Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Who Would Have Thought

When I toured Israel as a college student in 1972 I didn’t have a camera. Even though there are no photos to bear witness that I was on the American Zionist Youth Foundation seven-week tour I think I can safely describe how I looked when we arrived in the old city of Safed.

No doubt I was wearing a tank top with a pair of jeans. My nose was most likely sunburned and my thick, frizzy hair was pulled back into a ponytail courtesy of a special Israeli barrette I’d bought. I certainly was not dressed to visit a synagogue but that is exactly where our tour took us, to the ancient synagogues of Safed. Since they seemed to be museums I don’t remember being the least bit embarrassed by my attire.

lWhat I do remember is the awe I felt at their history and beauty, especially that of the Ari Ashkenazi Beit Knesset.  A simple courtyard and heavy door outside belied the splendor within. The domed ceiling, the ornate Holy Ark with its intricate olive wood carvings, the gold lamps, the paintings, and the ancient wooden pews filled me with awe.

It’s interesting that it’s called the Ashkenazi shul as it’s built in the Sephardi style. Surely the tour guide explained the reason for this but I probably didn’t pay much attention. We’d been up early in the morning, done a fair share of travelling, and this wasn’t our first stop. Most of us were anxious to hit the artist’s colony to buy gifts for home and weren’t very interested in learning anything.

Forty-four years have passed and I’ve learned a lot since then. I learned that the Beit Knesset was built in the 16th century by Sephardim who were originally from Spain and made their way to Israel via Greece. One of the most notable worshippers was Rabbi Yitzhak Luria, known by his acronym as the “Ari”. The synagogue is called Ha-Ari in his honor. It is he who is credited with creating the special Shabbat hymn, Lecha Dodi, sung in synagogues world over on Friday nights as the sun leaves the sky.  

I’ve also learned that in the eighteenth century there was a population shift and the majority of congregation were Ashkenazi, hence the addition to the name. In 1837 it was destroyed by the earthquake and the people of Safed managed to rebuild it twenty years later. Most important of all, I leaned that the Ha-Ari Ashkenazi Beit Knesset is most certainly not a museum. Prayer services are held there daily, three times a day.

Recently on a visit to Safed, I sat in the courtyard of the synagogue thinking about the journey my life had taken. Who would have thought, forty-four years earlier, that I would now be living in Israel, an observant, modestly-clad Jewess, with a three-generation family of over thirty souls well settled in the Holy Land, Baruch HaShem. Two weeks later I was back in the same spot.
The courtyard leading to the yeshiva courtesy of

Next door to Ha-Ari Ashkenazi Beit Knesset is another ancient building which houses the Hesder* Yeshiva of Safed. It is the yeshiva where my youngest son learns. A week earlier his wife had given birth to, thankfully, a healthy son. The brit would be begin shortly in the yeshiva.  Meanwhile I made my way inside the shul to recite psalms and express my gratitude to HaShem.

In 1972 I had thought the best way save the world was by zero population growth. Now I believe, with all my heart, that I can do my part to fix the universe by following The Almighty’s Torah as well as I possibly can and passing its commandments and wisdom on to my children and grandchildren. I pray they will do the same.

*Hesder yeshiva students make a five year commitment to combine Torah learning and army service.