Thursday, May 1, 2008

The Jerusalem Great Synagogue

I was asked to write a bit about my experience here in Israel and the Jerusalem Great Synagogue topic immediatly came to my mind. As a young kollel guy who's in Israel just for a year, I faced a common dilemma – living in a city that has a shul in every corner, what's the best place to daven in Jerusalem? Very good question. When I thought about the Jerusalem Great Synagogue I was repeatedly told that it's impossible to go there every week, "no one can stand a three hour davening every week" or "it's a concert, not a place to daven".

I grew up attending a middle-sized shul, davening alongside with 20 or so people and I therefore had very little contact with the Chazzanus world. As I wrote before, I started to like Helfgot but I still had no patience for Chazzanut per say. So going to the Great Synagogue in a regular basis was quite a change for me - it's a huge place, with a very diverse crowd and the davening is long indeed. But there's something unique there and I now get to my point.

There is a culture clash between the big shuls like the Great Synagogue and the overall shtiblachs. The big shuls were the community centers in old Europe and Chazzanus became a central part in the communal life of that generation. However as the Jewish World became more "frum", people started branch out of the big shuls, and the shtiblachs mushroomed. Big temples and Chazzanus were linked to the secular world and deemed too liberal.

Today, we want shuls that suit our personal davening style and davening speed. Two months ago I was in the Ramada to hear Rabbi Frand's speech on Tefillah and one Rosh Yeshiva introduced the topic by saying that the Shtiblachs represent how we view Tefillah – we don't want to be pressured to be on time, we want a shul that fits in our daily schedule. If I need an extra hour of sleep I just wait for the 10:30 minyan in the Shtiblach.

But coming back to the Chazzanus topic, I must say that many of the great Chazzanim were and are indeed liberal. One of the greatest Chazzanim of all time, Moshe Koussovitzky, reportedly used to drink before Neila of Yom Kippur to keep his voice sharp. The religious crowd saw a contradiction in attending services led by a non-pious Chazzan, regardless of how good he was.

I do agree with this premise. I would feel very unconfortable to know that the person leading my prayers to Hashm is not even religious. But the big shuls and Chazzanus are not limited to liberal Chazzanim - there are many great religious Chazzanim who really add a special taste to a Tefillah.

In the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, no one talks when the Chazzan sings. The Chazzan is the main player and is in charge of inspiring the Kahal to pray to Hashm. There's also a large choir led by Eli Jaffe, who's extremely talented. A few months ago I heard Yaakov Motzen's Av Harachamim in the Great Synagogue, a piece he composed for his brother who perished in the first Lebanon War. Motzen simply brings the Kahal to a different world and really teaches us what this Tefillah is all about. Motzen is fantastic and probably better than Helfgot at the present day. Chazzan Chaim Adler, a Ger Chassid from Tel Aviv, was a guest Chazzan a few times and he is also very good.

So I can now say to you that yes, it is possible to hear Chazzanus every Shabbos but more than that, it's so much better than going to your late Shtiblach minyan. You just can't compare and more and more people are realizing this in the past few years. The Great Synagogue is full every Shabbos, with Baalei Batim, Chassidim, American Bochrim who walk all the way from the Mir, Mizrachim and even large groups of curious tourists wearing paper kippas. This is what a Shul is really meant to be - a place for everyone.


joel said...

Great post!
Chazzanus is making a comeback! A favorite of mine is Oshy Tugendhaft from South Africa. He and his choir tour the U.S. every summer, and put on a terrific show.
Why no mention of Naftali Hershtik the head chazzan, or the cantorial scandal that is going on in Israel right now?
The scandal is so huge that it received coverage in the Chicago Tribune on the last day of Pesach.

YK said...

I'm not sure if you are reffering to the scandal with Hershitk himself - I am aware of that one. Is that what you meant?

I didn't mention it in the post because I felt it would digress too much from the main point.

Now that Hershitk is away there are guest chazzonim every shabbos in the great synagogue and I had a chance to listen many different styles. Motzen was there, Chaim Adler, a guy from Haifa and others.

I am arriving in Israel tomorrow and I will find out if they kept Hershtik at the end.


Mordka said...

I happen to agree with your points about davening in a large shul as opposed to a shtiebel. It would appear that the two different makomei tefilos have traded places over the past 2 centuries.
Shtieblach were established by those who wanted to regain a sense of personal relationship and kavannah in tefillah that was lost in the institutionalized setting of a large shul. There was less pomp in the shtieblach and more focus on the tefillah.
However, today it appears that for the most part, those who go to shtieblach do it for convenience, not to create a more emotional davening. In fact, the more more informal setting of a shtiebal, which is what lent it originally to more emotional davening, now appears to stimulate talking during the davening and an overall sense of 'nonchalantness' to the sanctity of the space.
I have found shuls, with their sense of decorum, to be far more conducive nowadays.
Of course, there are always exceptions. The most incredible davening I have ever experienced, and what I believe to be the more sincere minyan in the world (really), is located in a very informal setting: R' Tzvi Meyer Silverberg's minyan in Yerushalayim, which meets only on Shabbos in a room located on the 3rd floor of a cheder. Very Shtiebel-like; go figure.

In regards to Cantor Motzen, I wholeheartedly agree. In fact, I had the good fortune recently to spend time with him and hear him sing at a Chassuna/Shabbos in a lovely southern city of Israel. He is the real deal both in cantorial prowess and frumkeit.

YK said...


I am back in Israel and the Hershtik case was apparently settled. A din torah alegedly declared that The Great Synagogue should keep him as he was a victim of extortion orchestrated by a rival Chazzan from Ramat Gan.

As a matter of fact he will do a Yom Hatzamaut concert there this thursday, but I'm much more excited by a different one in Yeshurun synagogue featuring Motzen.


YK said...


Last time I heard from you here was on your Shwekey comment. Time flies!

I still remember going to a friday night minyan in Woodmere called "Informal Kabbalat Shabbos", with signature sidurim and all else. Bekitzur, it was the fastest friday night service I ever attended.

Let me know if you want to guest post. It would raise the bar, I can't match your writing skills.