World Jewry in Be’er-Sheva – “The ingathering of the exiles.”
Be’er-Sheva has a truly integrated, international citizenry, consisting of Jewish immigrants from 72 countries of origin (from all 5 continents), including the last remnants of the Albanian and Yemenite Jewish communities, and a Karaite (Jewish) community, as well as 3 generations (and counting) of native-born Israeli Beershevans. Like Abraham the Patriarch, the metropolitan-oasis Capital of the Negev welcomes newcomers, offering a full spectrum of sociocultural and religious traditions and lifestyles, so that everyone may feel at home. It is a pluralistic and multilingual city, with virtually no intra-religious or inter-ethnic tensions or urban ‘ghettos’.
Jewish religious organizations
The Be’er-Sheva Rabbinate and Religious Council is located at 8A ha-Talmud St. – 08-620400, 1-599-515-959. As of 2017, the Chief Rabbi of Be’er-Sheva and Head of the Rabbinic Courts is Rabbi Yehuda Deri (b.1958-). The Rabbinate handles all Jewish ritual matters: kashrut – 08-6204026; bridal instruction – 08-6204017; weddings – 08-6204014; circumcisions – to find certified mohalim on Internet search in 144 – the online telephone directory; funerals & Hevrah Kadisha (burial society) – 08-6204006; re. mourning customs – Rabbi Abraham Tariki, 054-4586152; in case of afterhour emergencies – Rabbi Abraham Lorber, 054-4348735 or Rabbi Shlomo Ohayon, 054-4458580. The Religious Council trains rabbis to supervise kashrut and to officiate at circumcisions, weddings & funerals in accordance with Jewish law and ethnic customs.
The Bnei Akiva Yeshivah “Ohel Shlomo” (founded 1962) on the Kiryat Wolfson campus in the Daled neighborhood prepares rabbinical students for ordination, most of whom not only graduate with honors, but pass the qualifying examinations to become practicing rabbis – 08-6411041.
As of 2017, Be’er-Sheva has ca.237 synagogue congregations (thus far), categorized as follows: ca.197 Sephardic; ca.22 Ashkenazic; ca.3 Yemenite; ca.2 Ethiopian; 1 Karaite; 1 Conservative (“Eshel Avraham”); 1 Reform (“Ramot Shalom”); and 10 named, but uncategorized congregations. With the development of each new neighborhood, more synagogues are built. Also as of 2017, there are ca.13 mikvehs (ritual bath-houses) in the city (thus far).
The Karaite community and synagogue are located in the Old City, under the leadership of Rabbi Moshe Firrouz; most of the members came from Egypt. They are distinct from mainstream Judaism, since they do not accept Jewish ‘oral law’ and the post-biblical rabbinic traditions and strictly adhere to the fundamental dictates of the Hebrew Bible. For example (like Muslims today), they remove their shoes before entering holy places. They are accepted as Jews and their marriages are recognized by the State of Israel – http://www.karaite.korner.com.
Egalitarian Congregation “Eshel Avraham” (lit., Abraham’s tamarisk, founded 1976), located in the Tet neighborhood, belongs to the Conservative Judaism Movement and, as such, practices mixed family seating and grants women full equality and active participation in all the religious rites and ceremonies–some Conservative women are ordained rabbis or trained cantors, and they often lead the prayer services or chant the Torah (Bible) portion. “Eshel Avraham” also runs a kindergarten and an elementary school and provides classes and lectures in Judaica for adults (in Hebrew, English and Spanish). The congregation’s office: 08-6420989, 08-6100738, http://www.eshelavraham.org. “Menucha Nechona,” is an alternative Jewish cemetery (located just past the ‘New Cemetery‘ on the Hatserim Road) that provides non-Orthodox burial options. Office located in the Gozlan Building at 78 Hadassah St. – 08-6233239, http://www.menucha-nechona.co.il.
