For the third year in a row, Ynet embarks on a pictorial journey of the most beautiful synagogues on the eve of Yom Kippur. Two years ago, the synagogues were chosen by leading architects. Last year, readers chose their favorite synagogues in Israel. This year, 10 cantors have led us to some of the most awe-inspiring synagogues throughout the world.
Most beautiful synagogues:
We are proud to present each synagogue along with pictures and a description provided by the cantor of his or her connection with the given house of prayer. Next time you are in Paris, Budapest, Berlin, stop by to see them up close.
Gmar hatima tova!
Cantor at the Great Synagogue of Paris
The Great Synagogue of Paris, also known as La Victoire Synagogue, is the dream of every cantor graduating from cantorial college. In my youth, I would watch Cantor Birlansky, whose voice filled this huge space as 21 choir voices added color, flavor and depth to the singing. Three thousand people listened and prayed along with him.
Inside the sanctuary (photo courtesy of the synagogue)
I remember the day, nearly 50 years ago, when I was called up for the position. Fear and trembling gripped me. How could I sing in the Great Synagogue? How can I sing a solo alongside 21 opera singers? Not only is there heartfelt intention in the prayer, but meticulous observance of every musical note. This same feeling has not subsided to this day.
The beauty of the prayer sanctuary, a masterpiece created by the hands of an artist, includes a high ceiling and breathtakingly beautiful motifs. This adds to the quickened heart beat during prayer.
A view from the outside (photo courtesy of the synagogue)
Each stone in the synagogue has soul. Each new worshipper adds a feeling that I didn't feel yesterday. I feel in my heart the hundreds of thousands of Jews listening to the El Male Rahamim prayer and the psalms sung in the style of the Jews of Alsace as they see before their eyes the times they went to synagogue with their parents – the grandmothers and grandfathers, women and children that were annihilated.
Leading up to the holy ark (photo courtesy of the synagogue)
The only thing I ask is that the voice of Yaakov returns to their hearts, reminiscent of the days of trembling and sadness, on the backdrop of the song that connects to the infinite.
Cantor and singer
Upon landing in Sao Paulo as the pilot announced that we have arrived safely and the words "muito obrigado (thank you very much) for flying with us" play off his lips, you understand that you have arrived in a place in which even day-to-day speech has a rhythm and melody.
View from the gallery (photo courtesy of the synagogue)
The location of the synagogue is a bit like the area near the central bus station in Tel Aviv. On the backdrop of the old, run-down buildings, Sinagoga Beth El stands out in particular in its unique style and splendor. Just like the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv on Allenby Street.
As in the rest of the world, synagogues built in Sao Paulo when Jewish immigrants arrived in the city at the start of the 20th century have been left desolate and without any regular worshippers as the Jewish community has gradually moved out to the more affluent suburbs. During the holidays, these same Jews would remember the synagogues of their youth where they celebrated bar mitzvah or wedding, and come back in droves to pray.
'Stands out in its unique style and splendor' (photo courtesy of synagogue)
A cantor, upon entering a new synagogue, will immediately take to the bimah (the synagogue's podium) to sing a few notes to check the acoustics of the room. This is just what I did. My jaw dropped when I heard my voice return to me off the rounded walls. The acoustics were amazing.
Passage between the halls (photo courtesy of the synagogue)
Only at this point did I take the time to take in the unique shape of the synagogue. The room is entirely white and built in such a beautiful and singular style – rounded walls that remind you of music, a holy ark made out of engraved wood that speaks entirely of holiness. Unfortunately, the synagogue today has closed down and become a museum, left only for visitors to visit and experience the memories of days that will never return.
Cantor at the Great Synagogue in Berlin
I was very impressed by the synagogue of west Berlin because of the diverse population that prayers there – Jews from all ethnic backgrounds and sectors, Berlin natives, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Israelis, and Jewish businessmen from around the world.
General view (Photo: Gary Landy)
There is a sense that prayers during the Days of Awe (the ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) there are without boundaries. Everyone feels proud to be Jewish and to pray to the Creator of the Universe.
'European architecture at its best' (Photo: Gary Landy)
The vigilant security by police and Israeli security guards outside the synagogue remind you of one simple and horrifying fact: The Germans and their accomplices murdered our people making no distinction regarding their level of religious devotion. When Jews who don't understand Hebrew get emotional and cry together, there is no more of an exalted feeling than that.
