plans, through a combination of bureaucratic inaction and aesthetic timidity, died with him. Instead, in 2000 it was decided to rebuild the Hurva in its original 19th century Ottoman style.

But Kahn’s plans haven’t been totally forgotten. In the mid-1990s, MIT architecture professor Kent Larson used Kahn’s plans and new modeling software to create dramatic color images of what the Hurva might have looked like, both from inside and out, complete with lighting and shadow. If such tools had existed when Kahn was living, it would have been clearer what a masterpiece we were being offered.

Model of Kahn's Hurva synagogue, from Kent Larson

Model of Kahn’s Hurva synagogue, from Kent Larson

Like the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site it raises broader questions about how to rebuild on a site defined in large part by a history of destruction. For most of its history the site housed a ruin and encapsulates not only the long conflict between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land but also how we, Jews living in Israel, commemorate our past and envision our future.

Contact me about a guided tour like Kahn’s starting with a visit to St George and Mar Saba monasteries in the Judean desert and then an overview of the Old City and the story of the fall of the Jewish quarter, its destruction in 1948 and rebirth after the Six Day War.

Ohel Yitzchak Synagogue

In 1867 a courtyard between Cotton Merchants’ Gate (Bab al-Qattanin) and the Gate of the Chain (Bab al-Silsileh) and less than 80 meters from the Western Wall was purchased from the Muslim Khaladi family* by the Hungarian Jewish community. They founded a kollel, called Shomrei Ha’Chomot (Guardians of the Walls) and a yeshiva known as Or Ha’Meir and studied Torah around the clock in 3 shifts. After a visit by Rabbi Yitzhak Ratsdorfer, a Belz Hassid and diamond merchant in 1891, they built two synagogues, Beit Yitzchak and Ohel Yitzchak, financed by and named for him.

The magnificent synagogue was completed in 1904 and was on a par with the more famous Tiferet Israel and Hurva synagogues in the Jewish quarter. In 1938 because of the Arab riots the site had to be abandoned and the community relocated to Mea She’arim. During the 19 years of Jordanian Legion, the synagogue was looted and vandalized until it was a ruin, the story of more than 50 Jewish religious institutions in the Old City.

The site lay deserted until about 15 years ago, when Moskowitz bought it and financed the synagogue’s reconstruction and a comprehensive archaeological dig. In cooperation with the Israel Antiquities Authority who did the research to find old photographs and drawings of the site (I saw similar detailed documentation prepared by the IAA for the renovation of a building in Akko that will become the new Effendi Hotel) they reconstructed the building over a 10 year period using remnants of the destroyed building found at the site whenever possible. In the excavation begun in 2004 they found three steps dating back to the Second Temple period going east towards the Western Wall suggesting a monumental staircase leading to Warren’s Gate, the closest entrance to the Holy of Holies (I’ve heard that the synagogue and staircase have been connected to the Western Wall tunnels). Every historical period was represented but a major discovery was a giant public bathhouse from the Mameluke period (14th C), which lies below the entire site. According to IAA archaeologist Yuval Baruch, this is the most complete relic of the Mameluke period ever discovered in Jerusalem.

* Not far from the synagogue, along Bab al-Silsileh street in a 13th C Mameluke building is the Khalidi Library, the largest and finest private Palestinian library, and one of the largest private collections of Islamic manuscripts in the Arab world. Some of these are handwritten, one of a kind manuscripts and even autograph works written by hand by the original author (umm in Arabic). One such umm dated 1201 is a very richly decorated makrumah, or presentation copy, gilded with floral and geometric motives, a personal horoscope and family tree prepared for Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub sultan of Egypt and Syria who defeated the Crusaders.

The library reading room is housed in the turbah, or burial place, of Amir Husam al-Din Barkah Khan and his two sons. Barkah Khan, who died in 1246, was a military chieftain of Khwarizmian origin who fought in Syria and Palestine in the 1230’s and 1240’s. His daughter was married to the formidable Mameluke sultan Baybars (1260-1277), who relentlessly fought the Crusaders. The two pairs of lions at Lion’s Gate are the symbol of Baybars.

