The hidden gem of Zurich’s Jewish community

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    Zurich consistently ranks at the top of any Switzerland travel itinerary and is a must-visit European city. As the financial capital of Switzerland and its largest metropolis, Zurich offers a stunning setting with its picturesque location on Lake Zurich and the Limmat River, a meticulously preserved old town, and the breathtaking backdrop of the snow-capped Alps. Zurich, famed for its recognition as one of the world’s most livable cities, has also evolved into a stylish and sought-after travel destination.

    The heart of Zurich is its Old Town, where you can easily lose track of time wandering its charming, narrow cobblestone streets and historic guild houses. Here, you’ll find a vibrant mix of local and international visitors, all in a traffic-free environment. Regardless of the season, Zurich offers a plethora of attractions, from awe-inspiring architecture to boutique shops specializing in exquisite timepieces, not to mention a calendar filled with lively annual festivals to keep you entertained.

    Picture courtesy Zurich Tourism: The Heart of Zurich is its Old Town. New York Jewish Travel Guide

    Exploring Zurich’s Jewish History

    The Jewish presence in Switzerland dates to the 13th century, but by the late 1700s, Jews were restricted to just two villages, Lengnau and Endingen. A significant turning point came on August 27, 1787, when Victor Amedee III, King of Sardinia, issued an order of tolerance. This decree granted Jews the right to enjoy common legal protections and practice their religion freely.

    At the close of the 18th century, the entire Jewish population of Switzerland, which numbered 550 individuals, resided in these two villages. Homes in these areas had distinct entrances for Jews and Gentiles. The chance to expand beyond Endingen and Lengnau arose when these towns gained independence in 1866. After a century of confinement, Jews sought new opportunities in nearby cities, with Zurich topping their list.

    In 1862, the Israelitische Cultusgemeinde Zürich (ICZ), Zurich’s Jewish community, was established, and in 1884, a synagogue was constructed in the Löwenstrasse district. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Jews immigrated, with a significant number settling in Zurich’s 4th district, hailing from Alsace, Germany, and Eastern Europe.

    Babi Bagel Shop-New York Jewish Travel Guide

    “The Jewish Synagogue and Community in Zurich”

    In the heart of Zurich, Mr. Michel Bollag, a knowledgeable local guide, served as an invaluable resource for those eager to delve into the rich tapestry of Jewish life and community in the city. His profound understanding of the past and present of Jewish life, coupled with a deep appreciation of Zurich’s general history, made him an excellent guide. For an ideal morning start, one could venture to Babi’s Bagel Shop, a nearby kosher café renowned for its coffee and mouthwatering bagels adorned with lox and cream cheese. Inside, young, orthodox women could be seen enjoying their meals with their children or maneuvering strollers into the cozy café. Zurich boasts a thriving and vibrant Jewish community today.

    Presently, Zurich is home to approximately 6,800 Jewish residents, with the majority residing in the second and third districts, where a flourishing religious, cultural, and social scene thrives. Ashkenazi Jews constitute the largest segment of this diverse community, alongside representatives of traditional and ultra-traditional Judaism, as well as those from liberal and secular Jewish backgrounds, including Mizrahim and Sephardim. Michel noted that “many Israelis have taken up residence in the suburbs, working for companies like Google, often in mixed marriages, and interestingly, they do not perceive themselves as an integral part of the local Jewish community.”

    Further along the same street, one encounters the Agudas Achim Synagogue, where a small congregation of Hasidic Jews find spiritual refuge. Here, separate entrances cater to male and female congregants, a practice that has been upheld since the late 19th century, when many of the community members arrived from East European countries such as Poland, Russia, and the Baltic States. Over the course of a century, they have established a steadfast presence in Zurich, creating communal institutions tailored to their unique needs.

    In Zurich, there exist two distinct Haredi communities, one of which is known as the Israelitische Religionsgesellschaft, abbreviated as the Israeli Religious Society Zurich. Since 1924, this community, comprising around 500 members, has been an integral part of the Swiss Federation of Israelite Communities. Notably, it stands as the sole German-speaking community where this particular ideology has persisted uninterrupted for a century. Michel pointed out that, particularly in districts 2 and 3, “he counted over 70 small congregations (or satellite synagogues) offering Shabbat services, with congregations ranging from 100 to 200 members.”

