Agudas Achim Synagogue, Zurich
Synagoge Agudas Achim
|Type of building:
|Approximately 216 m2
|Approximately 15 m
|Jewish Agudas Achim Parish
|Start of construction:
|12th October 1959
|26th March 1960
|Conception through to inauguration:
|Approximately 16 years
Zurich-Aussersihl. Almost uninterrupted traffic crosses the former working-class area along Weststrasse. Now and again we encounter a few people in Orthodox Jewish clothing, the Hasidim. At the end of Erikastrasse on the right-hand side is an obviously much-visited building with two entrances, one on the adjoining street: the synagogue of the Ashkenazi-Jewish parish Agudas Achim («community of brothers»). The entrance on Weststrasse is inconspicuous. It serves as the entrance for female visitors to the «esrat nashim», the women’s gallery. The second door, on the corner of Erikastrasse and Weststrasse, is the men’s entrance. It is covered by a plain concrete canopy, above which two tablets proclaim the Ten Commandments written in Hebrew. Tall windows rise up the building’s façade – made from bulletproof glass, as we will hear more of later. The simple cubic style gives this house of prayer the appearance of a functional building. It must simply be nearby to where its users live, even if this means it lies on the busy Weststrasse.
Around the turn of the century Orthodox Jews from Poland, Russia and the Baltic states had settled in Zurich-Aussersihl. Economic hardship and persecution had made a good education impossible for most. Belonging to a rather weak social class, they settled into the working-class neighbourhood of the 4th district of Zurich. Over the years the eastern Jews established meeting places for prayer in Müllerstasse, Dienerstrasse, Kanzleistrasse, Anwandstrasse and also Erikastrasse.
Eli Rosengarten, the current president of the Agudas Achim parish founded in 1927 says: «The community was fragmented, and we had no proper infrastructure as our central point. (…) Nor could the individual small prayer groups always make up the quorum of ten men necessary to conduct a service.» Rabbi Mordechai Jaakow Breisch, former spiritual leader of the community, therefore had the idea in the mid 40s to build a central community centre with a synagogue.
The property at Erikastrasse 8 had already been purchased in 1921. Instead of the present synagogue there was an apartment building. In this the parish established a prayer hall, classrooms for the Talmud-Torah school and homes.
Towards the end of the 1940s the architect Moritz Hauser developed a new concept. This suggested acquiring the space for a new building through the purchase of adjoining properties. In 1955 the lawyer and architect Walter Sonanini succeeded in combining the various properties within the quad of Erikastrasse, Weststrasse and Bremgartenstrasse into one. The foundation stone for the synagogue could subsequently be laid on 12th October 1959.
The parish commissioned Walter Sonanini with the construction of the synagogue. They set «no rules concerning the design and formal development of the synagogue», as Ron Epstein writes in his book «The Synagogues of Switzerland» (2008, p. 180), referring to the architect. As the study of the Torah is extremely important in Orthodox Judaism, a «Bet Midrash», with library and classrooms was built next to the prayer room. Sonanini also built a textile company in the building adjoining the synagogue.
On 26th March 1960 the community centre with its cubic form was opened. Since then, there have been no major structural changes. Attacks on synagogues in the 1980s in Turkey, France and Belgium, however, in which several people were killed, led the congregation to install bulletproof windows.
Eli Rosengarten was born and raised in Zurich. Having attended the Talmud school in Lucerne (now in Kriens near Lucerne), he went to Israel for a few years to attend a yeshiva or higher Talmud school which trains rabbis and scholars. It was a family tradition to work for the community, as he says: «My grandfather was president of the parish during a difficult time, from 1933 to 1945, my uncle from 1965 to 1977, and in 1975 I was elected to the board myself.» The nine-member board is among other things responsible for the finances, the maintenance of the building and communication with the media. Religious affairs are regulated by its own three person board. Rosengarten has been president of the Agudas Achim parish since 1998.
Rosengarten describes the relationship with the neighbourhood as «smooth». There have also never been problems with the local authority. There has been constant interest from the local borough and beyond: «We often have synagogue tours with between 40 and 50 visitors.»
Stones used to be thrown at the building about every two years. «But since the security windows have been installed, it’s almost impossible to break anything with a stone.» There has also been anti-Semitic graffiti from time to time, but not more than four times since he has been president. He adds «This is not necessarily done by locals.»
