When Shalom Elcott started bringing missions to Israel as CEO of the Jewish Federation of Orange County in California, he always made a point of beginning his tours at Jerusalem’s Western Wall for an inspirational Friday night. After the onset of Shabbat, he would take his group back to its hotel for dinner with a guest speaker.

But ever since 2007, when the Tzemach Tzedek Synagogue – a Chabad-Lubavitch institution founded in the middle of the 19th century – opened its doors to travelers looking for a place to eat of a Friday night, Elcott’s tours have proceeded from the airport to the Western Wall to the synagogue. From the outpost on the appropriately named Chabad Street, Rabbi Yossi and Hindel Swerdlov, entertain their guests with a mixture of uplifting stories, songs and dancing.

The evenings, say Elcott, “set the stage for the mission” by allowing its participants to celebrate Shabbat in a nexus of spirituality.

“When we start at the kotel,” explains Elcott, using the Hebrew term for the Western Wall, “and then Yossi explains all of the different synagogues around, everyone is low-key. Then he grabs them and starts to dance, and then representatives from other groups and soldiers join the circle.

“That moment, for all the people, is transformational,” he adds. “That moment demonstrates the unity of the Jewish people.”

Storied Past

Built in 1858 with the help of Elias David Sassoon of Bombay, the Tzemach Tzedek Synagogue was named in honor of the Third Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, who encouraged Jewish families then living in nearby Hebron to move to the Old City and establish a community.

Some 21 years later, a second floor was added and named Knesset Eliyahu in honor of Sassoon. At the turn of the 20th century, the building was shared with Yemenite Jews who needed a place to pray. But Jewish life disappeared with the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, when Jordanian forces shut off the Old City from the rest of Jerusalem.

In the ensuing years, Arab soldiers and residents looted the city’s historic synagogues, destroying all except the Tzemach Tzedek, which was used first as an ammunitions depot, and later as stables and shops.

“They wanted to erase every fragment of Judaism,” says Rabbi Menachem Ozdoba, director of Chabad of the Old City. The Tzemach Tzedek’s survival “was something above nature.”

After the Israeli army recaptured the Old City in the Six Day War in 1967, Rabbi Moshe Segal, a Lubavitch Chasid who fought in Israel’s War for Independence 19 years earlier as a member of the Irgun, chose to personally guard the priceless synagogue, sleeping on a wooden plank with either a gun or a knife under his head until Jewish families returned to the neighborhood.

“He was the first Jewish resident in the Old City,” says Rabbi Yehoshua Yosevitz, the synagogue’s director. “He started the place.”

Now, tourists can walk through the old building, which was renovated with the financial help of Joey and Toby Tanenbaum of Toronto and according to the specifications of the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory. Besides for the synagogue, it houses a yeshiva and post-graduate rabbinical seminary, while a Chabad House for tourists occupies a storefront one level below.

And on any given Friday night, an eclectic mix of about 50 first-time tourists, families celebrating lifecycle events, and Jewish community leaders from around the world join the Swerdlovs for a dinner in an apartment adjacent to the synagogue’s upper level.

“People are already on a high because of being in Israel,” says Yossi Swerdlov, who during the week helps direct Chabad’s Children of Chernobyl. “It’s amazing to see their souls waking up.”

A few weeks ago, Said Cohen accompanied Rabbi Dovid Eliezrie, director of Chabad of Yorba Linda and a board member of the Jewish Federation of Orange County, on a trip to Israel. As he regularly does whenever his community members travel to the Holy Land, Eliezrie made sure they stopped for Shabbat dinner at the Tzemach Tzedek.

The experience is “an exuberant celebration of Shabbat in a synagogue of unique historical importance,” says Eliezrie.

Cohen, a retired engineer who made the trip in order to see Haifa’s Technion University and meet the institute’s president, found the Jerusalem Shabbat to be memorable.

“I liked it very much,” he says. “Everyone was really friendly and very amicable.”

Friday night meals for tourists at the Tzemach Tzedek Synagogue are underwritten by a Florida philanthropist.
Friday night meals for tourists at the Tzemach Tzedek Synagogue are underwritten by a Florida philanthropist.


For his part, Eliezrie is no stranger to the synagogue. After the Six Day War, he helped run the on-site Chabad House that attracted between 60 and 100 college students for its various programs and classes.

“It was a period of self-discovery,” Eliezrie recalls of the post-war years, when the Jewish Quarter looked like a war zone.

It was about that time that a 10-year-old Elcott first visited Israel with his parents.

“I remember the kotel when there were buildings 30 to 40 feet away,” he remembers, a far cry from the massive plaza that can now accommodate thousands of worshippers.

Looking back on his own ties to the city – he assisted Mayor Teddy Kollek in redeveloping Jerusalem in the late 1970s and 80s – Elcott refers to Shabbat dinner at the Tzemach Tzedek as an intersection of time, experiences and shared memories.

“The most interesting part is hearing the stories and the shared conversation,” he says. “It is amazing how everyone’s paths cross, how very similar journeys bring people together.”

According to Swerdlov, the very existence of the dinner and its history is a tribute to the shared yearnings of Jews across the world. Those who sign up for the dinner online at oldcitytish.com come from a host of locations.

Several years ago, a Floridian friend mentioned to the Swerdlovs, who had been hosting Friday night dinners in their modest home some distance from the Old City, that they could feed many more people if they had the right space. The friend then paid for the renovation of the Tzemach Tzedek’s adjoining apartment, a gift of Jerusalemite Avraham Parshan.

“The windows were damaged, the walls were terrible,” says the friend. “They fixed it and it’s beautiful.”

Today, a sign on one of the Shabbat tables at the Tzemach Tzedek advertise that the dinner continues half a world away in the Miami suburb of Bay Harbor Islands. Similar signs in Florida acknowledge the Jerusalem dinner.

The friend, who prefers to remain anonymous, illustrates the special power of the Shabbat experience with a story of a Californian who more than 20 years ago, vowed after his bar mitzvah that he would never step foot inside a synagogue again.

In Israel, the man came to the Tzemach Tzedek for dinner only after the pleading of a cousin. In the middle of the meal, he announced that he would end his estrangement from synagogue, and would attend services the next morning. “I can’t believe what I’ve been missing,” he said.

“After people go,” says the Swerdlovs’ friend, “they understand what Judaism is all about. They feel the holiness of the place.”

“There’s a certain camaraderie here,” echoes Hindel Swerdov. “We all know that we are on the same page.”