Discover the Jewish heritage and beauty of Lucerne
Lucerne is beyond picturesque; it’s quaint, quiet, and charming, waiting to be discovered. As a combination of nature and the city, there’s no shortage of things to do in Lucerne. When you add in its two local mountains, medieval houses covered in frescos and ancient wooden bridges, historical old towns, museums, art galleries, and monuments, to name a few, it really is a magical place to visit. You can go hiking on Mount Rigi or head to Mount Pilatus to see some of the best views you can find in Lucerne, one of the most beautiful cities in all of Switzerland.
An Overview of Lucerne’s Jewish History
Jews have lived in Lucerne since the year 1300, over many periods and under subsequent cantonal and regional authorities. Beginning in 1800, the Lucerne Orthodox Jewish Community was founded and granted legal status. Jewish residents of Lucerne and the neighboring regions established the formal community in 1870. JGL, the Jewish Community of Lucerne, had only a small number of Jewish families in 1892, who together administered the community with members of various backgrounds. They maintained the synagogue, Mikveh, a Jewish school and a Jewish kindergarten, the local chazzan and choir, interest-free loans, Tzedakah, support for those in need and refugees, and the old and new cemeteries. JGL expanded over time and following the two world wars as Jewish families immigrated to Switzerland from other European nations and as Holocaust, survivors found refuge in Switzerland and the city of Lucerne.
The Synagogue and its Community in Lucerne
The community provides religious, educational, and other services (including a mikveh for men and women, a Jewish cemetery, Chevra Kadisha, a women’s organization, and a group who visit sick people, as well as shiurim (classes), Shabbat, and holiday celebrations.
Meir Shetrit, the president of the Lucerne Synagogue, told NYJTG. “This historic synagogue, the only one in Lucerne, was built in 1912 thanks in large part to the generosity of Mr. Joseph Croner, a traveler who visited the city at the turn of the century as a guest of one of its residents. He was so impressed by the community and its residents that he made a sizable donation to build a beautiful synagogue.”
The Lucerne Synagogue is undoubtedly one of Switzerland’s and Europe’s most beautiful and unique synagogues. In this old synagogue, there are over 200 seats for men and women. It is still the only synagogue in the world that has survived and kept its unique architectural style from a century ago.
Since 2023, Mr. Shetrit and his wife have made Lucerne their permanent home. He is both an educator and an attorney who gives lectures on Judaism and religion. Mr. Shetrit told NYJTG, “Everything you see here is original; the only items that we changed were the carpet, a few lights, and the painting. Other than those three changes, nothing else has been altered.
He describes the community as a “mixed community, religious and not religious, from Hasidim, Haredim, and everything else.” After the Holocaust, many Jews left the town, which led to a decline in its population. Some families immigrated to England, Israel, or Zurich. According to him, there are currently 50 Jewish families in the region, most of who don’t consider themselves religious and are either Swiss, Israeli or are the result of mixed marriages, which are common here. The Yeshiva of Lucerne helps and supports the synagogue in holding minyanim during each of the daily services and on Shabbat. About 14 full-time students from Israel and America study in this yeshiva, together with the rabbi who lives in Saint Louis, France. There are kosher mikvehs for women, and men, and separate mikvehs for ritually immersing dishes in the synagogue. While there are no kosher restaurants, one can have a kosher meal at the nearby Yeshiva. “We have 20 to 25 guests for the Passover seder, and more are expected for the second half of the holidays,” he said.
Because performing a Brit Milah was banned in 1860, this synagogue includes several unique and fascinating candles that are utilized throughout the ceremony. Observing the candles being lit alerted the congregation to wait for the Brit to be performed at the synagogue; today, Lucerne still lights these unique candles as part of the tradition.
LUCERNE: WHAT TO SEE
Walking through the maze of alleys and winding streets on the north side of the city is a must-do activity while in Lucerne since the old town itself is simply breathtaking. Due to the beautifully preserved historical architecture, visiting is like traveling back in time. Each street in the town is a picturesque setting given the abundance of half-timbered and traditional Alpine homes. Around every corner, you’ll find mom-and-pop stores, unique eateries, and hidden treasures.
Town Hall on Kornmarkt
As one of Switzerland’s most beautiful public buildings, they have designated this Renaissance monument a cultural monument. Its spectacular location equals it in every way: the area directly surrounding the Town Hall, which stands majestically by the river Reuss in the center of the Old Town, provides tourists with an abundance of attractions both during the day and in the evening.
Ride the Cog Railway up Mount Rigi.
Riding the cog railway up Mount Rigi, also referred to as the Queen of the Mountains, to an elevation of 1,798 meters from the shores of Lake Lucerne is one of Switzerland’s iconic experiences. The oldest mountain cog railway in Europe, which has been in operation since 1871, will take you to the top. Ms. Caroline Pfyl, the representative of Rigi Bahnen, stated, “From the summit, visitors can indulge in 360-degree panoramic views of the lakes, mountains, German black forest, and an amazing variety of alpine flora.”
A famous landmark in Lucerne is Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke), the oldest covered bridge in Europe. A 1993 fire nearly completely damaged the wooden bridge, which spans 200 meters diagonally and was built in the 14th century as a part of the city fortifications. The 17th-century ceiling panels, which feature pictures from both Switzerland’s and Lucerne’s pasts, must be seen as part of the visit across the bridge. In addition to functioning as a jail and a place of torture, this structure has supported Switzerland in several other ways as well, such as serving as a municipal archive and a local treasury. The bridge and tower are among the most popular photographic sites in Switzerland.
Kapellplatz, Fritschibrunnen, Fritschi Fountain
Thanks to more than 200 fountains that continuously provide people with clean water to drink of the highest quality “There are over 200 fountains in the metropolitan area, and 166 of these are public,” said tour guide Ursula Leu, “and the water is regularly inspected and cleaned with ultraviolet rays to kill germs.” The lake at the foothills of Mount Pilatus is where the water is primarily collected. The 100-year-old Fritschi Fountain is one of the most popular fountains to see.
To plan a trip to Switzerland, contact Switzerland Tourism or go to https://www.myswitzerland.com/en-us/.
Fly SWISS at 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.
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