Until the Second World War, 12 synagogues and houses of worship functioned in Liepaja (Libava). The most significant was the Great Choral (1) synagogue on 13 Petera St( now Kuršu 11/13) It was a very beautiful building and one of the largest and most artistically appreciated synagogues in Latvia

Cинагога на Ораниенбургерштрассе в Берлине
The Liepāja Great Choral Synogogue

The Choral Synagogue in Liepaja was built from 1870 to 1873 in the neo-Renaissance style, following the model of the Oranienburger Strasse synagogue( now the Neue Synagoge) in Berlin. The western side of the synagogue was crowned with three domes. Photos of the Great Choral Synagogue in Liepaja were replicated on postcards as a landmark of the city.

The Oranienburger Strasse synagogue

The construction of the Choral Synagogue caused a bitter conflict with the followers of its traditional construction. Gaon r. Eliyahu Leader, who was then a rabbi in Zhagori (now Žagare, Lithuania) and a rabbi from Goldingen (now Kuldiga), imposed a ban, because on the ridge of the roof there was a Star of David on a dome which from a distance looked like a cross. The bima (pulpit , elevation) was located next to the aron kodesh (cabinet for storing the Torah) – a holy place. In addition, the women’s gallery of the synagogue was built very low so that women were half visible.

For three years the synagogue was empty because of this prohibition, and the hired minyan (2) of German Jews was going to disperse from day to day. It is said that in the hard times of hunger they promised to pay well the Jews from the market is they would go to the synagogue to pray, but no one went there. In 1876, the Lithuanian Orthodox rabbis Hillel and Eliyahu (Eli Dov Ber Levinson) intervened in the matter, as a result of which a peaceful agreement was concluded. Thanks to their efforts, the Star of David was removed from the dome, the bima was moved to the center, and the gallery for women was raised higher.

The Liepaja Great Choral Synagogue had a high-level cantor (3) choir and a boys ‘choir, which accompanied the cantors’ singing on holidays 3. On such days, the Choral Synagogue was full of people, and not only Jews came to listen to their singning, but also representatives of other nationalities – lovers of liturgical music. Well-known European cantors, such as Moshe Koussevitsky and others, often came on tour to Liepaja.

Abram (Allan) Michelson became the most outstanding personality in cantor singing. Alan Michelson passed away on September 29, 1991 in Woodland Hills (California, USA).

Liepaja Great Choral Synagogue Cantor and Boys’ Choir

The Liepāja Great Choral Synagogue was destroyed on 13-15 July 1941 during the Nazi occupation.

According to the Nazi plans the city was to be cleared of Jews and nothing was supposed to remind of the Jews, especially such a beautiful building as the Great Choral Synagogue. Since the bombing of the city could cause more fires due to the wooden houses surrounding the synagogue, the Nazis ordered the Jews to dismantle it by hand. The synagogue was plundered, and the Torah scrolls, of the holy book of the Jews, were unrolled on the Firewatch square and subsequently destroyed.

Sources:

Reform or Consensus? Choral Synagogues in the Russian Empire by Vladimir Levin. The Center for Jewish Art, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem
– Wikipedia
– Leon Ovchinsky “Jews in Latvia: Courland and Zemgale” 1561-1923


1 – The Choral Synagogue (Yiddish: Horshul) is a type of synagogue that was built in Eastern Europe, from Hungary to Russia. Such synagogues embodied the ideas of Jewish enlightenment (khaskala) and partly reformed traditional Jewish customs (minhag). In such synagogues, by the end of the 19th century, cantor singing became fashionable. To enhance the effect, the cantor sang accompanied by a small male choir, usually four to seven or eight people. For this reason, such synagogues began to be called “choral”. The differences between choral and traditional synagogues were more aesthetic in nature.

2Minyan is a congregation of no less than ten adult Jewish men that meets for public worship and for a number of religious practices in Judaism.

3 – Cantor – a person who leads a prayer – must be, first of all, righteous and highly spiritual. It is desirable that his voice is pleasant, but nothing more. But the Liepāja cantors always had good voices and were excellent musicians.

4 – The Oranienburger Strasse synagogue (now the Neue Synagoge) in Berlin was the biggest and most magnificent Jewish places of worship in Germany before WWII. Designed by Eduard Knoblauch in the Moorish style, it was built between 1859 and 1866. Later Friedrich August Stüler took over the construction. The Neue Synagoge was an architectural wonder of its day. The building was crowned by a gilded dome visible for miles around. The entrance facade is flanked by two towers, also topped with gilded domes.Nowadays it is restored and can host about 3000 worshippers.

5 – Abram (Allan) Michelson ( 1919. g. 17. XII – 1991. g. 29. IX)

He was born in Liepaja on December 17, 1919 on Jakobstrasse 11 (now Radio St). His father was a fammous cantor in Liepaja who taught liturgical music. In his home, he organized a cheder, where he taught Torah and Tegilim to children. It was thanks to his father that little Abram began to sing early in the boys’ choir at the Choral Synagogue. The world-famous Misha Aleksandrovich first appeared in front of the public in Riga synagogue a at the age of 5, and Abram sang solo with the synagogue choir at the age of 3. He was heard by Moshe Koussevitsky, who came on tour, and predicted a great future for little Abram. And so it happened. Abram has toured in Latvia, Germany, Poland and Sweden. He, like Misha Alexandrovich, was called a little prodigy.

The entire Michelson’s family in the Holocaust in Liepāja, except Abram. He managed to escape and emigrate to the United States at the age of 18. During the Second World War, Allan served in the US Navy in the Pacific Ocean. After demobilization, he studied vocals at the Metropolitan School of Music in Chicago and the Arthur Jordan Conservatory in Indianapolis, and trained with Cantor Max Wolberg in Philadelphia. From 1952 Allan Michelson became the cantor of the Adat Ari El synagogue in North Hollywood. From the mid-1960s until his retirement in 1984, he served as cantor and choirmaster at the Jewish Community Center synagogue in Woodland Hills.

Thanks to his unique voice and skill A. Michelson, , participated in the scoring of a number of Hollywood films, including Stanley Kramer’s “Nuremberg Trials” (1961).

Liepāja Great Choral Synagogue land plan (1930)