by Chana Katz
When the great earthquake of 1837 began its deadly rumble,
the men of Safed were just gathering in their houses of worship for afternoon
At the Avreitsh Synagogue, the holy Rav Avraham Dov Auerbach
screamed: Come to me!"
In a split second the men standing in the western
half of the synagogue ran to the eastern half and huddled around the Rebbe, who
prostrated himself near the bima and cried out to G-d for mercy.
very beams and walls ferociously shook around them, the men watched as the half
of the synagogue -- where they had been standing seconds earlier -- collapsed
in rubble. Their half remained intact; they had been spared the death that swallowed
up a full ninety percent of Safed's population and almost all of her once-splendid
synagogues and buildings.
Now and Then
Like almost all of
the famous synagogues in Safed, the Avreitsh has been restored. But unlike many
other synagogues which are open for daily prayer services, the Avreitsh is opened
only for Shabbat and holiday services, and at that, the shul manager says he has
to go "knocking door to door" to round up members of the minyan.
used and a little difficult to find, this off-the-path synagogue by Alkabetz Street
on the "Madregot HaMikubalim" - "The Stairs of the Kabbalists"
- is far from forgotten. To mark the 161st year since the passing of the Avreitsher
Rebbe on the 12th of Kislev, more than 200 guests recently gathered at the synagogue.
They recalled the strength and courage of the great Chassidic leader who came
to Safed in the early 1800s and steered it through some of its most devastating
moments, including the earthquake, brutal Druze massacres and deadly plagues.
[click here for many
Caretakers: A Family Affair
current gabbai (caretaker/manager), Meir Meiri, says that while the synagogue
cannot afford to have someone remain in the synagogue all day to greet visitors,
that he will be willing to open the synagogue to groups of four or more. If you
do get him to unlock this piece of Safed's mystical history, he may give you many
glimpses into his own families centuries-old history -- from the time Rav Avreitsh
appeared to his father in a dream to the time he got a bullet in the back in the
1948 War of Independence.
After four members of Meiri's family were murdered
by Arabs, his family closed off their huge house -- once inhabited by 600 family
members (talk about extended family living!) and moved close to the synagogue
in a one-room flat. Their first night there, Meiri said, Rav Avreitsh came to
his father, Shlomo, in a dream and asked him to come to pray in and strengthen
his neglected synagogue. Rav Avreitsh told Shlomo in the dream that this service
would lead to a healing of his poor physical health. The next day his father began
to attend to the shul, restoring its interior and becoming its gabbai for 13 years.
After that, Shlomo's brother, who is the father of Safed's current mayor, became
gabbai, and in recent years the mantel was passed to Meir Meiri.
Some special points of interest in this synagogue include
the original Torah scroll that was read by the Avreitsher. Nowadays it is taken
out only on Rosh Chodesh and holidays but it shares space in the aron hakodesh
('Holy Ark') with 13 other Torah scrolls, including some that were brought from
Iran and are more than 300 years old. Originally an Ashkenazic synagogue in accordance
with the traditions from the Ukranian town of Avreitsh where Rav Avraham Dov had
been Rebbe for 40 years before coming to Safed, the synagogue has taken on Sephardic
customs since 1948. Note the beautiful Persian cases enclosing the Torah scrolls,
brought to Safed centuries ago.
large wooden chair with intricate carvings for brit milah ceremonies was
also brought from Iran by Meiri's great-grandfather. It is near the original "loveseat"
sofa that was used for the performance of ritual circumcisions by the Rebbe himself.
intact, according to Meiri, are the original chair and "shtender"
from which the Rebbe prayed.
A new aron kodesh has been built in
order to accommodate the many Torah scrolls housed in this synagogue, but the
original one used by Rav Avraham Dov has also been kept in the synagogue.
While it may be a difficult task to compare and contrast
the beauty of Safed's numerous ancient synagogues, there is at least one factor
that clearly distinguishes the Avreitsh Synagogue from all the others -- besides
its miraculous survival of the earthquake.
That is the simple list on the
wall making note of anyone who contributes to the synagogue. While public plaques
and recognition in so many of the world's synagogue's today are reserved for the
major donors, the simple piece of paper on the wall of the Avreitsh Synagogue
lists the smallest donor upwards.
Thus, if one looks very close, he will
notice that the family that donated 1,400 shekels last year, is listed below the
man who donated eight shekels (about $2)!
If one is only passing by the
synagogue but has no time to enter or track down Meir Meiri, a box on its outside
wall has a slot for the visitor to leave notes. Every month before Rosh Chodesh,
Meiri takes the letters to the grave of Rav Avraham Dov in the Old Cemetery of
Safed. His telephone number may be obtained through ASCENT.
books about Safed and the ancient masters of Kabbalah at the Kabbala
[Chana Katz, a former South Florida journalist, lives
in Tsfat. Her articles on life in Israel have reached publications throughout