By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
Several sukkahs around the world have earned universal recognition for their exceptional beauty. Borough Park has an impressive number of them. Most impressive are those of Bobov (48th Street and 49th Street) and especially that of Munkacz. Situated on 14th Avenue between 47th and 48th Streets, the Munkaczer sukkah serves not only as a yom tov citadel of Chassidic rapture, but also as a portal to the world’s great synagogues of the past, many of which are still in daily use.
For the past 12 years, a total of 160 aesthetically enlarged professional photographs have bejeweled the Munkaczer sukkah, and simultaneously served as major contributions to Jewish history, all taking place in midst of a brimming Chassidishe setting. In addition to the Munkaczer Rebbe’s illustrious tisch with the spirited participation of thousands, the sukkah itself is magnificent and gives the thousands that visit the opportunity to also visually look back into Jewish history. The many guests had and will have the pleasure of viewing the world-class resplendent sukkah ornamented with a visual tour worthy of Jewish history.
In 1932, Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapiro, zt’l (1868–1937), Munkaczer Rebbe and author of Minchas Elazar, under the direction of his doctor, traveled to a health spa near Rendsburg, Germany. Members of the kehillah shared that in conducting repairs at the mikveh in 1927, an inscribed shattered stone was found. Hebrew letters could be discerned, but words were indecipherable. The Munkaczer Rebbe immediately traveled to Rendsburg and supervised the assembly of the many broken pieces of stone. He was able to match the broken stones and to read: “In this pool of water, the Baal Shem Tov immersed 310 times on a cold day in the winter of 5504 and declared salvation for needy Jews, including barren women.” After the Munkaczer Rebbe’s visit, the kehillah presented the Rebbe with a picture of the reassembled stone. The Rebbe used the picture as a decoration for his sukkah. This is recorded in sefer Igros Shirin, which contains a copy of the picture. Today’s Munkaczer Rebbe, a grandson of the Minchas Elazar, also bedecks his sukkah with historic Jewish pictures.
The Sukkos 5775 (2014) Exhibit
To enhance this year’s sukkah, the Munkaczer Rebbe, Joel Berkowitz, and Eli Isaac (Robert) Vegh convened and selected 12 exquisite 20”×30” portrait photographs, that date back as early as the 1600s. This year, the Munkaczer sukkah presents a rich visual display of the following important shuls:
Anconia, Italy 1700. Two spectacular synagogues—one Sephardic and the other Italian nusach, as well as a mikveh, were transferred from their original locations, circa 1876, each of them now occupies a separate floor at number 14, Via Astagno, a steep cobblestoned street not far from the harbor. The Sephardic shul was rebuilt from scratch in the second half of the nineteenth century. Its high arched windows occupy the entire height of the first floor. The austere facade, with an arched portal framing heavy wooden doors, has no outward markings identifying it as a synagogue. The Italian nusach shul preserves the precious furnishings of the previous synagogue.
Ansbach, Germany 1745. The shul is on Rosenbadstrasse in the old town. It was built between 1744 and 1746. Guided tours are available which take visitors inside to see its wonderful interior. It is not open apart from tours, sadly. However, the outside of the building is just as beautiful, considered one of the most beautiful shuls in Germany. Tours are only available on Sundays.
Basil, Switzerland 1868. The synagogue was built in 1868 and enlarged in 1892. A stunning edifice in neo-byzantine style with a domed roof in the center of the city.
Cavaillon, France 1772. The shul in Cavaillon, a masterpiece of 18th century folk art, was classified as a historic monument in 1924. Built between 1772 and 1774 on the vestiges of the primitive 16th century synagogue, it is situated at the heart of the ghetto reserved for Jews. Indications of a Jewish community in Cavaillon date back to the 11th century. The rabbi’s rostrum is situated between two staircases dominated by a beautiful wrought iron balustrade.
Corfu, Greece 1800s. Before the Holocaust, 5,000 Jews were living in Corfu. A large influx occurred in 1493, caused by the Spanish Inquisition. Presently, approximately 120 Jews live in Corfu. The shul is on Velissariou Street in the old city.
Harlau, Romania 1800s. Of the five synagogues that were in Harlau, one was the Groose Shul (Big Synagogue), founded according to the tradition, in the very early 1800s. Its Holy Ark holds almost 50 sifrei Torah. During World War II, Jewish leaders were held hostage in the Groose Shul and were accused of causing all the sabotage and bombing acts. They were imprisoned there for more than two months. Romanian and German soldiers threatened to kill them. Miraculously, they were released.