    Today, Zurich’s Jewish community takes pride in housing a nationally significant library, established in 1939. This institution, with its distinct content representing Swiss cultural heritage, now boasts an impressive collection of 50,000 volumes in Yiddish, Hebrew, and German.

    Haredi communities are known as Israelitische Religionsgesellschaft, New York Jewish Travel Guide

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

     

    The Synagogue Zürich Löwenstrasse, built in a Moorish style, serves as the oldest and largest synagogue. Its facade is adorned with eye-catching beige and red stripes and is graced by two towers crowned with domes. Within its premises, you’ll find not only a synagogue and a school but also a library and a Mikveh. This synagogue is the home of the Israelitische Cultusgemeinde Zürich (ICZ), the most prominent Jewish community in Switzerland, with 2,500 members. Daily Minyan, Shabbat, and holiday services are held here. Having undergone renovations in 1936, 1952, and most recently in 1993, the synagogue is now recognized as a landmark in the city.

    Synagoge Zürich Löwenstrasse, Zürich, Switzerland: New York Jewish Travel Guide

    Bollag shared with NYJTG, “One of the most captivating facets of this community is that on the first night of Passover, it’s a packed house, as it’s a tradition for everyone to participate.”

    The synagogue boasts a choir with a rich history, spanning over a century and comprising twenty talented singers. This choir graces Sabbath services, high holidays, as well as interfaith celebrations and concerts, both locally and on international stages. Their repertoire of around 60 songs primarily originates from the 19th century, showcasing compositions by Chazan-German, French, Polish, and Russian composers.

    A captivating tale, as narrated by Mr. Bollag, revolves around the ceiling lamp. He explains, “A Christian church, reflecting their strong connection with the community, generously donated this lamp as a gift. Notably, each Haichal features a memorial light that pays tribute to both the victims of the Shoah and the Israeli soldiers who perished in combat.”

    Additionally, on the second floor, you’ll discover a smaller orthodox synagogue featuring windows designed by Israeli artist Agam. This space serves as a venue for daily services and delectable breakfast offerings prepared every morning.

    Yaacov Agam, at Synagogue Loewenstrasse in Zürich | Stained glass panels, Stained glass art,-New York Jewish Travel Guide

    Rabbi Ruven Bar Ephraim, from the Jewish Liberal Community, the Reform, also known as the Chadash community (JLG), New York Jewish Travel Guide

    Established in 1978 and commonly referred to as the Reform or Chadash community, the Jewish Liberal Community (JLG) holds a significant place in Zurich’s Jewish landscape. This synagogue is dedicated to promoting gender equality, safeguarding minority rights, and actively engaging in interfaith dialogue.

    At the helm of JLG Or Chadash is Rabbi Ruven Bar Ephraim, who leads the congregation’s services, provides spiritual guidance, and coordinates various special activities for its 400 members. These activities encompass events like Passover dinners and Shabbat observances, fostering a vibrant and inclusive community spirit.

    As Rabbi Ephraim explains, the availability of kosher products differs from one region to another. Fortunately, Zurich boasts a multitude of supermarkets and kosher bakeries, ensuring that kosher food is accessible to everyone, including the ultra-orthodox community. Notably, Switzerland has distinct regulations compared to the United States when it comes to kosher labeling. In Switzerland, the use of religious symbols like the letters OU, K, P, or “D” for dairy products on kosher products is not allowed. Instead, each community compiles a kosher list, offering comprehensive details about these products to assist consumers.

    Sights in Zurich

    The University of Zurich boasts the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), where you can revel in panoramic views of the Old Town and the meandering Limmat River. You have the option to either embark on a scenic walk to reach the panorama terrace or take advantage of the Polybahn, one of the city’s most iconic modes of transportation, to ascend the hill effortlessly. It’s worth noting that Albert Einstein had a significant connection with ETH Zurich, having been both a student and a professor at this prestigious institution.

