Archive for June 3rd, 2012

Zichron Ya’akov

We contacted Esther Friedman, the aliyah representative for Anglos in Zichron Yaakov, via email, and expressed our interest in seeing this picturesque town from an insider’s point of view.  Zichron Yaakov is located south of Haifa, slightly inland but overlooking the Mediterranean, and benefits from sea breezes, clean air, proximity to Haifa and all its amenities; yet it retains its hamlet-like vibe.  Ms. Friedman hooked us up with Joel Ruttman, a retired gentleman originally from San Antonio Texas, who has since made aliyah and now lives in Zichron Yaakov full-time.  Mr. Ruttman used to be the cantor at the Orthodox synagogue in San Antonio, which is where my eldest daughter and her husband lived for a few years when my son-in-law served as a chaplain there, on Lackland Air Force Base.

We first connected at a sidewalk cafe, where  Mr. Ruttman came well prepared with maps and loads of information about each neighborhood’s personality, the various shuls, and cultural life.  The cobble-stoned main street was closed off daily from 10 a.m. to vehicular traffic, and was filled with residents and busloads of adult tourists and Israeli children on school field trips, passing many sidewalk cafes, boutiques, artsy stores, and various historic sites from the 1800s when the town was founded by Baron Rothchild.

Yoel Ruttman (l.) and my husband walk up the midrechov (pedestrian mall)

Another view of Main Street. closed to vehicular traffic during business hours

The flags and banners are leftovers from Independence Day, celebrated the week before

Mr. Ruttman lives in a lovely cottage half a block from the pedestrian walkway, in a rather pricey area.  We asked him how he came to settle in the town.

He had originally wanted to live in Jerusalem.  He was going to settle in the German Colony, in an apartment above Emek Refa’im Street.  The day before he was to sign the contract and take possession of the apartment, there was a terrorist attack.  This was the tragic calamity at Cafe Hillel that killed Dr. David Applebaum and his daughter Nava y”d on the eve of her wedding.  It was one of a string of devastating attacks that had plagued Jerusalem in a short period of time, but for Mr. Ruttman it was the end of his dream of living in Jerusalem.  He cancelled his plans, and decided to dwell elsewhere.  And so he came to Zichron Yaakov.

At the end of the main street is the town’s oldest synagogue built in 1886 by Baron Rothschild.  It is called Ohel Yaakov and named in memory of the Baron’s father.

Although there is no daily minyan there, it does have regular Shabbat services.  During the week, the shul is kept locked, but Mr. Ruttman walked us over to a small bakery where the elderly owner – who happened to be the gabbai and was born in Zichron Yaakov,  and is the son of one of the town’s founders – keeps the key.

The main synagogue of Zichron Yaakov. The woman’s gallery is on the top floor.

The shul as seen from the women’s gallery above

Looking from the front of the shul towards the back

It was at this point that my husband and I experienced something rather sad . . .  but first a little background.

Zichron Yaakov was first founded in 1882 by Romanian Jewish Zionist farming pioneers.  Unfortunately, the thin, rocky soil was not amenable to high crop yields, and hunger and malaria threatened the yishuv’s very existence.  The following year, Baron Edmund Rothschild came to the settlers’ rescue, drawing up plans for its residential layout and agricultural economy, and donating funds to sustain it.  He named the town after his father, Yaakov.  The baron also established what is today the Carmel winery, located on the outskirts of the town.

During the late 1800s, two Jewish brothers and their sister spied on the Ottoman Turks for the British (they were part of the “Nili” spy network).  They were caught by the Turks and tortured.  On her way to prison, the sister, Sarah Abramsohn, requested that she be allowed to stop at her home and change her clothes.   She promptly locked herself in the cellar, where she committed suicide rather than give the Turks the information they wanted.  The Abramsohn home has been converted into a museum, where Israeli schoolchildren learn about Zionist history, of which Zichron Yaakov is a prominent part and place of pilgrimage.

While we were in Zichron Yaakov, busload after busload of Israeli schoolchildren – hundreds of children – toured the town, including the Abramsohn cellar and the Ohel Yaakov synagogue, which is only 1/2 block further up the street.  Because Mr. Ruttman had gotten the key from the gabbai/baker, the shul was open when several of the schoolchildren happened by.  They asked us for permission to enter, and stood in awe.  They had many questions about the layout of the shul, prayers, and asked what the bimah was and where the Torahs were kept.  I was amazed to find out that this was the first and only time these Israeli children had ever set foot in a shul their entire lives!  Imagine – –  even though they were Jewish children living in a Jewish country, they had absolutely no exposure to Judaism other than as some sort of historical artifact!  Mr. Ruttman proceeded to give several groups of children a tour of the shul and patiently answered their questions.  We were heartsick that we had to leave, lock up the shul and return the key to the gabbai/baker, because subsequent groups of children could only view the shul from the outside, and the only information they would get would be from the small white sign posted outside at the entrance!

The sign outside the shul’s entrance (click to enlarge). For the average tourist during a weekday, this is as close as they would get to seeing the shul, which normally remains locked except for Shabbat.

It occurred to me that should I ever elect to live in Zichron Yaakov, my “mission” would be to volunteer to be a daytime presence at the shul, so Israeli schoolchildren could see what a synagogue looks like from the inside and learn more about Jewish life.  I just could not get over the irony of it all.

We also visited one of Zichron Yaakov’s newest neighborhoods, which is filled with parks and beautiful apartment buildings that overlook the sea on one side and the Carmel hills on the other. These apartments start at about $275,000 for 3 bedrooms, which is not expensive for Zichron Yaakov (there is also a neighborhood called Neve Baron where villas start at a million dollars).

A new apartment complex overlooking a park

It was then that we noticed a funny-looking but oddly familiar building that looked completely out of place, architecturally speaking.  Only when we got closer and read the sign did we understand why:  it was a Chabad synagogue that was constructed to resemble the 770 Chabad headquarters in Crown Heights in Brooklyn!

“770” comes to Zichron Yaakov

Mr. Rutter then took us to Zichron Yaakov’s famous botanical gardens, a magnificent park called Ramat HaNadiv, which is also the place Baron Rothschild and his wife are buried.  We didn’t have time to view more than the periphery, but the rose gardens were lovely.

Ramat HaNadiv Botanical Gardens in Zichron Yaakov

We thanked Mr. Ruttman and said our goodbyes, and decided to splurge on lunch at one of the charming sidewalk cafes.  We had a fabulous milchig lunch, with homemade spinach pasta filled with local goat cheese, pizza, and whole-grain olive bread, along with some delicious red wine.  It was a truly memorable meal.

Could I see myself living permanently in Zichron Yaakov?  The location is great, the weather wonderful, the beach close by, the town quaint and charming.  There is a yeshiva there, and several shuls, although Zichron Yaakov is not outwardly “religious” in character.  Besides the fact that the housing is probably too  pricey for our budget, its primary source of income (besides the winery) is based on tourism, and the huge throngs of tourists give it a somewhat Disneyland-like feel.  I wouldn’t rule it out completely, but something about it just didn’t scream home.  Clearly if we wanted a more complete picture, we would have to return a few more times.