JERUSALEM—In the historic Nachalat Shiv’a neighborhood in the center of Jerusalem, in a quiet alleyway just steps away from Zion Square, men gather soon after Yom Kippur in the first synagogue to be built outside of the Old City walls after the destruction of the Temple. They are here to work, but it is joyous work of a different kind.

Like many Jews around the world, those meeting at night at the Nachalat Yaakov Synagogue are building a sukkah in anticipation of the festival that begins at sundown on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Tishrei, which corresponds this year to the night of Sunday, Sept. 27.

The Nachalat Yaakov Synagogue, now more than 140 years old, still serves not only its original purpose—as a focal point and house of worship for 19th-century pioneers who moved from the Old City—but as the current mainstay and headquarters of the Beit Chabad (Chabad House) of the Center of the City of Jerusalem.

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The storied synagogue has been under the rabbinic leadership of Rabbi Zev Dov Slonim for more than 40 years now. He was joined by his son and daughter-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok and Zahava Slonim, co-directors of Beit Chabad of the Center of the City of Jerusalem, to serve the ever-expanding needs of neighborhood residents, in addition to the throngs of daily and nightly visitors to the area.

Though Nachalat Shiv’a has undergone drastic changes over the last century-and-a-half—having become a hugely popular pedestrian way filled with arts, crafts, shops, restaurants and bars—the Beit Chabad at the Nachalat Yaakov Synagogue has found its niche in being able to reach hundreds of Jewish people every week with its numerous activities.

Serving the Neighborhood, Night and Day

Working on the schach for the roof. (Photo: Sarah Leah Lawent)
Working on the schach for the roof. (Photo: Sarah Leah Lawent)

“I like to describe what we have here as a Noah’s Ark,” says Rabbi Yosef Slonim, “which is afloat in the mabul [‘flood’] of bilbul [‘confusion’] of the mundane world. Our Chabad House is a safe place to survive this through reconnecting with our original purpose as Jews.”

“Our shul serves Jews of all backgrounds, be it ethnic or level of Torah knowledge or observance,” he continues. “Scores of young people come into the neighborhood every night to patronize the many bars and pubs in the area, and through this, we have implemented a program where every Thursday night we offer food, learning and lively discussions about Torah and life. In addition to older participants—for everyone is welcome—we see perhaps 100 youngsters per week between the ages of 15 to 25 who come to these all-nighters, and sit and learn, reconnecting with their Judaism, asking questions and enjoying the company of other Jews.”

The work continues on Saturday nights with a melaveh malkah (the traditional meal after the Havdalah ritual), where there is more food, song, learning and discussion.

“This, too, is very well-attended,” says Slonim. “Thank G‑d that my wife, Zahava, knows how to make such a tasty cholent because it is neither the last nor the least of the beauty of these evenings.”

Getting ready for the week-long holiday of Sukkot, which begins on the evening of Sept. 27, at the Nachalat Yaakov Synagogue in Jerusalem. (Photo: Sarah Leah Lawent)
Getting ready for the week-long holiday of Sukkot, which begins on the evening of Sept. 27, at the Nachalat Yaakov Synagogue in Jerusalem. (Photo: Sarah Leah Lawent)

Synagogue Built by Israeli President’s Ancestor

The Beit Chabad also has a Beit Midrash, a study house, which not only provides a minyan for prayer but a place for tourists, visiting and local businesspeople, and students in the center of town to stop in and learn Torah, Talmud, Tanya, Chassidus and halachah (Jewish law), either alone or together in classes given daily.

The synagogue had its start in 1866, when a cholera epidemic swept through Jerusalem’s walled city, wiping out much of the populace due to overcrowding and poor sanitation.

Seven families, including the great-great-grandfather of Israel’s current president, Reuven Rivlin, purchased land and founded the third Jewish neighborhood outside of the walls. In 1869, the first homes were ready to be occupied in the newly created neighborhood called Nachalat Shiv’a (or the “Inheritance of the Seven,” after the seven families).

Slonim and his crew of yeshivah students, both single and married, have also plunged straight into the preparation of the Sukkot festival. Besides the sukkah built on the synagogue’s property, the rabbi also organizes the sale of the arba’at haminim, “The Four Species” or “The Four Kinds”: a palm branch (lulav), two willows (aravot), a minimum of three myrtles (hadassim) and one citron (etrog).

Rabbi Zev Dov Slonim, center, who has led the synagogue for more than 40 years, teaches a daily class between afternoon and evening services. (Photo: Sarah Leah Lawent)
Rabbi Zev Dov Slonim, center, who has led the synagogue for more than 40 years, teaches a daily class between afternoon and evening services. (Photo: Sarah Leah Lawent)

Big Sukkah, Hakhel Gatherings in Zion Square

In addition to the sukkah at the synagogue, another one will be erected on Sunday, Erev Sukkot, right next to Zion Square.

The historic Nachalat Yaakov Synagogue was the first synagogue to be built outside the walls of the Old City. (Photo: Sarah Leah Lawent)
The historic Nachalat Yaakov Synagogue was the first synagogue to be built outside the walls of the Old City. (Photo: Sarah Leah Lawent)

“We have teams of Torah students who work in shifts from morning to sunset at this sukkah, helping at least 1,000 people to bless the arba’at haminim. It provides a sukkah for them where they can sit, eat and make the blessings during the festival and the intermediate days [Chol Hamoed],” explains the rabbi, the enthusiasm twinkling in his eyes. “At night during Chol Hamoed, we hold a Simchat Beit Hashoeivah [‘water-drawing’ celebration] in the pedestrian walkway at Ben Yehuda Street. As it says in the Talmud: ‘He who has not witnessed the Simchat Beit Hashoeivah has never seen joy in his life.’ Some of the things we do include fire-jugglers and musical performances.”

The rabbi also has a message about the very special status of this holiday season: “This year, 5776, has even additional joy and meaning, as it is the Hakhel year. After a Shemittah year, during Sukkot, there was a special ritual at the Beit Hamikdash where the king would read from his Torah, and every Jewish man, woman and child attended, that they should both hear and see, just as the entire nation received the Torah from G‑d at Mount Sinai.

“The Lubavitcher Rebbe [Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory] said that the entire year should be treated as a Hakhel year, with Jews getting together, congregating, with family, friends and their community at least once a month.”

And with that, says Slonim: “Chag Sameach to all!”

Young people come to the Nachalat Shiv’a area for its restaurants, bars and shops, but many find the synagogue—and wind up spending time learning with others at all times of the day and night.
Young people come to the Nachalat Shiv’a area for its restaurants, bars and shops, but many find the synagogue—and wind up spending time learning with others at all times of the day and night.

For information, inspiration and Hakhel year gatherings near you, visit Chabad.org’s special Sukkot section here.