“Kehilat Beerot” (lit., the wells community; founded 2010) is a Jewish, progressive, pluralistic congregation consisting of new immigrant and native Israeli families, situated at Beit Yatziv, 79 ha-Atsma’ut St. in the Old City, 050-2755149.
Jewish education and resources
As of 2017 (5778), Be’er-Sheva has: over 83 Jewish-religious kindergartens (ca.82 public, 1 Conservative & additional private Ultra-Orthodox); 24 Jewish-religious elementary schools (16 public, 1 Conservative & 7 Ultra-Orthodox); and over 6 Jewish-religious high-schools (6 public and several Ultra-Orthodox residential yeshivas, e.g. accredited “Torah Or” Yeshivah in the Old City). Ben-Gurion University of the Negev grants degrees in: Jewish History, Jewish Thought, and Middle East Studies, while Kaye Academic College of Education accredits the region’s Bible teachers.
Across Be’er-Sheva, there are now at least 13 programs for adults and senior citizens that teach Judaica: in the Old City at the “Shirat ha-Rambam” and “Netivot Shalom” synagogues; in the Aleph neighborhood at the Central Chabad House; in Bet at Kolel “Orot Yisra’el;“ in Gimel at Bet Moriah (the first Israeli religious military prep-school); in Dalet at Kolel “Iske Torah;” in Hey at the “Rambam” Synagogue; in Tet at Congregation“Eshel Avraham;“ in Yud-Aleph at Chabad’s “Bet Mashi’ah;“ in Nahal Ashan at “Ahavat Hannah” Synagogue; and in Neveh Ze’ev at “Minhat Yehudah” Synagogue and the Chabad House (where they also check phylacteries (tefillin) and mezuzot for the doorposts).
Each Sabbath day (Saturday) at 11:30, the City of Be’er-Sheva provides free, open public lectures (in Hebrew) on that weeks’ Sabbath Bible portion at the Public Library building, given by one of the resident rabbis or Bible scholars.
A special course that certifies volunteer to’anim rabbaniyim (lit., rabbinic pleaders), to help people present their cases in small-claims courts, is given at Yad la-Banim (located across from City Hall) in the office of Re’em – the volunteer associations’ umbrella organization – 050-7333143.
For classic Judaica resources in English go to: http://www.sacred-texts.com/jud. For a comprehensive database on Jewish prayer and prayer in rabbinic literature, see Dr. Uri Erhlich‘s “Mif’al ha-Tefilah” at http://hsf.bgu.ac.il/djt/sfiles/ehrlich.aspx
Jewish community life and religious experience
There are at least 3 currently active religious Jewish youth movements in Be’er-Sheva: “Bene Akiva”; “Ezra”; and “Noar Dabesh (Religious Be’er-Sheva Youth)”; and one newly established traditional Jewish youth movement – “No’am Be’er-Sheva” – Emily Shapira, 054-9535651.
To share a communal Jewish experience, students are invited to attend Sabbath & holiday meals and prayers, Judaica classes and Jewish social events at the BGU Campus “Hillel House” – http://www.HillelBGU.org.il.
Every year, open public Passover (Pesah) seders are held at “Be’er Sova” (the Be’er-Sheva NPO ‘soup kitchen’); at the Central Chabad House; and at Congregation “Eshel Avraham.”
Jewish personages/key figures
Since 1997, Rabbi Yehuda Deri (b.1958-) has been serving as the Chief Rabbi of Be’er-Sheva and Head of the Rabbinic Courts.
Rabbi El’azar Abuhatsera, called “Baba El’azar” (1948-2011) was a descendant of the famous Moroccan Sepharadi rabbinic family of Cabbalists. He ‘held court’ in Be’er-Sheva and enjoyed a very large following, even including some Ashkenazim, until his murder by a deranged petitioner. His son (the wealthy heir apparent), Rabbi Pinhas Abuhatsera (1977-), remains in Be’er-Sheva with his family in the Hey neighborhood, has adopted a more Ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi style and runs several educational institutions, frequently giving public classes.
