Nestled gracefully along the pristine shores of Lake Geneva, cradled by the magnificent Alps, Geneva emerges as a radiant jewel among Europe’s most captivating cities. It proudly hosts the prestigious European headquarters of the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, alongside a constellation of globally significant organizations, including the Committee for the Protection of the Rights of Jewish Minorities and the Permanent Agency of the Zionist Organization at the League of Nations, among many others.
With each visit, Geneva never ceases to amaze and enchant. Its allure spans from the iconic Jet d’Eau, where water shoots 140 meters into the cerulean embrace of Lake Geneva, to the picturesque countryside adorned with meandering vineyard paths. Geneva’s diverse and mesmerizing landscape casts a spell that enthralls visitors time and time again.
A Glimpse into Geneva’s Jewish Heritage
Geneva’s connection with the Jewish community stretches back to the Middle Ages, with records dating as far back as the 13th century. In a parallel historical thread, the neighboring city of Carouge also welcomed Jews during this period, but today, only the historic Jewish cemetery, restored in 1996, bears witness to that era.
During the 17th century, a prohibition on Jews was in place, with just two exceptions: the towns of Lengnau and Endingen. It was a significant turning point when Victor Amedee III, King of Sardinia, issued a decree of tolerance on August 27, 1787. This decree granted Jews the rights of common law and complete religious freedom. Towards the end of the 18th century, these two villages were home to about 550 Jews, representing nearly the entire Jewish population of Switzerland. Synagogues had already been established in both towns by 1750.
It’s worth noting that Swiss law at the time prohibited Jewish burials on Swiss soil, and there were separate entrances for Jews and non-Jews to their homes. In a gesture of inclusivity and acceptance towards non-Protestant minorities, Geneva allocated land to the Jewish community in 1852, enabling them to construct a synagogue.
Today, Geneva’s Jewish community has dwindled to just a handful of members. However, their synagogues and cemeteries are diligently preserved and cared for, ensuring that this significant chapter of Geneva’s history is respectfully maintained.
Geneva’s Synagogue and Thriving Jewish Community
Today, Switzerland presents a much more welcoming environment for its Jewish residents. Among its major cities, Basel, Geneva, and Zurich stand out as hubs with vibrant Jewish populations. These urban centers host a variety of Beth Chabad centers, catering to communities that range from Orthodox to Reform, Conservative, and Sephardic.
Swiss Jews collectively constitute Europe’s 10th largest Jewish community, numbering around 20,000 strong. Zurich boasts the largest concentration of Jewish residents, followed closely by Basel and Geneva. While Basel and Zurich predominantly house Ashkenazi communities, Geneva takes pride in its significant Sephardic presence that coexists harmoniously with Ashkenazi traditions.
The Jewish population in Switzerland is dispersed throughout the country, with approximately 61 percent residing in the German-speaking region and 36 percent in the French-speaking areas. Swiss Jews have contributed substantially to various fields, including medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, law, engineering, and the arts. They have also played integral roles in the nation’s textile manufacturing and clock industries.
One notable figure in Switzerland’s history is Ruth Dreifuss, who joined the federal government in 1993 and became the country’s first female president. She remains one of the most prominent and well-known Jewish individuals in Switzerland.
In this diverse and dynamic landscape, the synagogue in Geneva serves as a vital center for the Jewish community, fostering cultural and religious connections while celebrating the rich tapestry of Jewish life in Switzerland.
Switzerland’s rich tapestry of Jewish diversity
Switzerland’s Jewish community mirrors the spectrum of Jewish affiliations, encompassing traditional, ultra-Orthodox, reform, conservative, and Sephardic institutions. Synagogues are scattered across the country, with four in Zurich, three in Geneva, two in Basel, and two in Lugano, along with others in locations such as Baden, Bern, Fribourg, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Lausanne, Lucerne, Vevey-Montreux, St. Gallen, and Winterthur. These synagogues serve as vital centers of worship, culture, and community for Jews of diverse backgrounds.
