Sunday, February 7, 2010

From Crete to Minnesota we Read Psalm 118: 20 “This is the Gate of the Lord into Which the Righteous Shall Enter”

Virginia, Minnesota. B'nai Abraham Synagogue. Inscription on Entrance Stained Glass:
זֶה-הַשַּׁעַר לַיהוָה; צַדִּיקִים, יָבֹאוּ בוֹ.

Psalm 118: 20 “This is gate of the Lord into which the righteous shall enter”

Recently ISJM member Marilyn Chiat wrote to report continuing progress on the restoration of small but elegant Iron Range synagogue of B'nai Abraham in Virginia, Minnesota, which will celebrate its centennial this year (there will be major event in July 2010), and which has been saved from destruction after its closure in the 1990s by a band of dedicated volunteers in the town and statewide. The synagogue is the last intact Jewish house of worship in this part of Minnesota – where once there were several small and hardy Jewish communities serving the intense Iron Ore industry and its related services. The Friends of B'nai Abraham have recently received about $50,000 in new grants which will go a long way toward completing the project which has been in progress for many years.

(See earlier blogpost about this building)

Perhaps the most notable feature of the B’nai Abraham is its remarkable set of stained glass windows. Gradually these windows have been cleaned and are being restored. The process is now more than halfway complete. As cleaning progresses, more window details are revealed, as well their original vibrant colors.

Marilyn wrote to say that cleaning window panels in the entrance doors has shown the original Hebrew inscription in glass: זֶה-הַשַּׁעַר לַיהוָה; צַדִּיקִים, יָבֹאוּ בוֹ (see photo above) – a well known passage from Psalm 118 sung during the Hallel service. Marilyn was familiar with the Verse 20 "This is God's gate into which the righteous shall enter," but asked how frequently it is used to adorn synagogue.

In fact, Psalm 118:20 is one of the most common passages found on synagogues, and it has adorned synagogues for centuries, and can be found from Iran to Greece to Poland to Minnesota. There is no compendium that I know of the tracks the use of particular scriptural passages and other texts in synagogues – but a quick look through my notes and a Google search turned up many diverse examples of Psalm 118:20 (I’ll soon post of a list of these).

Hania, Crete (Greece). Entrance gate to Etz Hayyim Synagogue courtyard (after restoration).
Photo courtesy of Nikos Stavroulakis

Coincidentally, the instance with which I am most familiar is on the gateway into the synagogue enclosure of Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Crete, the very building that was attacked twice by arsonists last month, and for which this ISJM and this blog are helping by raising sums for repair. The before and after photos of this gateway are emblematic of the success of the 1990s synagogue restoration project. Thinking of these two synagogues thousands of miles apart, but each greeting the worshipper and visitor with the same words, made me consider their different historic circumstances (on the inscriptions of Etz Hayyim click here).

Etz Hayyim was built as a (Saint Catherine's) church, but centuries ago it was given to Hania’s Jews for a synagogue, when Venetian (Christian) rule of the island ended. Much later, it‘s congregation perished when they were deported by the Nazis, and their transport ship was subsequently sunk – all lives lost. The building fell into ruin and by the 1990s was home only to chickens and trash. The hard work and devotion of Nikos Stavoulakis and scores of local and international supporters brought life – Jewish life – to this ruin once again, but Etz Hayyim has also served since it restoration as a center of religious and philosophical contact and discussion for people of many faiths. Nikos has choosen to interpret “righteousness” broadly – something the arsonists clearly could not tolerate or understand.

B’nai Abraham’s history and its transformations are less dramatic, and it is witness mostly to stories of tolerance and success. Its demise as a synagogue was due to voluntary migration of Jews to bigger and generally more prosperous centers, not forced deportation. Still, as a place of memory and history it plays similar role on Iron Range to Etz Hayyim in Hania. In Virginia, Minnesota, the righteous will also be broadly defined and I think those many Jews and Christians who have labored to save this place can enter through the newly restored doors with pride and confidence.

Unfortunately, in America, too, they must be vigilant and learn from Hania’s experience. Every restoration budget needs to include stained glass window restoration – but sadly – also an up-to-date security system.

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