Ancient Synagogue of Shfar’am

March 22nd 2011

Today, Shfar’am is a predominantly Arab city in the Galilee, populated by 35,000 Muslims, Christian and Druze Arabs. Located in the North District of Israel west of Haifa, there are many theories about how the city of Shfar’am got its name. One theory holds that, until approximately 500 CE, Shfar’am was known as Shofar Am, Hebrew for Horn of a Nation. The Talmud offers evidence that the Jewish Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish court, was once located here.

Of interest to Jewish tourists is the ancient synagogue of Shfar’am. The synagogue structure is less impressive than its history, which represents both cooperation and the peaceful coexistence of Jews, Muslims and Christians in ancient Shfar’am. The current structure is believed to have been constructed in the mid-18th century during the reign of Daher el-Omar who ruled northern Palestine and founded the city of Haifa. Daher el-Omar permitted Jews to return to Shfar’am to rebuild the synagogue that had existed on this spot in the time of the Sanhedrin. Here, the Jews rebuilt a one-room synagogue.

The synagogue was abandoned again in the 1920s when the last Jewish family left Shfar’am for Haifa. Before leaving, they turned over the keys to the synagogue to the Ja’afari family who still live across the street. Today, tour guides know to call the Ja’afari family to gain entrance to the synagogue. Since there is continuing interest from Jewish tourists visiting the tiny synagogue in the middle of an Arab town, the interior was renovated in 1988. Don’t miss the colorful stained glass window with its central Star of David theme.

The synagogue is the ideal place to learn about the bravery of Yehuda Bar Abba, the sage from Shfar’am who continued to ordain rabbis, despite being threatened with execution by the Romans for doing so. Shfar’am was also the destination of a group of Spanish Jews who fled the Inquisition in the 16th century and made their homes here.

Also of interest in Shfar’am is an ancient Crusader fort and tombs from the Byzantine era that reflect the presence of a strong Christian community in Shfar’am who lived in peace with the local Jews.