Jewish Journal

Photo essay: real story behind Nessah Synagogue’s new Torah ark

by Karmel Melamed

September 29, 2007 | 11:31 am

On Rosh Hashanah, more than 1,000 Iranian Jews at Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills cheered the unveiling of a new hand-carved Mahogany wood hechal (Torah ark), which was recently completed after a year of construction. Nessah board member Abraham Shofet, who funded and organized the project, said it is a replica of one in Amsterdam constructed in 1675.

“We chose to copy the design of the Portuguese Synagogue, because we wanted to find a hechal that was most suitable for the classical type architecture that matches our synagogue’s building,” said Shofet, brother of Nessah’s Rabbi David Shofet and son of the late Hacham Yedidia Shofet, spiritual leader of the Jews in Iran for nearly six decades.

The cost of constructing the new Torah ark was not revealed but said be substantial. Shofet said additional Nessah members donated the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments above the ark, as well as other features. Previously Nessah’s 40 torahs were housed in a plain compartment with drapes on the bimah. In addition to the new Torah ark, Nessah’s main sanctuary has in recent years been renovated with new lighting fixtures and new wood seats imported from Israel. The current site of the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills was originally a Mormon church but was purchased and transformed in 2002 with the contributions of affluent Iranian Jews living in Los Angeles.

(Stone tablets above Nessah’s new Torah ark, photo by Karmel Melamed)

Also on hand for the ark’s unveiling was Nathan Moked, general secretary of the Portuguese Synagogue. “The Iranian community here is very friendly and welcoming,” Moked said. “I have rarely found so much warmth from another Jewish community”.

Moked said he was surprised when Shofet informed him that Nessah and constructed a replica of his synagogue’s Torah ark, as most visitor who photograph the Portuguese Synagogue’s ark only talk about reconstructing it but never follow through. “When I looked into his (Shofet’s) eyes I saw something special and I knew he was going to do something special,” said Moked. “The ark at Nessah is not just similar to ours, it’s exactly the same in color, shape and design—ours is just a bit wider and of course older”.

Believe it or not, the Portuguese Synagogue is the only synagogue that was not destroyed by the Nazis during their occupation of Holland during World War II. Moked said the synagogue was spared because a young Jewish boy persuaded a Nazi officer not to transform the old Jewish site into a military barracks since the synagogue lacked electricity, running water and was too cold for living purposes. Miraculously the Portuguese Synagogue survived the war intact and is now a place of prayer for some 500 remaining Dutch Jews, many of whom are of Spanish and Portuguese descent dating back to 1492. Moked said the shrinking Jewish population in Amsterdam has made raising funds for the maintenance of the 17th century synagogue difficult in recent years. The congregation is also struggling to raise funds to restore a number of rare Torahs from the 13th century.

(Inside the the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam)

Moked also said he hopes that the Dutch Jewish community which shares the same Torah ark with Nessah’s congregation, will increase their ties in the coming years. “I would like to see a kind of exchange between our community in Amsterdam and the Iranian Jews here at Nessah, now that we have something in common that connects us,” he said.

After the High Holy Days Nessah will begin construction of a tevah, a secondary bimah at the center of the main sanctuary, which also will be modeled after one in the Portuguese Synagogue.

(Original tevah at Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam)

Those seeking to contribute to restoration projects of the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, are asked to contact: p.i.g@esnoga.nl

(Nathan Moked, general secretary of the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam)

(Entrance of Nessah’s main sanctuary)

(Nessah’s new torah ark, photo by Karmel Melamed)

(Nessah’s new torah ark from a distance)

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Karmel Melamed is an internationally-published freelance journalist based in Southern California.

Since 2000, Melamed has specialized in covering the growing influential...

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