Translated by Sara Mages
Most of the public activities concentrated in the synagogue and Beit-Hamidsrash [House of study]. The synagogue was always crowded with worshipers and students. It served as a meeting place for scholars, a treasure house of books for students and Home owners, an almshouse for the elderly and wise poor students, a hostel for visiting scholars, a resting place for the weary and the persecuted, and a shelter from trouble and grief.
The echoes of the big world reached it by wandering guests, beggars or emissaries from Israel and other countries.
The proceeds from the Aliyot, and other honors provided an additional income for the upkeep of the synagogue and for various social purposes like: supporting the needy, benevolence, Kamcha Depascha, assistant to the burnt, visiting the sick and funerals. The relief operations expanded during the days of the pogroms, and additional funds were added to the regular contributions.
Study took an important place in Beit-Hamidsrash. The title of Rav DeKloiz, meaning Rabbi of Beit-Hamidsrash, was added to the community's presiding judge. It was kind of an academic degree attached to his official role. Those who received a special allowance gathered in the Klotz. Donations were given by private donors so they can sit in the house of learning and study the Torah day and night.
At night, the shadows of Jews, who were professional students, were seen on its walls. Home owners and business men swayed next to the pillar, studying to the light of milk and wax candles. Some came for midnight mourning prayers to lament the destruction of the temple and the exile of the Divine Presence, and some came at dawn, summer as winter, sat and studied until Shacharit [morning prayers].
Conferences, parties, social and family gatherings, took place in the synagogue or in its courtyard. Like: charitable meals of different societies, the final reading of the six orders of the Mishnah, the coronation of the town's rabbi, circumcision and the joy of marriage.
A large crowd participated in the wedding. A procession with musical instruments walked from the house to synagogue's courtyard, and young and old carried in the daylight lit Havdalah candles in their hands.
All statements and important warnings were made from the synagogue's Bimah. When a person has done injustice to another or performed a morality sin in public, the reading of the Torah was delayed and the matter was brought before the community who sometimes imposed a penalty on the sinner: excluding him from an Aliyah or from passing before the Bimah for a certain period of time. Donations and banishments were announced to the public in the synagogue, and all kinds of restrictions that were imposed on the community by the synagogue and by the authority.
So, the synagogue was vibrant organism on weekdays, on the Sabbath and during the holidays.
The various craftsmen, who formed a mutual aid association, did their best to hold a regular Minyan for their members, and if they had the financial means they would have built a special building for this purpose. In the 19th century, with the increase in the number of trade unions, also the number of their synagogues increased, mostly in the big cities.
As mentioned, these synagogues and Minyanim were mutual aid administrative centers for the members. These Minyanim and synagogues also had official names like:
Poaley Tzedek, Zovchai Tzedek, Chav, Chesed shel Emet and others. They also had a decorative seal, sometimes with the union's logo.
And so, the synagogue gathered, inside and around it, the three foundations of the Jewish world: Torah, Avodah, and G'milut Hasadim [Torah, work, and benevolence].
For generations the image of the Jewish community was formed in the synagogue. The synagogue was also the meeting place where important matters in the Jewish world were discussed, like the elections to various organizations. Public affairs, like tax rates and community regulations, were ruled in the rooms adjacent to the synagogue. One of the committees was the synagogue affairs committee, which had the authority to run the synagogue's affairs and the construction of new synagogues.
Translated by Sara Mages
The townspeople were proud to say: There are only three synagogues in the Jewish world similar to ours.
The location of the synagogue
Contrary to regulations, the synagogue was located on the slopes of a small hill at the north-east end of town. The reason is - there were two Christian churches in the southern end of town, and the Jewish residents wanted to distance themselves, as much as possible, from any contact with the gentiles. A known law in the Jewish towns in Poland said that a synagogue couldn't be taller than a Christian church, and this law was also kept in Olkeniki. The Christian churches were taller, but the most noticeable building in town was the synagogue's building. And the reasons for that - the synagogue was built on the slopes of a hill, a matter that added to its height, and also its shape that resembled a pagoda added to its height.
The synagogue was built at the end of the wooden synagogues period. Documents tell that a worshipers' meeting took place in 1790, and they demanded that a new synagogue will be built after the old synagogue burnt down. The construction started in 1798 and was completed two years later. On the outside it looked like a Chinese pagoda a typical synagogue style of that period. The synagogue's beams were made from big pine trees that were the pride of the town. The trees were cut in the forests, and each beam was 60(!) centimeters thick.