The Swiss Federation of Israelite Communities (SIG) plays a pivotal role in facilitating the import and distribution of kosher-certified food from various countries, including France and Germany, ensuring that the dietary needs of the community are met.
Within Switzerland’s Jewish tapestry, different groups with distinct affiliations coexist. The SIG, encompassing the majority of the country’s Jews, focuses on common goals such as promoting and safeguarding the Jewish community, fostering Jewish culture and heritage, commemorating the Holocaust, and combating antisemitism and discrimination.
Geneva hosts a vibrant Jewish landscape. The Communauté Israelite de Geneve (CIG) comprises approximately 1,200 individuals and provides a comprehensive array of services, including a community center, two synagogues, a nursery, a Talmud Torah (religious school), a youth center, a cultural center, a library, social services, a kosher restaurant, and two cemeteries.
Geneva’s Jewish community also boasts diversity in its religious practices. The Communauté Israelites Orthodox de Genève represents one segment, while the Communauté Juive Liberal de Genève (GIL), or the Liberal Jewish Community of Geneva, constitutes another significant portion. Notably, GIL, reflecting a progressive approach, pioneered the practice of allowing girls to read from the Torah during their bat mitzvah ceremonies, making it a trailblazer within the French-speaking Jewish community.
Hekhal Haness Synagogue: A Beacon of Sephardic Tradition in Geneva
Nestled in Geneva’s Malagnou neighborhood, Hekhal Haness Synagogue stands as the largest modern Sephardic synagogue in the city. Its name, “Hekhal Haness,” translates to “miracle gathering place,” reflecting the significance and reverence it holds within the Sephardic Jewish community. This magnificent synagogue came to fruition in the early 1970s through the dedication and vision of the late Mr. Nessim and Mrs. Renée Gaon.
Within its sacred walls, Hekhal Haness offers a haven for Sephardic worship, boasting a Sephardic synagogue adorned with the rich traditions and customs of this vibrant branch of Judaism. Additionally, the synagogue provides essential amenities such as three Mikvaot (ritual baths), a well-stocked library and study room, a welcoming reception area, and various other facilities that contribute to the spiritual and communal lives of its members and visitors alike.
Mr. Herzog, our knowledgeable tour guide, shared some fascinating insights about Hekhal Haness Synagogue. He mentioned that during the High Holidays, this splendid synagogue can comfortably accommodate up to 1,200 members, creating a truly vibrant and spiritually enriching atmosphere. For Shabbat services, it typically hosts between 300 and 400 attendees, while daily services draw a dedicated group of 30 to 40 individuals.
Interestingly, Rabbi Yaakov Gabay, who hails from England and has been serving as the congregation’s Rabbi for the past three years, noted a heartening increase in membership since the onset of the COVID pandemic. He highlighted the enthusiasm among members to participate in Shabbat lectures, especially during the afternoon services, where attendance often surpasses 200 congregants.
Over the years, Hekhal Harness Synagogue has had the privilege of hosting esteemed dignitaries, including notable figures such as Menachem Begin, Chief Rabbi of Israel, and Knesset member Aryeh Deri, among others. The synagogue’s collection of Sefer Torahs, including two that are more than 150 years old and came from Iraq, adds to the synagogue’s rich past. The late Mr. Nessim Gaon and various other donors from Egypt, Morocco, and Iraq gave these priceless Torah scrolls as gifts.
Additionally, Rabbi Gabay pointed out a remarkable feature of the synagogue, the Aaron Hakodesh, which adorns its exterior with layers of golden leaves, adding a touch of grandeur and reverence to the sacred space.
Furthermore, the Synagogue holds a significant place in the history of Jewish education. It served as the founding location for the first Jewish school, and today, the tradition continues with Girsa Alliance, a Jewish elementary and secondary school. This educational institution, established in 1981, owes its existence to the generous contributions of the Gaon, Rappaport, and Safra families and currently serves 220 students aged 6 to 16, fostering a strong foundation of Jewish learning and heritage.