Rabbi Mazor Bahaina (b.1973-) resides in Be’er-Sheva with his large family. He serves as the Chief Rabbi for the Ethiopian Community of Be’er-Sheva and as a member of the Be’er-Sheva Rabbinate. He also served as a Member of the 17th Knesset (2008-2009) on behalf of the “Shas” (Sepharadi religious) Party – 08-6442651.
Rabbi (ha-Ga’on) Benjamin Basri (1956-2013), born in Iraq, served as the Chief Rabbi of the Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) community of Be’er-Sheva until his untimely death. He founded “Yeshivat Bet Yosef,” supported the Be’er-Sheva soccer team and instigated the mass public Selihot services held in the Soccer Stadium every fall (preceding the holiest day on the Jewish calendar – the Day of Atonement/Yom Kippur).
Tunisian Gaon, Rabbi Chai Taieb “Lo-met” (1774-1836) is remembered and celebrated every winter by the Tunisian community of the “Chai Taieb” Synagogue in the Daled neighborhood and others in Be’er-Sheva.
Rabbi Chayim Chouri (1885-1957; born into the ancient Jewish priestly caste (kohanim), came to be known after his death as “The Saint of Be’er-Sheva.” He was a brilliant Tunisian rabbi, a tsaddiq (lit., a pous, righteous man) and the author of Derekh Hayyim (1905), consisting of commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and rabbinic literature. After his demise, North African Jewry in Be’er-Sheva deemed him ‘a holy man’ and instituted a massive annual pilgrimmage to his enshrined tomb in Be’er-Sheva (also considered to be a holy place) on the anniversary of his death (May/June), accompanied by an imposing hillula (lit., an exuberant, Cabbalistic celebration).
Rabbi Misha’el Makhluf Dahan (1920-1997), dubbed “the Grandfather of Jewish Law,” arrived from Morocco and settled in Be’er-Sheva in 1950 and was promptly chosen to serve both as a judge in the Be’er-Sheva Rabbinical Courts and as the Chief Sepharadi Rabbi (1950-1997), which he did faithfully for 47 years, until his death in 1997. He published two Hebrew books: Lev Melakhim, a commentary on the Passover Haggadah and Musar Melakhim, on Jewish ethics. After his death, annual memorial hillulot are held in his memory every fall.
Rabbi Haim Hwati Twito was the founder of “Ets haim – ve-yatsa hoter” (lit., the Tree-of-Life and its offshoot) Spiritual Center, located at 6 Ringelbloom St. in the Daled neighborhood. His hillula has usually been celebrated by the Sepharadi community (mid-May/June) every year since his death in 1987.
Jewish religious art, architecture & music
Most commissioned Jewish religious artwork may be found in the synagogues throughout the city, such as: stained-glass windows, woodwork, marblework, silver ornaments, embroidered curtains, etc., created by local professionals or international artists. For example: the Tunisian “Ya’ir Mazuz” and the “Melits” synagogues in Ne’ot Lon; the Moroccan “Or Hayyim” Synagogue in Yud-Aleph; and the Iraqi Central “Star” Synagogue in Aleph neighborhood and others have beautiful stained-glass windows. Special Torah arks, for instance, may be seen made of marble and wood in Chabad’s “Bet Mashi’ah” and in the “Kes Barukh” Synagogue in Yud-Aleph, or inset into a carved marble niche at the South African synagogue “Bet ha-Aron” (lit., home of the ark), while the “Rinat Yerushalayim” Synagogue in Hey and the “Melits” Synagogue in Ne’ot Lon have wooden bas-reliefs, silver Torah ornaments and embroidered curtains.
The Be’er-Sheva Municipality with the Be’er-Sheva Rabbinic Council occasionally sponsor evenings of Sephardic piyyutim (eastern Jewish hymnology); Ashkenazic hazanut (western Jewish cantorial music); and Yiddish cultural evenings.
