Getting to Know Geneva’s Jewish Community
Situated along the banks of Lake Geneva at the foot of the Alps, Geneva sparkles as one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. It is home to the European headquarters of the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, 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 other international organizations. Geneva has a long history of diversity and tolerance dating back to the Protestant Reformation. With its breathtaking views, Geneva will amaze you time and time again! From the famous Jet d’Eau, jetting water 140 meters above Lake Geneva, to the picturesque countryside and its vineyard paths, its diverse and enchanting landscape is truly spellbinding.
An Overview of Geneva’s Jewish History
The Jewish presence in Geneva dates back at least to the Middle Ages, with the 13th century being the earliest known date. The nearby city of Carouge opened its doors to Jews around the same time that Geneva did, but the only remaining Jewish remnant is the historic Jewish cemetery that was renovated in 1996.
There were only two towns, Lengnau and Endingen, exempt from the ban on Jews during the 17th century. Victor Amedee III, King of Sardinia, issued a decree of tolerance on August 27, 1787, allowing Jews to benefit from the common law and exercise complete freedom of religion. About 550 Jews, or nearly all of Switzerland’s Jewish population, resided in these two villages at the end of the 18th century. Each of these towns had a synagogue by the year 1750. Jewish burials were not allowed on Swiss land, and Jews and non-Jews had different entrances to their homes. As an act of acceptance by non-Protestant minorities, Geneva offered land to the Jewish community in 1852 so that they could build a synagogue.
The area’s remaining Jewish population is less than a handful and the synagogues and cemeteries are well looked after and maintained.
Geneva’s Synagogue and Community
Jews fare much better in today’s Switzerland. Basel, Geneva, and Zürich are the cities with the greatest population of Jewish residents. There are several Beth Chabad Centers in these towns, and the communities vary from Orthodox to Reform, Conservative, and Sephardic.
Swiss Jews make up the 10th largest Jewish population in Europe, at 20,000. The largest concentration of Jews resides in Zürich, followed by Basel and Geneva. While Basel and Zürich each have substantial Ashkenazi communities, Geneva has a sizable Sephardic community that follows Ashkenazi traditions. The biggest cities are Geneva (5,200), Basel (2,000), Lausanne (1,000), and Zurich (12,800). Jews can be found all over the Swiss Federation, with 61 percent of them living in the German-speaking part of Switzerland and 36 percent in the French-speaking region. Jews worked as doctors, dentists, pharmacists, lawyers, engineers, and artists, in addition to the country’s textile manufacturing and clock industries. Ruth Dreyfuss, who joined the federal government in 1993 and became Switzerland’s first female president, is without a doubt the most well-known Jew in Switzerland.
Switzerland’s diverse Jewish community includes traditional, ultra-Orthodox, reform, conservative, and Sephardic Jewish institutions. There are four synagogues in Zurich, three in Geneva, two in Basel, and two in Lugano, with others in Baden, Bern, Fribourg, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Lausanne, Lucerne, Vevey-Montreux, St. Gallen, and Winterthur. SIG (Swiss Federation of Israelite Communities) participates in the distribution of kosher-certified food that is imported from France, Germany, and other countries.
The Jewish community in Switzerland is divided into many groups with different affiliations. The Swiss (SIG), as it is constituted, is home to the vast majority of the country’s Jews, and its common goals are to promote and protect them. In addition, it aims to strengthen Jewish culture and heritage, commemorate the Holocaust, and fight antisemitism and discrimination. The CIG “Communaut Israelite de Geneve” consists of approximately 1,200 individuals and includes a community center, two synagogues, a nursery, a Talmud Torah, a youth center, a cultural center, a library, social services, a kosher restaurant, and two cemeteries. The Communauté Israelites Orthodoxe de Genève is the second community. The third is the Communauté Juive Libérale de Genève (GIL, or Liberal Jewish Community of Geneva), which now accounts for around one-third of Geneva’s Jews. It was the first synagogue in the French-speaking community that had girls read from the Torah at their bat mitzvah.
Hekhal Haness Synagogue
The largest modern Sephardic synagogue in Geneva is Hekhal Haness, meaning “miracle gathering place,” and was constructed in the Malagnou neighborhood in the early 1970s. The synagogue was initiated by the late Mr. Nessim and Mrs. Renée Gaon. It includes a Sephardic Synagogue, 3 Mikvaot, a library and study room, a reception room, and other facilities.
