Israel | Religion & Jewish Life

At one Jerusalem shul, prayer’s not three times a day, it’s morning to night

JERUSALEM (JTA) — On the ground floor of a building on a leafy residential street in southern Jerusalem, two men squeeze past each other in a crowded foyer.

One is wearing a small, flat, glistening black hat and a long coat, the typical dress of some Chasidim even in the summer heat. The other seems dressed to the season, his head bare save for a kipah. His tight black T-shirt reads “And the Oscar goes to …”

They are two of approximately 1,200 men, according to a fundraising flier, who arrive daily to pray at the Shtiblach, a four-room synagogue known to some locals as a minyan factory. The Shtiblach — Yiddish for “small synagogues” — hosts 50 prayer services daily, one every 15 to 30 minutes morning, afternoon and night.

“It’s an opportunity to pray at unconventional hours,” said Kenny Fisher, 50. “You don’t get the feeling of a community shul, but it offers the convenience of minyans throughout the day.”

Indeed, the Shtiblach is no place for weddings, bar mitzvah receptions or charity drives. There are no paintings or stained-glass windows. Its walls, instead, feature clocks and bulletin boards stuffed with fliers advertising minyan times, membership dues or the occasional class. Far from doubling as a community center, as most American and some Israeli synagogues do, it has a singular purpose: all prayers, all the time, from 6 a.m. to midnight.

Despite the military efficiency with which services stop and start, the place presents an aura of controlled chaos. Men come and go in a loud foyer, some stopping to talk, others reading religious pamphlets, and others inserting coins into a stack of tzedakah boxes that evokes an apartment building’s mailboxes. With the sanctuaries’ doors open, a cacophony of worshipers is heard. Outside, on a front lawn filled with picnic tables, four men attempt to start yet another minyan. Across from them, two haredi Orthodox men contemplate buying a snack from a vending machine.

Within the sanctuaries, each service’s leader chooses the prayer style, be it Moroccan, Lithuanian, Chasidic or anything in between.

The Shtiblach is hardly the only minyan factory in Jerusalem; others dot Jerusalem’s haredi Orthodox neighborhoods, while the Western Wall may host even more minyans at greater frequency than does the Shtiblach. But unlike those other minyan factories, which aside from the Wall cater to relatively homogeneous religious populations, the Shtiblach serves the diverse neighborhood of Katamon, bringing together Ashkenazim and Sephardim, haredi and modern Jews, and Americans, Russians and native-born Israelis. Not far away, Israelis of all stripes fill restaurants, cafes and shops on Emek Refaim Street.

“You see the range that’s available in Israel, and people respect each other,” said Michael Schein, 30. “This is very much a communal institution. It’s not like a haredi neighborhood.”

But in a city known more for its religious tensions than for its tolerance, even the Shtiblach has its limits. Little space exists for female worshipers; in one room they must peer through a hole resembling a skylight to witness the service. Schein calls the women’s section “very non-ideal.”

And while leaders may choose any version of Orthodox prayer, services of other denominations are not welcome.

Shlomo Hudja, who runs the Shtiblach’s day-to-day operations, has no qualms about prohibiting non-Orthodox worship.

“There are no Conservative, no Reform, no nothing,” Hudja said. “It’s a Jewish place, not a place for them.”

In his mind, though, the Shtiblach is a bastion of diversity.

“It’s like New York,” he said. “People from all over the world. There’s nothing like this.”

Since Hudja began running the Shtiblach three years ago — he calls himself the CEO — his biggest accomplishment perhaps has been in improving its efficiency, finances and outward appearance. He commissioned a renovation to the Shtiblach, which moved to its current location from Jerusalem’s Old City in 1948, that left the space with pink marble walls and shiny wooden arks with intricate curtains. The ubiquitous clocks are his doing, as are the coin slots that worshipers must feed to activate the sanctuaries’ air conditioners.

Hudja opts for a straightforward and casual management style. The Shtiblach runs on a budget of about $11,400. To obtain these funds, Hudja sits behind a long folding table in the back of the foyer, accepting donations and writing receipts that sometimes include a dedication to a sick person.

He reminds worshipers that membership is $7.60 monthly, while $12.60 will make the donor a “friend” of the Shtiblach and $25 a “generous person.” A flier notes that only 300 of the 1,200 people who worship there daily have paid membership dues.

“Whoever takes a candy needs to pay,” Hudja instructs a man taking a sucker from a cabinet. “I paid for those.”

When he isn’t filling out donation slips or breaking big bills for worshipers from a big box of loose change, Hudja is schmoozing. He comes to the Shtiblach every day from 6:15 a.m. to midnight — with breaks — and claims to remember all of the regulars. It’s easy, he says, to settle a religious dispute, such as whether to say confessional prayers on Israel’s Independence Day. Dealing with individual complaints is the hardest part of his job.

“You need seven souls to survive,” he said. “A Jew stops complaining only when he dies.”