Acco is the impressive city of the Crusader knight halls, an almost impregnable Turkish fort and a spacious central Mosque. Its ancient alleyways, souk, sea walls and port make it a must visit in Israel’s north.
But like a gem concealed, the true highlight is the Or Torah – Tunisian synagogue hidden on a quite regular, unassuming side street. In the 25 years that I have been a tour guide, I have visited countless times and each time have been personally greeted by Zion Badash and each time my visitors are completely impressed by the building and moved by the man. He spoke Hebrew and French but most of the tourists with me spoke English. So I translated. After all these years I knew his spiel by heart but would never rob the group of the opportunity to meet this inspiring man. Zion made aliyah in the early 50s and settled in Acco. There was no synagogue so they turned a local community center into a synagogue. Besides his work as a clerk in the post office, raising and supporting his family he was a gabbai in the synagogue.
While traveling in Israel he was taken by Jewish historical sites and especially the ancient synagogues. Zion was inspired: mosaics decorated synagogues 2000 years ago they shall again be used to beautify! He connected with a mosaic stone manufacturer in Kibbutz Elon , who worked with mosaic artists and began what would become his lifelong project. The first mosaic was of the city of his beloved Acco, the city of Nachmonadies and Maimonides, the city which housed the famous Yeshiva of Paris (after Rabbi Yechiel witnessed the burning of 40 cartloads of Talmud manuscripts!) and other scholars of Baalei Tosafot. The only city, according to a midrash, named by GD himself after the Flood.
Over the years more and more mosaics covered every space. Literally every space — the walls the floors the steps the ceilings and even the banisters. And the subjects .… I once heard a guide refer to content as eclectic, but I think he missed the point- the subject matter is clearly Jewish tradition and history. No separation between ancient and modern, religious or civil , even happy and sad. Everything is part of the seamless story of the Jewish people. The symbols of the 12 tribes are adjacent to IDF army unit symbols; a floor plan of the second temple on one ceiling and a map of Nazi camps in Europe and North Africa on the next. Zion was a Holocaust survivor and made sure people learned about the Holocaust in Sefardi communities. I never miss the opportunity to explore the women’s section of a synagogue and in many Orthodox synagogues the design in the women’s section seems an afterthought; here much care went into choosing the themes and layout of the mosaics in the women’s section as well.
Along with the mosaics came the tourists to behold this wonder. No admission fee. Reform, Conservative, unaffiliated were welcomed — “Welcome to your home,” he would say. “I have lived here for over 60 years and have children and grandchildren, none of us have passports, we are home at last.”
Zion never wanted a group to miss the opportunity to visit and would come out in the rain or in the heat at odd hours of the day to open the building. The secret of its vitality: with all the groups that visited and all the art covering the walls — it never stopped being a synagogue. Prayers are held here three times a day, memorial services, circumcisions, Bar Mitzvahs — a true house of gathering — a Bet Knesset.
The latest project is completing the silver doors of the 7 Torah arks — some have been completed and some are still waiting for the donations. A continuous work in progress
Could it be that this retired clerk knew about fundraising, Jewish symbolism, Bible, public relations, production, and Jewish history? The answer is clearly yes.
For me, he was an inspiration. Perusing his dream, thinking big, and just making it happen despite huge obstacles. His total love and dedication for the Jewish story without classifying, labeling, and putting in small academic pockets are an example for us all.
What can you say on a day like today when yet another young woman was murdered on a bus stop? Natural death of an old man with children, grandchildren and countless others who appreciated and admired him, who made an impact, may not seem so sad. Zion Badash — may your love and legacy live on.יהי זכרו ברוך