Brief News

Documenting Synagogues in Rosh Ha’ayin:
A Municipal Community Project

Dr. Margalit Yosifon and Yiska Raveh

In January 2008, the Rosh Ha’ayin municipality embarked on a unique, challenging and fascinating project of documenting the city’s history from the time of the British Mandate of Palestine to the present. This project is being carried out with the help of community volunteers who underwent a four-part training workshop conducted with professionals.

The municipality decided that, every year, a number of specific topics would be selected for study and documentation, such as historic buildings, heritage sites, community leader undertakings throughout the years, and the development of the urban landscape. Much material has already been collected in the city’s Historical Archive, established in May 2009, where it is processed and stored by various means (including digital) required to preserve it and make it accessible to the public at large.

Documenting Synagogues: Why, How, and Some Data

The city of Rosh Ha’ayin, with a population of 40,000, has some 140 synagogues with varying levels of activity. It is therefore obvious that its synagogues, most of which are very small and intimate, may be considered one of the city’s most prominent identifying features – so it is only fitting that this aspect of Rosh Ha’ayin be documented and presented to the public.

At the beginning of the process, the city established a volunteer group of documenter s and photographers, and these were handed with a list of synagogues from the city’s religious council.

For the purpose of documentation, preference was given to the following:

Synagogues facing closure or demolition in the older neighborhoods. Synagogues possessing unique features, e.g., ancient Torah scrolls or unusual architecture. Synagogues located in British Mandate-era buildings. Synagogues representing the spectrum of the city’s ethnic composition: Yemenite, Indian, Ethiopian, Sephardic and Ashkenazi. Synagogues representing each of the city’s neighborhoods.

To assist the project, a comprehensive questionnaire was developed, covering a range of synagogue aspects: location, the reason for establishment, the establishment process, architectural features (interior and exterior), contents, management and financing, the congregation, activities held at the synagogue on weekdays and holidays, and more. Each synagogue was visually documented by volunteer photographers. Some of the interviews with synagogue representatives were audio-recorded. The volunteers also gathered historical information stored by synagogue boards, such as founding charters, internal rules and regulations, architectural drawings, and so on.

Since the start of the project in 2009, 72 synagogues have been documented photographically, and 49 of these already have accompanying texts. More texts will be uploaded to the website in the near future. On average, volunteers spent 15-17 hours at each of the synagogues in order to document them. There are some 3,600 images, including documents, photographs, film clips, etc.

The project was carried out with the help of Prof. Oz Almog and Dr. Tamar Almog, the founders and editors of the website People Israel: Your Guide to Israeli Society(http://www.peopleil.org/Default.aspx?sLanguage=en-US.), operating under the aegis of UNESCO, and featuring many of the results of the project to document the synagogues of Rosh Ha’ayin.

The story of Rosh Ha’ayin’s synagogues reveals a rich, multi-faceted and dynamic Jewish world. It is the story of a small, impoverished settlement, established in 1949 by new immigrants from Yemen on the site of an abandoned British army base, which would one day become a flourishing city whose many different ethnic communities live side by side in harmony. It is the story of the founders who brought their spiritual and cultural world to the newly established State of Israel and resolutely tried to safeguard and maintain it. One of the means to preserve that heritage was by establishing houses of prayer. It is also the story of the next, native Israeli-born generation, which continued to preserve the traditions but also introduced changes and innovations. The ethnically based synagogues also tell the story of immigration to Israel, a young multicultural nation maintaining its ties to the traditions and lifestyles of the population’s countries of origin.

The Place of the Synagogue in the Community

In the past, when the Jewish people were in exile from their land and living as a minority in the diaspora, the dangers of assimilation and the erosion of Jewish identity were acute. Gathering daily at the synagogue and maintaining the religious traditions helped Jewish communities around the world to preserve a separate identity. Ideologies, values, customs and texts were created, forming boundaries to protect the Jews’ personal and communal identities. Thus, the synagogue has been an expression of one’s personal identity and spiritual path, with emphasis on the human, family and community’s search for a connection with God.

In addition to serving as a link to the body politic, to the language, culture and tradition, the synagogue is also a kind of community center for those who worship there. The place radiates harmony, graciousness and mutual care among its members. The esteem for the elderly is particularly prominent, as is the care for the socioeconomically disadvantaged.

The synagogue also serves as a place to commemorate departed worshippers, whose relatives wish to honor their memory.

Synagogues also play an important role in the cultural empowerment of both the individual and the community, being an institution voicing in prayer the texts that function as a cultural treasure designed to enrich the worshippers’ inner world, and also – through customs, ceremonies and tradition – imparting this culture to the next generation. A father taking his sons to synagogue is teaching them norms and customs, and bestowing on them their Jewish identity and the culture of their community, and is thereby ensuring the continued transmission of the Jewish heritage.

We would hereby like to thank the dedicated team of volunteers involved in this important endeavor. They are giving their time and sharing their experience and knowledge in order to attain exceptional results.

We would also like to express our most sincere gratitude to Prof. Oz Almog and Dr. Tamar Almog for being the project’s academic consultants and for making their website available to serve as the platform for publishing our documentation.

Just as cities are not built in a day, so the preservation and documentation of Rosh Ha’ayin’s history will be constructed a little bit at a time. The volunteers continue to gather and process information, efforts are made to attract more volunteers to help, so that we may maintain and present the fabric of life in our city to the coming generations.

About the authors:

Dr. Margalit Yosifon is Chair of the Education Department at Ashkelon Academic College, a resident of Rosh Ha’ayin, and a volunteer in the city’s Historical Archive and in the Center for the Documentation of Rosh Ha’ayin.

Yiska Raveh is Director of the Historical Archive and the Center for the Documentation of Rosh Ha’ayin, a resident of Rosh Ha’ayin, and a member of the Municipal Preservation Committee.