Stained glass windows (Photo: Gary Landy)
The inside of the synagogue is European architecture at its best. It is a high structure that once served as an events hall, but after the bombing of Berlin became a synagogue. It is my wish that brotherhood and peace among us will prevail not only during the Days of Awe, but on all days of the year, also in the Holy Land.
Cantor at Bnai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton
The Bnai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida touched me from the very first time I visited. It is an open hall with modern architecture and amazing acoustics that make it simply a joy to sing and pray in it. The clean lines of the architecture convey a lure of holiness and speak to the hearts of many. The synagogue seats about 3,000 people in the main hall and the two smaller sanctuaries.
The main sanctuary (photo courtesy of the synagogue)
Like anyone else, I will always be enchanted by an old synagogue full of embellishments, chandeliers, stained-glass windows, and the such. But here, there is something new, of our time that conveys modesty and a lot of spirituality.
The front doors (photo courtesy of the synagogue)
Beyond the beauty of the architecture, there is also room to envy this congregation. It is amazing to see how a group of voluntary members manages to maintain a synagogue like this on their own accord (there are many like this in the US and Canada) without any government or external support. It survives on membership dues and donations alone.
View from outside (photo courtesy of the synagogue)
The deep desire to be together in the company of your people to celebrate on Shabbat and holidays connects us, just as the unending love for the Land of Israel does.
Cantor at the Chabad synagogue in Hungary
The synagogue that touched my heart most is located in Obuda and is the oldest in Budapest – some 200 years old. Its size and beauty are what give me my great inspiration and transport me to other periods in the history of the Jewish community in Hungary.
Restored synagogue (Photo: Róbert Vámos)
About 50 years ago, the building was requisitioned by the government and served as a television studio. Rabbi Shlomo Koves, one of the Chabad emissaries in Hungary, redeemed the structure in recent years. After being restored, it was reopened recently.
From the outside (Photo: Róbert Vámos)
Rabbi Koves was also the one to open my eyes to the light of Judaism in my youth. He was my first teacher for Shabbat prayers and still guides me today. When I was 28, I made aliyah from Hungary to Israel and participated in concerts with the greatest cantors of our generation. Two years later, I returned to Hungary with my wife and started as a cantor at the Chabad synagogue in Budapest.
Cantor at the Great Synagogue in Ramat Gan
As part of the concerts and prayers I have led in the 23 years of my career, I have had the opportunity to travel to many varied places throughout the world, including large and stately concert halls and unique synagogues with glorious histories.
Interior view. (Photo: JKMAS/Franz Kimmel)
I would like to address specifically a synagogue I visited four-and-a-half years ago as part of a massive music festival held in Germany. One of the concerts was held in the city of Augsberg.
When I arrived together with the choir, I was shocked by the power and the size, the unconventional interior design, and the amazing beauty of the central synagogue.
The women's section (Photo: JKMAS/Franz Kimmel)
However, the real shock came when I opened my mouth and started to sing with the choir. The voices that wafted in the synagogue's hall were like something I had never heard before – not in synagogues or concert halls. The unique structure created such a special sound. If it were possible to liken it to something, the first thing that comes to mind is the song of angels.
From the outside (Photo: JKMAS/Franz Kimmel)
Whoever has the privilege of praying in this synagogue can't help but be amazed by the full, round, sound of the hall, as if a state-of-the-art sound system had been installed there. It goes without saying that the experience of singing there was incredible and that every note that came out of my mouth was accompanied by a broad smile from the delight of the sound that filled our ears.
Walls had never made me cry, at least not until that day. About 10 years ago during a visit to Prague, I entered the Pinkasova Synagogue. There, in the ancient and chilling building, next to where the holy ark is located, are two terracotta-colored columns alongside which the names of the concentration camps are etched, from Auschwitz to Terezin. On the walls are 77,297 names of people from the community who perished in the Holocaust. The list is long and continues on to the next wall.
The Great Synagogue on Dohany Street in Budapest (Photo: Yoav Friedman)
With a broken heart and blood-shot eyes, I looked at the names. As I stood, moved by the walls speaking of the Jewish past, walls soaked with life memories, I thought about the souls of my relatives who died in the Holocaust, and in a shaking voice I whispered "Avinu Malkeinu (Our Father, Our King) hear our voice… spare us…"
The entryway (Photo: Yoav Friedman)
The Great Synagogue on Dohany Street in Budapest also captured my heart. From an architectural standpoint, it is a breathtaking work of art made up of Islamic influences with Moorish elements, church-like Gothic influences, and of course, Jewish elements. The synagogue was recently renovated after the Second World War by well-known Jewish philanthropists Este Lauder and Tony Curtis.