Mr. Herzog, our tour guide, said, “The synagogue accommodates 1,200 members during the High Holidays, 300 to 400 for Shabbat services, and 30 to 40 for daily services.” “Since COVID, there has been an increase in membership,” said Yaakov Gabay, the congregation’s Rabbi, who came from England three years ago. “Members were delighted to attend Shabbat lectures, especially in the afternoon services, with an attendance of more than 200 congregants.”
He stated that visiting dignitaries over the years have included Menachem Begin, Chief Rabbi of Israel, Knesset member Aryeh Deri, and many more. The late Edmond Safra and others from Egypt, Morocco, and Iraq donated the Sefer Torahs, of which two were from Iraq, were over 150 years old, and were donated by the late Mr. Nessim Gaon.
You will notice the Aaron Hakodesh’s [the storage cabinet for the Sefer Torah’s] exterior is coated in gold leaves,” he added. Hekhal Harness was the place where the Jewish school was first founded. There is currently Girsa Alliance, a Jewish elementary and secondary school with 220 students serving kids aged 6 to 16. It was founded in 1981 thanks to the kind donations from the families of Gaon, Rappaport, and Safra.
Synagogue Beth Yaakov
Between 1858 and 1859, the beautiful Beth Yaakov Synagogue, also called the Grande Synagogue, was built in the center of Geneva. It was a key turning point in Swiss tolerance, as the administration in Geneva at the time permitted the building of non-Protestant religious structures within the city walls. About 200 Ashkenazi Jews lived in the region at the time the synagogue was built.
The Byzantine-Moorish style was designed by Swiss architect Jean-Henri Bachofen. An enormous octagonal dome on the synagogue’s exterior makes it unique. The entrance includes two double doors with Moorish-style arches.
In front of the Torah ark and across from the main entrance is a bimah, or reading platform. Women have their own seats on either side of the prayer hall. In memory of Jacob Safra, the name of this synagogue was renamed Beth Yaakov Synagogue in 1997, and it has since been recognized as a landmark.
Geneva: What to See
Patek Philippe Museum
The amazing Patek Philippe Museum, which will educate you on the history and art of watchmaking, is renowned throughout the world. The museum is a fascinating destination to visit, with a history spanning more than 500 years. It is also home to the oldest watch in the world and has an amazing antique collection.
One of the city’s greatest tourist attractions is the Jet d’Eau Geneva fountain, located on Lake Geneva and visible from the top of the cathedral. The water jet has become a symbol of Geneva.
Rue du Rhône
It will be hard to resist the temptations in the luxury shopping paradise that is the Rue du Rhône! Shopping enthusiasts with an eye for luxury will find everything they could possibly want here, including watches, jewelry, couture, and sweet treats at the boutiques of Geneva’s renowned chocolatiers. Fashion lovers will learn about the top brands that give Geneva its status as a shopping haven. Such popularity in such a small space! Do stop for a moment, however, and pay attention to the Malbuisson Clock, whose chimes and mechanical procession of figures will remind you of how quickly time passes.
Place du Bourg-de-Four
Place du Bourg-de-Four is a charming and bustling location that serves as both the Old Town’s focal point and one of the city’s oldest crowning beauties. This square’s two levels are lined with casual cafés and bistros where you can enjoy a cup of coffee or a light meal while taking in the scenery.
Old Town Geneva
Explore the charming cobblestone streets and take a step back in time. Discover Geneva’s Old Town’s treasures and things to do by wandering through its maze of connected cobblestone alleyways. You can explore an extensive number of museums, galleries, and fascinating historical landmarks in the Old Town, which showcase ancient Geneva and everything the city stands for.
Kosher Dining in Geneva:
A kosher Japanese restaurant in the heart of Geneva, in the residential neighborhood of Malagnou
Under the supervision of Rav Izhak Dayan
5, av. Krieg, 1208 Geneva Tel: 022 700 31 55
Community Restaurant “THE GARDEN”
Under the supervision of Rav Izhak Dayan
21 Ave. Dumas, 1206 Geneva
Fly Swiss: https://www.swiss.com/us/en/homepage.
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.