Synagogue Beth Yaakov: A Testament to Tolerance and Elegance
In the heart of Geneva, a testament to both architectural beauty and Switzerland’s evolving tolerance stands the Beth Yaakov Synagogue, also known as the Grande Synagogue. Its construction, taking place between 1858 and 1859, marked a pivotal moment in Swiss history as it signaled a shift in Geneva’s administration towards permitting the construction of non-Protestant religious edifices within the city walls. At the time of its construction, the synagogue catered to a community of approximately 200 Ashkenazi Jews residing in the region.
Designed by Swiss architect Jean-Henri Bachofen, the Beth Yaakov Synagogue is a striking blend of Byzantine and Moorish architectural styles. Its distinctive feature is a grand octagonal dome gracing the exterior, setting it apart as a unique and notable landmark.
A bimah, a central reading platform in front of the Torah ark, welcomes guests as they enter. This arrangement enhances the worship experience and symbolizes the centrality of the Torah in Jewish life and tradition. Notably, the prayer hall provides separate seating for women, a common feature in traditional synagogues.
In tribute to Jacob Safra, the synagogue was renamed Beth Yaakov Synagogue in 1997, securing its place not only as a place of worship but also as a recognized and cherished landmark in the city of Geneva. This synagogue stands as a testament to both the enduring spirit of the Jewish community and the evolving landscape of tolerance in Switzerland.
Discover Geneva: Must-Visit Attractions
Patek Philippe Museum Immerse yourself in the captivating world of horology at the esteemed Patek Philippe Museum. Renowned globally, this museum offers an enlightening journey through the rich history and exquisite artistry of watchmaking, spanning over five centuries. Explore its remarkable exhibits, including the world’s oldest timepiece, and marvel at its extraordinary collection of antique watches.
One of Geneva’s premier tourist attractions, the Jet d’Eau fountain, graces the shores of Lake Geneva and offers a captivating spectacle visible even from the cathedral’s heights. This impressive water jet has come to symbolize the spirit of Geneva.
Rue du Rhône
Indulgence awaits in the opulent shopping mecca known as Rue du Rhône! For those with a penchant for luxury, this street offers an irresistible array of treasures, from timepieces and jewelry to haute couture and delectable treats from Geneva’s celebrated chocolatiers. Fashion enthusiasts will discover the illustrious brands that have elevated Geneva to its status as a shopping paradise. Amidst the hustle and bustle, take a moment to appreciate the Malbuisson Clock, whose chimes and intricate mechanical figures serve as a poignant reminder of the relentless march of time.
Place du Bourg-de-Four
The delightful and vibrant Place du Bourg-de-Four stands as a captivating centerpiece in the heart of Geneva’s Old Town, boasting a rich history and timeless allure. This square, with its two levels, is adorned with cozy cafés and bistros, offering a perfect setting to savor a cup of coffee or a light meal while soaking in the picturesque surroundings.
Old Town Geneva
Embark on a journey through time as you wander the enchanting cobblestone streets of Old Town Geneva. This historic district unveils its treasures and activities through a labyrinth of interconnected alleyways. Here, you can immerse yourself in the city’s past by exploring a plethora of museums, galleries, and captivating historical landmarks, all of which provide a window into Geneva’s ancient heritage and enduring significance.
Kosher Dining Options in Geneva:
Location: Nestled in the heart of Geneva, situated within the residential neighborhood of Malagnou.
Supervision: Under the watchful supervision of Rav Izhak Dayan.
Address: 5, Avenue Krieg, 1208 Geneva
Contact: Tel: 022 700 31 55.
Community Restaurant “The Garden”
Supervision: Also, under the attentive supervision of Rav Izhak Dayan.
Address: 21 Avenue Dumas, 1206 Geneva.
Contact: Tel: 022 317 89 10.
These kosher dining establishments offer delightful culinary experiences in Geneva while adhering to strict kosher standards under Rav Izhak Dayan’s supervision.
Fly Swiss: https://www.swiss.com/us/en/homepage.
Story by Meyer Harroch, New York Jewish Travel Guide, and New York Jewish Guide.com
Visit the Swiss Travel System at https://www.mystsnet.com/en/.
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by Switzerland Tourism.