It is a Jerusalem landmark. It is imposing. It is the Great Synagogue, located at 56 King George, in Israel’s capital city.
Rabbi George Finkelstein, Director General for the past nine years, described the history and purpose of this unique institution. Founded in 1982, the Jerusalem Great Synagogue is the synagogue of the world. Locals from Jerusalem, Israel, and countries throughout the world, as well as non-Jews who want to see how Jews pray, come to the synagogue. "We feel a great responsibility, not only to the local community here in Jerusalem, but to Israeli Jewry and world Jewry as well,” declares Rabbi Finkelstein.
In addition to the main sanctuary which seats 850 men and 550 women, the building contains the Sephardic Hechal Jacob Synagogue which has morning and evening services; the Friedler Banquet Hall, and the Maurice and Vivienne Wohl Entrance Hall which houses the Jacob and Belle Rosenbaum Mezuzah collection, one of the largest such collections in the world.
The cantor and choir are continually turning out new melodies and new arrangements of classical liturgical pieces. "This is perhaps the only synagogue in the world that has a permanent, world-renown cantor and choir and hosts a repository of Jewish liturgical music from pre-War Europe, the 'Golden age of chazanut' [cantorial music] as well as contemporary compositions," says Finkelstein.
The Chief Chazan (cantor) is Chaim Adler; the Choir Director is Elli Jaffe and the musical arranger is Raymond Goldstein. The cantor and choir officiate on most Friday evenings, Shabbat mornings and all holiday services.
The Jerusalem Great Synagogue stands on four legs. One is prayer. The Great Synagogue is an Orthodox synagogue, but, "everyone is welcome and we try to make everyone feel comfortable and spiritually inspired, both by the inspiring and unique services as well as by the building's physical beauty," says the Rabbi.
The second leg is Torah study. The Bet Midrash B'er Miriam, established in memory of the late Mrs. Miriam Landau, offers free classes in Hebrew every morning, Sunday through Friday in Talmud, Jewish law, Bible, and Jewish philosophy. In addition, close to 100-study one folio of the Talmud on a daily basis (daf Yomi), a task that takes seven and a half years to complete.
The third leg is community outreach and awareness. As many as l,000 people come to the monthly Saturday night English lectures on current issues with outstanding lecturers. A new program, "The People of the Book," offers a forum for authors of recently published books of Jewish interest to discuss their works and for participants to purchase the books at special prices.
"We try to have as many of our programs co-sponsored with other synagogues and organizations," said the Rabbi. One of the frequent co-sponsors of the lecture programs and other special events is the Association of Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI).
The idea of being the synagogue for the world is also exhibited in the monthly, free Friday evening Shabbat dinners for lone soldiers. Those young men and young women come to serve in the army and have no family in Israel.
The fourth leg is Hesed, caring and helping others. Programs include a campaign before Passover to raise money for the poor, a free Seder for anyone who needs a place, a charity fund for people in need and furniture and bedding for lone soldiers.
"The only time we ask for a fee to enter the Synagogue,” says Rabbi Finkelstein, "is seating for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. However, no one is stopped at the door if they don't have a ticket."
Tours of the building are available Sunday through Thursday mornings from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., by prior arrangement, unless there is a scheduled event.
"As the synagogue of the world, we welcome people from throughout the world to visit our institution, to be inspired by our services and programs and to identify even more with our rich and beautiful Jewish heritage,” said the Rabbi.