The weeping willow memorial (Photo: Shoshi Maimon)
Behind the synagogue is a cemetery in which 2,000 Jews, who died freezing and hungry within the Ghetto built by the Nazis, are buried. The cemetery was run by Raoul Wallenberg. In the back courtyard is a memorial for the victims of the ghetto. The memorial is shaped like a weeping willow with the name of a Jew who died in the Budapest ghetto on each leaf. If I weren't an Orthodox cantor who sings in concerts only, I would definitely look forward to singing in these two halls.
Cantor at the Frankfurt Great Synagogue
The Jewish community in Frankfurt is one of the oldest in the world, hearkening back to the Middle Ages. The Great Synagogue in Frankfurt has a storied past as it has served as a house of worship for generations of Jews in the city.
View from the outside (Photo: Rafael Herlich, Frankfurt)
The synagogue's distinction comes to light, among other things, in the vocal potential it allows a cantor to emit despite its massive size (with close to 2,000 seats). There are great acoustics in the synagogue, really every cantor's dream.
View of the sanctuary (Photo: Rafael Herlich, Franfurt)
Every professional seeks to work with the most advanced equipment and the most state-of-the-art technology. For a cantor, this is comes to fruition mainly in the hall in which he prays. The Great Synagogue in Frankfurt meets the highest expectations in every manner.
'Every cantor's dream' (Photo: Rafael Herlich, Frankfurt)
On Yom Kippur when the synagogue is filled to the brim, it is an indescribable experience. If you add the enormous fun and enjoyment of working with Rabbi Klein and the community, which I have served for the past three years, you receive a synagogue that is also a home for me. There is no greater joy. It is worth all the riches in the world.
Cantor at Park Avenue Synagogue
Park Avenue Synagogue, located in Manhattan, was established in 1882 by a group of Jews of German descent. Today, the congregation numbers 1,500 families in the Conservative movement. The sanctuary was built in 1923 with Moorish style. It sports a large dome and is decorated with repetitive geometric patterns, such as arabesques, bold colors, and a focus on the interior of the building versus its exterior.
The sanctuary (photo courtesy of the synagogue)
It is my great honor to serve as the congregation's shaliach tzibur (prayer leader) alongside Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove and to continue developing its glorified musical tradition. It is difficult to describe in words the atmosphere during the Kol Nidrei services at the Park Avenue Synagogue as some 4,000 people congregate in the building. Awe and trembling grip me as I don the caftan, tallit, and the headdress and walk towards the podium to the wonderfully clear notes from the choir singing "Or Zarua La'Tzaddik."
From the outside on Park Avenue (photo courtesy of the synagogue)
Quiet befalls the congregation. The holy ark is opened as if it is sweeping open the Gates of Heaven along with it. The Torah scrolls wrapped in white and dressed in their fine silver crowns are revealed one by one and then we start Kol Nidrei. It is so moving.
The diversity of people who come through the doors of Ohel Eliezer Synagogue, which is located next to the European Commission offices in Brussels, is what makes the synagogue different from all other congregations I have come to know during my years serving as a chief cantor in various cities throughout the world. There is a haredi and religious population alongside people who are not familiar with a prayer book, Sephardim alongside Ashkenazim, old people alongside young people, businessmen alongside students – they all come to pray here.
'Diversity of people makes it unique' (Photo: EUJB Archive)
A few years ago, I established a small choir led by Benjamin Blumenthal, a Brussels businessman who is also a musician and well-known conductor. The choir participates in shaping the prayer musically-speaking, in fostering an understanding of the words and their meaning, and in encouraging broad participation on the part of the worshippers in the singing throughout the prayer.
Synagogue's lobby (Photo: EUJB Archive)
During the Days of Awe, prayers are held in the main function hall of a luxury hotel in order to accommodate the whole worshipping public, one that grows from year to year. There are a broad range of activities for children, and Rabbi Levi Yitzhak Garelik adds riveting explanations that make the worshippers "feel at home."
My role is to lead the public in prayer and song while maintaining the special tune for the Days of Awe. The satisfaction I receive as a cantor in the synagogue, in addition to the congregation's esteem and the musical aspect, comes from the elevation and the steps forward each person makes in his spiritual level that reaches its culmination in the blowing of the shofar (ritual ram's horn) and the emotional cry out of "next year in the rebuilt Jerusalem."
Have you prayed in a breathtaking synagogue? Have you visited a stunningly beautiful sanctuary? Tell us about it using the talkback feature.
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