Tiberias, one of Israel’s four holy cities and a destination for visitors from around the world, has welcomed a new Chabad couple, who began 5780 with a resounding start. Rabbi Yona Elimelech and Esther Malka Zilbershtrom, who arrived only a month ago with their baby son Menachem Mendel in tow, hosted 50 people at their first Rosh Hashanah meal and filled the historic Old City synagogue for Rosh Hashanah prayer services. Participants included local residents, travelers from nearby hotels and a family from a nearby kibbutz.

After the services last Monday and Tuesday, Zilbershtrom and fellow Tiberias emissary, Rabbi Mendy Turkov, took to nearby luxury hotels, tucked into an environment filled with the ancient tombs of famous sages, to share the mitzvah of the day—blowing the shofar—for an estimated 2,000 people in hotel dining rooms and lobbies, and along the city’s waterfront promenade.

Local residents are already expressing appreciation for what the new couple plans to do and what their fellow Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries have been offering the city for years.

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“We see how Chabad helps all over the city doing good work, including sending yeshivah boys to our synagogue to give classes between the afternoon and evening prayer services,” said Julian Alper, a British immigrant who moved to Tiberias five years ago with his wife, Miriam. “They look after people in the community and when tourists come, they help them, too, such as finding prayer services and arranging Passover Seders in more than one language for those in need.”

Their base is in what is known as the “Old Synagogue,” a 180-year-old institutional relic situated in Tiberias’s heavily visited Old City district, astride the storied Kinneret (Sea of Galilee).
Their base is in what is known as the “Old Synagogue,” a 180-year-old institutional relic situated in Tiberias’s heavily visited Old City district, astride the storied Kinneret (Sea of Galilee).

“It was clear that Hashem [G‑d] was with them from the start,” Rabbi Shneur Turkov, who directs Chabad programs and a new well-adorned synagogue elsewhere in the city with his wife, Rocha, told Chabad.org. “We saw that the rabbi and his wife came to us with a lot of confidence and positive energy, and were rewarded quickly with success.”

To boot, one satisfied participant came to the rescue with the donation of a commercial-grade air-conditioning unit for the synagogue to replace one that had broken down in the middle of Rosh Hashanah services, said Turkov, noting the job got done in time for the remaining Tishrei services.

The 25-year-old rabbi and his wife set out from the village of Kfar Chabad in Israel’s center to take up their new post at the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul, corresponding to Sept. 1—a month commonly associated with new beginnings. Their base is in what is known as the “Old Synagogue,” a 180-year-old institutional relic situated in Tiberias’s heavily visited Old City district, astride the storied Kinneret (Sea of Galilee).

A City of Springs and Sages

Zilbershtrom blowing shofar in the Old City synagogue soon after arriving in the month of Elul.
Zilbershtrom blowing shofar in the Old City synagogue soon after arriving in the month of Elul.

While serving the needs of the locals who frequent the synagogue, the couple’s main focus will be to engage tourists with classes and prayer services, including on Shabbat and festivals. They will also hold seasonal public events in the synagogue and immediate surroundings “to invite passersby to listen and hear,” said Zilbershtrom. Those occasions will include round-the-clock readings of the Megillah (the story of Esther) on Purim, Chanukah candle-lightings and a public menorah-lighting, open Seders on Passover and a public sukkah on the holiday of Sukkot. The synagogue doors will remain open for the rest of the month of Tishrei for Sukkot and Simchat Torah services.

“The overall goal will be to make the synagogue a dedicated tourist destination for Jews from all walks of life and affiliations, and stay on for other interaction and programming,” said Zilbershtrom. “We are here for the Jew who just before sunset wants to don tefillin [the deadline for the daily mitzvah], the traveler who has a question on application of Jewish law or philosophy, and to share a word of Torah at the right moment for those who come to us to pray.”