There are a number of Be’ershvan artists who focus(ed) on biblical and Jewish motifs in their art, such as: Moshe Gabay, Hannah Helen Rosenberg, and Vladimir Shneider, to name just a few.
Annual Jewish events
***Note that Judaism observes a solar-adjusted lunar calendar with a 19-year cycle, which includes 7 ‘pregnant years’ that repeat the month of Adar (having an Adar A & an Adar B). These 13-month, ‘pregnant years’ are the 3rd, 6th, 8th, 11th, 14th, 17th & 19th years of each cycle. Thus, on the ‘pregnant years’, some Jewish holidays and memorial days, that are celebrated according to their Hebrew dates, may appear to be celebrated or observed one month ‘later than usual’ on the Gregorian calendar.
***Annual memorial hillulot (lit., exuberant, Cabbalistic celebrations) are held on the dates of the deaths of famous rabbis in honor of their legacies. In November 2017, a special women’s hillulah was also held to honor Rachel, the biblical matriarch, and this may also become an annual event in Be’er-Sheva.
***Traditionally, Selihot (lit., penitential prayers) services are held in many synagogues at night during the Jewish months of Elul and Tishre (that precede the holiest day on the Jewish calendar – the Day of Atonement/Yom Kippur, Oct./Nov.). Annual mass public Selihot service is held in the Soccer Stadium, under the auspices of the Chief Ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) community’s rabbi.
On Jerusalem Day each year (May/June), a traditional flag-dance is sponsored by the Municipal Culture Dept. in conjunction with the local Rabbinate & Bet Moriah. Thousands of young people from the religious youth groups participate in this celebratory event.
Each year on Lag b’Omer (the 33rd day of the counting of the Omer, i.e. the 49 days between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavu’ot, Apr./May), a special parade is sponsored by Chabad in the Vav neighborhood in honor of Rabbi Shim’on Bar Yohai, also known by the acronym RASHBI, in which hundreds of children participate.
Every year, at the end of Simhat Torah (the Jewish holiday celebrating the Hebrew Bible in Oct./Nov.), the public is invited to participate in haqafot sheniyot (i.e., marching, singing & dancing with the Torah scrolls outdoors), starting from the “Imre Yosef” Yeshivah and ending at the central plaza in the Ramot neighborhood, under the auspices of Rabbi Yoram Hacohen, the Head of the Yeshivah and founder of an entire “Imre Yoseh” Haredi education system: kindergartens, a kolel for young men, and classes for adults.
Another annual spring tradition in Be’er-Sheva is to hold a special national meeting honoring the service of Israel’s dedicated beadles (gaba’im; volunteers who handle all the synagogue’s logistics and scheduling throughout the year).
More interesting facts and tips about Jewish Be’er-Sheva
Regarding kashrut: Never assume that a food-stand, restaurant or store is kosher just because it’s in Israel—not all are! The Be’er-Sheva Rabbinate issues dated kashrut certificates that are usually clearly on display in the entrance; if not displayed, ask to see a valid certificate.
Regarding religious paraphernalia: The Center for the Strict Observance of the Commandments, located outside the Central Be’er-Sheva Train Station, checks the kashrut of tefillin (phylacteries) and mezuzot (scrolls for doorposts), as well as selling kosher religious items. All the Chabad Houses in Be’er-Sheva also check the kashrut of religious paraphernalia.
Sadly, the City of Be’er-Sheva doesn’t have a municipal genizah (i.e., a respectable storage place set aside for ruined or invalidated sacred texts, religious paraphernalia, or even Israeli flags). Such items may be taken to the Be’er-Sheva Rabbinate in the Daled neighborhood on ha-Talmud St. for proper handling and later burial in a Be’er-Sheva Cemetery; some synagogues do have small, interim genizot of their own, as well.