Caesarea-Maritima, Herod’s Promontory Palace

On the Mediterranean coast, 40 km north of Tel Aviv was a small, sleepy Phoenician town founded about the 3rd C BCE with a modest port called Strato’s Tower. All that changed when Herod chose the site for the development of a large, protected harbor. This boosted trade and commerce (and made a lot of money for Herod) and enabled closer ties with the centers of the Roman empire. Caesarea was a well-planned urban center, a walled city with streets laid out in a grid, warehouses, a Roman temple, a large theater (the first one in Israel according to Netzer), a stadium/hippodrome, public baths and according to Josephus several palaces. There was plenty of water for the city brought by an aqueduct. To date, only a small percentage of the city has been excavated.

In Josephus there is a detailed description of Herod’s palace, preceding even the harbor which was an exceptional feat of engineering and probably a great source of pride to Herod. Its location on a promontory jutting 100 meters out into the sea makes it unique and the placement of a pool in the center (where one would expect to find an internal courtyard) shows Herod’s exceptional building style. The other two natural promontories at Caesarea were used to anchor the harbor. All of the pool is hewn into the kurkar sandstone bedrock, coated with hydraulic plaster and from the outset was filled with fresh water and was intended for swimming and bathing. Evidence that pozzolana cement was used in the construction of features of the pool is further evidence that it was constructed at the same time as the harbor.

Some scholars regarded the pool as a fishpond and the entire structure a piscine, or fish market of sorts based on a network of open channels, intermediate pools and sluices linking the pool with the sea but according to Netzer this was at a later stage, 600 years after Herod when the pool was put to secondary use. Many fallen drums, pedestals and capitals were found at the bottom of the pool presumably from rows of columns that framed a peristyle courtyard. The pool is bordered on the east by the triclinium (formal dining room) and on the west by additional rooms closer to the sea (see layouts of the palace).  The floors of the triclinium and smaller rooms on each side had elaborate, geometric mosaic floors. Caesarea was battered by a strong storm in December 2010 (see Haaretz article) and 1000 year old artifacts were swept into the sea and lost forever (on my recent visit to the park I saw Park Authority staff working to cleanup the damage to the palace).

Additional excavations in 1976 followed the development of the east wing during the Roman period. Beside the triclinium was added a small caldarium, whose hypocaust and furnace were well preserved. One of the tiles of the furnace has the stamp of the Legion X Fretensis. Excavators found two inscribed marble columns with six dedicatory inscriptions that reveal important new information about officials of Caesarea from the 2nd-4th C CE.

Besides the architecture there is also the human drama. Josephus describes many incidents in peoples lives that happened in Herod’s palace. Agrippa I died in the palace after opening the Games and blaspheming in the stadium (Acts 12:20-23). A hall in the Upper Palace was the destination of the apostle Paul for a hearing before Antoninus Felix (Acts 23:35.). Later, Herod Agrippa II and his sister Berenike visited a new governor, Porcius Festus, and heard Paul’s self-defense there (Acts 25:23). Josephus relates a demonstration outside of the palace demanding the removal of Roman standards with the images of humans and animals from Jerusalem. Pilate had the Jews held in the stadium and threatened to kill them but backed down. Found at the site was a dedicatory inscription inscribed inscribed with the name Pilatus that was found here (there is a copy at the site, the original is on display at the Israel Museum).

Walking through the hippodrome don’t miss the mosaic floor with images of birds, animals and people from a public building near the bath house. Interesting to compare it with the Bird mosaic from a 6th C mansion/palace nearby.

Yatir forest

In 1964 the Jewish National Fund planted tens of thousands of trees in the barren lands just south of the Hebron hills on the edge of the Negev. Today Yatir forest is the largest of Israel’s planted forests, including pine trees, carob and pistachio. In the spring, this is one of the areas where you can see the yellow, crocus-like Sternbergia flower blooming (another place is the wadi below Maale Rehavam, near the site of Herodium).


The area includes Jewish and Beduin settlements, a fine winery, vineyards, orchards, agricultural fittings from the 3rd and 4th C and the ruins of a synagogue at Hurvat Anime.

Yatir is just one of the JNF forests and recreational areas. Check their website at

Along the trails in the Yatir forest you will see ancient wine presses, cisterns and olive presses, evidence of settlement and wine and oil production 2500 years ago. Tel Arad, another archaeological site that goes back to the Chalcolithic period is nearby. On the upper hill is the only Judean temple discovered by archaeologists to date. The incense altars and two “standing stones” may have been dedicated to Yahweh and Asherah. The Yatir winery sits at the foot of Tel Arad and tours of the winery should be arranged in advance.