«More than the building, the people around are more noticed, especially on the Sabbath», is Rosengarten’s impression. «Motorists driving along the thoroughfare naturally stare when they see the black-clad Jews who still wear fur hats – the Hasidim (…) But this is not negative, it is curiosity.»
However, the history of the synagogue on Erikastrasse has also known dark chapters. On 7th June 2001 the 71-year-old Rabbi Abraham Grünbaum was shot on the street on his way to the synagogue. The Israeli was identifiable by his clothing as an Orthodox Jew. The perpetrator was never identified (as of 2009). Another incidence of suspected anti-Semitic violence occurred on 13th February 2008: A community member was attacked with a knife while also near the synagogue and injured on his neck – fortunately only slightly.
«Israelite» or «Hebrew» is the original Jewish self-definition as the people of Israel until the Babylonian exile (6th century B.C.E.). The term «Jew», as applied to all members of the Jewish people goes back to the leadership of Judea after the exile.
Someone is considered a Jew if they are descended from a Jewish mother or converted to the Jewish religion according to Orthodox standards. Until the Enlightement nationality and religion were strongly intertwined. Although today more liberal forms of Judaism regard it entirely as a religion, Zionist movements put nationalism at the fore.
Since the 18th century a variety of movements have developed: Orthodox movements seek to answer the challenges of modernity in ways which take account of changing circumstances while preserving the commandments and religious traditions. Conservative Judaism attempts to tread a middle path, supporting the careful development of tradition. Liberal movements meet modernity with reform, such as the equality of the sexes. In liberal communities, therefore, female Rabbis and cantors can also worship. Further movements include the American «Reconstructionists», who replace the concept of God with a notion of Jewish peoplehood, or Chabad, which focuses on the mystical elements of Judaism. The movements differ in both their worship and attitudes to social issues.
According to Jewish teaching, God made a covenant with the people of Israel and gave them his instructions (Thora). These instructions, understood as God’s will, are specified in the 613 mizvot, the 365 prohibitions and 248 commandments that are found in the Bible.
Willingness to act according to God’s will is at the centre of Jewish existence. Consequently, practical life and behaviour are emphasised over teaching doctrine. This leads to a continuous reflection on «God’s instructions», which, among other things, are found in the Talmud. The Talmud contains a collection of discussions on the interpretation and application of Biblical law, as well as numerous other issues and questions which were originally led by the Rabbis in the academies of Jerusalem and Babylon, and which continued for centuries. Jewish law, «halacha», is closely bound with the rabbinic practice of interpretation, which engages with the continuously changing living conditions. One of the beliefs is also the promise of a coming Davidic king, the «anointed» (Messiah). With it is associated the hope for a time of universal peace and the rule of God.
Until modern times, the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe grew in number into one of the most important Jewish centres. These «eastern Jews», the Ashkenazim, have strongly shaped the image of Judaism. In Western Europe, this image has often been associated with negative stereotypes.
Jews are the oldest non-Christian religious community in Switzerland. Their presence since the Roman period is attested by archaeological finds. In the 13th century Jewish communities emerged in Lucerne, Bern, St. Gallen and Zurich. As elsewhere in Europe, they were discriminated against in this country in many ways. They were forced to wear a special hat, were not allowed to learn a craft, and were legally required to operate money lending which Christians were not allowed to do. During the Second World War, the refugee policy of Switzerland was highly resistant, and refugees who were nonetheless granted asylum (about 25,000) were interred in labour camps.
In the first half of the twentieth century the synagogue on Erikastrasse became the centre for Hasidic Jews in Zurich. According to its president Eli Rosengarten, the community has grown slightly in recent decades, and now comprises of approximately 320 families. Even some of the younger Orthodox remember their Hasidic roots, and since the sixties have worn traditional clothes, sidelocks and beards.
Of all religious groups in Switzerland, the Jewish community have the highest level of higher education at 42.7% (general population 19.2%). The Swiss Jewish community are concentrated in urban areas; the boroughs of Zurich and Geneva currently account for 42% of the nearly 18,000 people who are members of Judaism. Four fifths of these (78.8%) are Swiss citizens. Their number has declined both in relative and absolute terms since the First World War. Of the 13.3 million Jews worldwide, most of them, (10.7 million) live in the USA or Israel.
Text : Edwin Egeter
Photos : Edwin Egeter
«Cupola – Temple – Minaret» is a Project by the Center for Research on Religions, Lucerne
Last updated: 20 June 2018
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