    Winston Churchill, speech delivered at the University of Zurich on September 19, 1946, New York Jewish Travel Guide

    Picture courtesy Zurich Tourism, Old Town-New York Jewish Travel Guide

    Explore the enchanting cobblestone streets of Altstadt, also known as the Old Town, where you’ll encounter a captivating blend of medieval houses, Renaissance-era town halls, and a labyrinth of winding alleys waiting to be explored. Within this historic district, you can catch sight of the iconic Grossmünster double tower, which serves as Zurich’s primary landmark, visit the birthplace of Dadaism at Cafe Voltaire, and step inside the Belleview Apotheke, a charming pharmacy dating back to 1887.

    Fraumünster, a 13th-century cathedral, beckons with its fame and grandeur. This esteemed cathedral is especially renowned for its splendid stained-glass windows, a masterpiece created by the Russian-Jewish artist Marc Chagall (1887–1985). Chagall’s work includes a series of five windows in the choir stalls, created in 1971, and the striking rose window in the southern transept, completed in 1978.

     

     

    Picture courtesy Zurich Tourism, Lindenhof-New York Jewish Travel Guide.

    Bürkliplatz Pier

    Bürkliplatz Pier is a scenic square located along the shores of Lake Zurich. It serves as the embarkation point for boat trips around the lake, offering breathtaking views of the mountains, the pier itself, and the picturesque Lake Zurich shoreline. Additionally, you can explore a vibrant vegetable market held twice a week, as well as a charming Sunday farmer’s market.

    Shopping on Bahnhofstrasse

    For a taste of luxury shopping, return to the heart of the city and wander along one of the world’s most opulent shopping streets, Bahnhofstrasse. This renowned shopping boulevard extends from Lake Zurich to Hauptbahnhof station. As you venture closer to the lake, you’ll encounter increasingly upscale and exclusive stores. The spacious sidewalks allow you to leisurely peruse the high-end offerings, which include prestigious brands like Gucci, Rolex, Chanel, and Burberry.

    Lindenhof

    Lindenhof, a park situated atop a tree-covered hill, treats visitors to breathtaking vistas of the Grossmünster and the Limmat River right in the heart of the Old Town. This tranquil plateau, perched on a hill that overlooks the Limmat River and the skyline of its right bank, provides a peaceful respite beneath the shade of trees. As a noteworthy detail, unless otherwise indicated, the park features water fountains that provide clean and drinkable water of the same quality as pre-bottled containers.

    Ms. Aurelia Carlen, representing the Zurich Tourism Office, beautifully encapsulates the essence of the largest and most picturesque city in Switzerland:  “Switzerland may have only 440,000 residents, making it comparable in size to a small town, yet it offers everything one could desire. With over 100 art galleries and 50 museums, Zurich is a city where you’re never more than 10 minutes away from mountains, parks, and the breathtaking beauty of nature. Zurich’s charm lies in its diversity, where rich history harmoniously coexists with vibrant modernity, all set against the backdrop of stunning natural landscapes.”

    Kosher Dining in Zurich:

    Babi’s Bagel Shop

    Babi’s Bagel Shop is a vegetarian and dairy restaurant in Zurich that serves a delectable array of dishes, including pasta, pizza, flavorful soups, fresh salads, and desserts. It carries the hechsher (kosher certification) from Agudas Achim Zurich, under the supervision of Rabbi S. Breisch.

    Contact Information:

    Ma’adan Bakery

    Ma’adan Bakery is another kosher establishment located at Schimmelstrasse 1, 8003 Zurich. They offer a variety of kosher baked goods.

    Contact Information:

    Florentin Restaurant-New York Jewish Travel Guide

    Florentin  Kosher Restaurant

    +41 44 280 50 05     +41 78 222 56 83

     

    To plan a trip to Switzerland, contact Switzerland Tourism or go to https://www.myswitzerland.com/en-us/.

    To make a hotel reservation, email info@engimatt.ch or go to https://engimatt.ch/en/.

    Fly Swiss: https://www.swiss.com/us/en/homepage.

    Visit the Swiss Travel System at https://www.mystsnet.com/en/.

    Story by Meyer Harroch, New York Jewish Travel Guide, and New York Jewish Guide.com

    The author took part in a press trip sponsored by Switzerland Tourism.

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