Issai, Romania 1671. Currently, Issai has a declining Jewish population of 600 members and two working synagogues, one of which, the 1671 Alte Shul Great Synagogue, is the oldest surviving synagogue in Romania.
Lengnau, Switzerland 1847. Notable for being one of two villages where residence was permitted for Swiss Jews between 1633 and 1874, Lengnau’s shul is listed as a heritage site of national significance. The Jewish population there built their first synagogue in 1750 and the second in 1847.
Marrakech, Morocco 1800s. Today, there are 250 Jews living in Marrakech, and maintain an old synagogue, the Alzama. Its entrance is down a small alley and its doorway is unmarked.
Mumbai, India 1884. The Knesset Eliyahu Synagogue is the second oldest Sephardic synagogue in Mumbai. Constructed in 1884, the shul was designed by renowned Bombay architects Gostling and Morris and was paid for by the Sassoon family, who were prominent philanthropists in Bombay during the nineteenth century.
Sofia, Bulgaria 1904. The Sofia Synagogue is the largest shul in Southeastern Europe with 1,300 seats. It is one of only two shuls functioning in Bulgaria, and the third-largest in all of Europe, constructed to serve the Jewish community, mostly Sephardic, of the Bulgarian capital. The shul was officially opened on September 9, 1909 in the presence of Tsar Ferdinand I of Bulgaria (1861–1948, who reigned from 1908 to 1908). The first preparations for the synagogue were in 1903, and the construction itself began in 1905. The construction of the shul was part of a then reorganization of the Bulgarian Jewish community. The shul was built on the foundation of an older synagogue. Richly decorated with multi-colored Venetian mosaics, the shul has Carrara marble columns and is topped by an octagonal dome. The shul’s central chandelier, parts of which date back to ancient Israel, weighs 1.7 tons and is the largest in the country. Presently, it has a regular attendance of almost 100 mispallelim.
Szczebzesyn, Poland 1600s. In 1555, King Zygmunt August issued a binding decree to end an ownership dispute, and allocated rights over the city to the Gorka family of Greater Poland. The Gorkas took a strong interest in religious affairs and granted freedom to all religious groups. Thus, the synagogue was allowed to be built.
The Exhibitions’ Beginnings
Eli Isaac (Robert) Vegh of Lawrence is well known in the world of chazzanus. In addition to being a successful and respected real estate financier, Chazzan Robert Vegh is now serving as the chazzan at Congregation Ohr Torah, located on Hungry Harbor Road in North Woodmere. Chazzan Vegh truly inspires those who attended services led by him. In the past Chazzan Vegh has enthralled worshipers at some of the largest congregations in the New York area, including the White Shul in Far Rockaway, Kingsway Jewish Center, the Avenue N Jewish Center in Brooklyn, and Aderet El in Manhattan. Chazzan Vegh is highly esteemed for his knowledge of traditional nusach and chazzanus and is fully at home with heartfelt nigunim and congregational compositions. Last year, he was a lead chazzan in the October 13 concert in Bnei Israel and Linden Heights in Boro Park that celebrated the 80th yahrzeit of renowned Chazan Yossele Rosenblatt, z’l.
Eli Vegh has an exceptionably warm relationship with the Munkaczer Rebbe. Regularly, Robert vacations with his wife by visiting shuls abroad and continuously shares his vacation experiences and all shul photographs with the Rebbe. Having always had an intense interest in older shuls, the Rebbe asks a myriad of pointed questions, with a focus on whether the shuls continue to maintain traditional Torah practices and values, and what their communities are like today.
Eli Vegh met and discovered Joel Berkowitz, a member of Congregation Ohab Zedek in Belle Harbor. Their meeting was so interesting and engaging that Eli proudly introduced Joel and his treasure trove of shul photographs to the Rebbe. Eli volunteered the photographs to be befittingly used as regal decorations for the magnificent sukkah that Munkaczer Chassidim enthusiastically erect every year for their beloved Rebbe.
In addition to Eli sponsoring the costs of professionally developing, enlarging, and custom framing the photographs in a special high-tech photo lab, Eli and Joel carefully research and prepare brief historical descriptions that are included in the descriptive flyers distributed in the sukkah. Not only do the visitors see the shuls, they also learn each shul’s history. The Munkaczer sukkah experience is truly unique for its own beauty and for its important ongoing historical contribution.
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at email@example.com.