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Finding a guide at the last minute

In Hebrew there’s an expression daka tish’im which means at the last minute. I’ve been able to help people who realized at the last minute that they wanted to see a particular site – the best way to do that is to hire a guide who can arrange everything. One couple hoped they would get to visit Herodium, King Herod’s palace/fortress in the desert but it was the day before they were leaving. They searched on Google and found an article I’d written and contacted me. I picked them up at their hotel, drove them to Herodium and guided them. This is what they had to say:

The tour of Herodium was awe-inspiring, largely because of Shmuel Browns, our guide. He is highly knowledgeable, and comes equipped with graphic documentation that fills the gaps of what one sees. He gave us a taste of the detective work of archaeologists. Further, Shmuel is very professional and a real “mensch”.

A businessman was flying to Zurich, Switzerland in the afternoon, but at the last minute he had the morning available so he contacted me to take him around the Old City before his flight (I ensured that we were back in time to meet his taxi to the airport; alternatively, after the tour I can take you to the airport, I’m a licensed chauffeur). So if you have limited time but want to have the fullest experience while here in Israel (good reasons for hiring a guide) I can guide you for as little as ½ day. The tour will be personalized to your interests and you can book at the last minute. If you’re staying in Jerusalem then phone me at 02 561-0785 or 053 280-6537 when you wake up and tell me what you’d like to do, then you can go for breakfast. If I’m available, I’ll meet you within the hour to start your tour.

Here is what one traveler who hired me shared on TripAdvisor:

First off, I made the very grave error of only booking a private tour guide for one day. That caused me a lot of stress while on vacation. I did a lot of research prior to my departure and based on the forum discussions I decided that one day of touring with a guide would be enough and decided that I was enough of a ‘seasoned’ traveller to be able to guide my party on my own.

The other reason I was swayed away from hiring a guide was the costs involved. I’ve used private guides in China and Africa and the costs for a private guide were very very inexpensive compared to guides in Israel – I had a hard time justifying the $500. per day.

Boy was I ever wrong and was I ever sorry for having listened to the feedback that you can do Israel on your own with a good guide book. This was not the case for me or my travel companions. We found we really needed the professional assistance of a guide for there is just so much a guide book can teach you. Few sights have good signage telling you where you are and what you are seeing or much historical reference. The cost of a guide definitely reflects what you get, an organized and informative visit to a land filled with a very rich narrative history!

If you decide at the last minute that you really do need a guide whether for one day or a week contact me. You can hire an expert, licensed guide at the last minute and for less than $500. per day.

Gamla, in the Golan

On a recent guiding trip we visited Gamla (from the Hebrew for camel/gamal), city in the Golan where there was fierce fighting between the Jews and Romans under Vespasian during the Great Revolt in 66CE, during which the city was destroyed and 9,000 people lost their lives. Today Griffin vultures make their home in the canyon and soar overhead. The flowers in the foreground are cyclamen (Hebrew rakefet).

I guided for an extended family of 8 (both sets of grandparents, parents and children, 11 and 13) for 5 days.
“A million thanks for being a great guide. Your high energy but mellow demeanor was perfect for our group and your deep historical knowledge kept it all interesting and in context for us.”
Here’s a copy of our itinerary:
Tuesday – Galil
  • aquaduct at Caesarea
  • Tsippori, Jewish village, mosaics, did not participate in Roman Revolt
  • Hamat Tiberia, hot springs and mosaic floor of 4th C synagogue

Wednesday – Golan

  • Gamla, Jewish town that fought and was destroyed by Vespasian
  • wind turbines providing alternative energy to Golan
  • Mount Bental, Israeli bunkers, 1973
  • lunch at Witch and Milkman mountaintop restaurant at Nimrod
  • Birkat Ram, crater lake, extinct volcano
Thursday – Rift valley to Jerusalem
  • Island of Peace, Rutenberg hydroelectric plant (1927-1948 )
  • Old Gesher
  • Belvoir Crusader castle “nest of eagles and dwelling place of the moon”
  • Judean desert, Wadi Qelt
  • Western Wall tunnel
Friday – Old City
  • American Colony (hotel where they were staying)
  • Hurva synagogue
  • Cardo and Madaba map
  • Herodion Quarter
Sunday – Around Jerusalem
  • Jerusalem envelope – the separation wall
  • water system, Armon HaNatziv
  • Peace Forest, Ramat Rahel
  • Herodium
  • Yad Vashem
  • Mahane Yehuda