By Shayan Gilbert Burke
Welcome to the largest synagogue in the world: a five-floor main sanctuary seating 10,000 men and women; a 12-meter high, 18-ton ornate wooden ark that can hold up to 70 torah scrolls; nine chandeliers, each containing 200,000 Czech crystals; multiple floors with minyanim every 10 minutes; weddings and bar mitzvahs on a regular basis; beit midrash learning around the clock, and much much more.
The Nachshon Fellows of Cohort Five were warmly welcomed into the Belz Great Synagogue and guided by Yehezkel, a Belz Chassid. Nobody in our cohort had ever been inside this grandiose structure in the heart of Kiryat Belz near Me’ah Sha’arim. Sitting with women on the left and men on the right, both facing the Guinness World Record-holding ark, Yehezkel gave us a window into the life he and other Belz Chassidim live in Jerusalem. He engaged in a candid question-and-answer session, sharing the Belz perspective on Judaism, science, technology, gender roles, parenting, education, and more. By the time our tour was over, half of the hands in the room were still raised, eager to ask more questions. Many of his views were dissimilar to those of the fellows, but provide a powerful experience to learn from a Belz chassid first-hand about how he perceives the outside community, experiences the world from within his insular community, and perhaps how other Ultra-Orthodox Jews might view the world as well.
This visit to the Belz Great Synagogue provided me the opportunity to interact with a fellow Jew whom I may have never encountered otherwise. While in a totally unfamiliar setting, I found the opportunity to connect with someone who shares in the mission to keep the Jewish people strong, united, alive and well. Though his approach to accomplish this goal and his outlook on life may differ from my own, I’m incredibly grateful for having such a rich experience to learn from Yehezkel and to have immersively experienced a world previously unbeknownst to me.