Many attractions in the city, counted along with Jerusalem, Hebron and Safed as one of the four holy cities of Israel, have the potential to continue bringing a steady flow of customers to the Zilbershtroms. In addition to kosher luxury hotels, beaches, a wide array of kosher restaurants, world-famous healing hot springs, water parks, cruises on the historic sea and the city’s sheer beauty, visitors are drawn to its burial places and holy institutions that read like a “Who’s Who” of Jewish luminaries and sages.

Tiberias is home to the resting places of many Jewish sages, including Maimonides.
Tiberias is home to the resting places of many Jewish sages, including Maimonides.

Within walking distance to their base are the tombs of Moses ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides and by his acronym, “the Rambam,” and Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, a pre-eminent end of Second Temple era Mishnaic sage. Also nearby is the Eitz Chaim Synagogue, named for Rabbi Chaim Abulafia, an 18th-century rabbinic authority and author credited with helping to restore the city’s Jewish community and character in the last half of the 1700s. His efforts were aided by rabbis, including early Chassidic leader Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk, who emigrated from Eastern Europe in 1765 with hundreds of followers, ending up in Tiberias, where he is buried.

Farther afield but only a brief drive away across from the shoreline is the burial place of Rabbi Meir Baal Haness, an illustrious Mishnaic sage of the post-Second Temple era. His teacher, late first- and early second-century luminous Talmudic sage, Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef, is interred on higher ground overlooking the city center, next to the tomb of the “Ramchal”—Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, a prominent 18th-century Italian rabbi, Kabbalist and philosopher.

Named for Tiberius, the second emperor of the Roman empire and built by King Herod, the city has been ruled through the ages by Romans, Egyptian Mamluks, Crusaders and the Ottoman Empire, among other conquering nations. Jewish immigrants began to return to the city in the late 19th century, and by the start of the British Mandate in 1922, a Jewish majority had been restored in the city that had been, between the second and 10th centuries, Israel’s center for rabbinic learning and the last seat of the Great Sanhedrin, the supreme court of Jewish law.

Only a brief drive away across from the shoreline is the burial place of Rabbi Meir Baal Haness, an illustrious Mishnaic sage of the post-Second Temple era
Only a brief drive away across from the shoreline is the burial place of Rabbi Meir Baal Haness, an illustrious Mishnaic sage of the post-Second Temple era

For these and other historical features, the city of Tiberias, which is thought to be built on the site of the ancient biblical village of Rakkat, first mentioned in the book of Joshua, has been counted since the 16th century among the holy four. Safed is about an hour’s drive to the north, and Jerusalem and Hebron are a few hours to the south and southwest.

Appointed by the director of Chabad-Lubavitch of Tiberias, Rabbi Yosef Kramer, to work under the Turkovs, the Zilbershtroms will be joining an existing group of Chabad emissaries and many Chabad institutions around the city. These include the recently built synagogue, a preschool, new elementary schools for boys and girls, a yeshivah and a Torah learning program for older men.

The locals are not the only ones appreciating the presence of the Zilbershtroms.

Ola Zak, a Russian emigre from nearby Kibbutz Tel Katzir, was shopping for an authentic Rosh Hashanah experience for her and her family when she happened upon an ad for the Zilbershtrom’s program on Facebook.

They weren’t disappointed.

“At the kibbutz, there is a synagogue, but every family celebrates privately in their home, so we don’t really know how to observe properly,” said Zak. “We wanted our kids to know the traditional way so that maybe later they will have a choice.”

The Tiberias Old City synagogue is right next to a popular promenade and hotels.
The Tiberias Old City synagogue is right next to a popular promenade and hotels.
The young couple has already increased participation in services.
The young couple has already increased participation in services.
The couple is building a large public sukkah, and the synagogue doors will remain open for the rest of the month of Tishrei for Sukkot and Simchat Torah services.
The couple is building a large public sukkah, and the synagogue doors will remain open for the rest of the month of Tishrei for Sukkot and Simchat Torah services.