Before the Holocaust, the color of the outside walls was dark-grey because of the rains and old age. Because of the length of the beams - more than 10 meters it was on the verge of collapse. Fifty years ago, the beams were reinforced by bright bars that were attached vertically to the walls. However, the internal structure was made of white wood walnut, and the color remained clean and didn't change since the synagogue was built.
Four panels were fixed to the doors and the two pillars of Aron HaKodesh . The two pillars are called Boaz and Jachin after the two pillars in the destroyed Holy Temple. A special mechanism moved the panels, and their hands indicated the seasons of the year, the zodiac, and the holidays according to the lunar cycle and in comparison with the solar cycle. The panels were calculated from the time of their construction to 448 additional years, that is, from the year 5558 to the year 6006.
These wonderful panels attracted the hearts of thousand who visited the synagogue.
The Ark was covered with a Parochet and a Kaporet (a cloth that hung over the Parochet). The Parochet in Olkeniki was very famous. It is told that when Napoleon Bonaparte passed through the town on his way to Russia, he admired the artwork of the synagogue's interior. As an appreciation, he ordered to cut a section from the cover under his saddle, and gave it to the town and to the synagogue. The town's leaders prepared a Parochet from the cover. The Parochet's fabric was hard - it was embroidered with gold and silver ornaments. It is said, that it was difficult to fold the fabric, and its weight was more than three kilograms (!). The words Gloria et Patria (for glory and fatherland) were embroidered on the Parochet's corners. The townspeople fought many Parochet's wars. In 1915, Russian generals, who fought in the First World War, came to town and stole the Parochet. A general mourning was declared in town, and the synagogue's Gabbai traveled to beg before
the authorities to return the plunder. And indeed, the Parochet was returned after a lot of pleadings. Baron Ginsburg tried to purchase the rare Parochet for the promoters of the Haskalah Movement in Peterburg. He offered the town an amount equal to 30 thousand Israeli Pounds. But the townspeople stood before the temptation and didn't sell it. The Parochet remained in the synagogue until it was destroyed.
The Bimah was composed of three floors and its style was different from Aron HaKodesh. A beautiful legend explains why: .the Ark was built by a very talented artist. Before his death he managed to carve half of the Shiviti. In his sick bed he said: The artist who could finish the 'Shiviti' - will be allowed to build the Bimah. In time, such an artist was found. He carved the decoration with accuracy, keeping the style of the carving, but he built the Bimah according to a later style.
Unlike the Ark, there weren't any decorations on the Bimah. The first floor was the floor level and its height was about a meter above ground. They climbed to it from the north and the south through gates covered with triangular awnings. A table for reading the Torah and a bench stood on the floor. The space between the floor and the Bimah was filled with torn books. The second story carried the pillars and they supported the Bimah's roof. There were 8 pillars, and every other one had a small awning that looked like the awnings of the entry gates to the Bimah. The third story was made of octagonal frames embedded with curved leaves and flowers, and decorated with artificial flowers. There was a round pillar the middle of the balcony, and an eagle with outstretched wings and a crown on his head stood at its center. It was speculated that it was the symbol of the Polish Government.
Circumcision ceremonies also took place in Olkeniki's synagogue. Elijah's chair where the Sandak [godfather] sat, and the foreskin table which was covered in sand were located in the corridor. We can read an interesting accurate description of a synagogue circumcision ceremony (not necessarily in Olkeniki) in the book Pirkei Yaldut [Chapters of childhood] by Yitzchak Dov Berkowitz.
when we arrived to the synagogue all the guests were already there. Rabbi Hirshel-Berel led the mother and her baby to the Bimah, and sat her on the bench on which the Torah scroll is rolled after the reading of the Torah. Today, it is called "Elijah Chair, a place where the Sandak sat holding the baby on his knees Weddings and funerals took place in the synagogue's stone courtyard.
The destruction of the synagogue
On Rosh Chodesh Tamuz 5701 25 June, 1941, a bomb was dropped from a Nazi aircraft. The bomb hit a Soviet fuel tanker that stood in the town's market across from the Catholic Church. A quarter of the town's building burnt down including the synagogue and Beit-Hamidsrash. Three months later, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 5702 20 September, 1941, all the townspeople were led for liquidation to the nearby town of Eshishuk [Eišiškes]. The few who survived the Holocaust returned to the town in 1944 and found it in ruins. The square in front of the synagogue and Beit- Hamidsrash was desolated and weeds grew between the ruins
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Updated 14 Mar 2011 by LA