The Rav Kook home in Jerusalem.
The Rav Kook home in Jerusalem. Photo by Emil Salman
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A legal battle is being waged over a Jerusalem building that was for many years home to religious-Zionist luminary Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. The battle over real estate, money and heritage is between those who view themselves as the rabbi's spiritual descendents and an ultra-Orthodox group that also lays claim to the building.

The religious Zionists see the ultra-Orthodox as attempting to take over a site that is no less than the cradle of their ideological movement. The ultra-Orthodox group recently scored a legal victory in the rabbinic court allowing them to charge the religious Zionists rent for their use of the building.

Kook was the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi under the British Mandate and leader of the Jews of Palestine in the early 20th century. Extreme Haredim, with whom the rabbi argued fervently, charge that he misled people with a false understanding of Zionism, while other Haredim see him as one of their own, whose true legacy is being misrepresented by the "knitted skullcap" variety of Orthodox Jews.

The disputed house was built in 1923 with money donated by an American philanthropist, Harry Fischel, as a home for the chief rabbi more fitting than his one-room apartment. The money went to an Ashkenazi charitable organization known as the Va'ad Haclali-Knesset Yisrael, and was built for the rabbi and his family in what is now downtown Jerusalem. Eventually, the Mercaz Harav yeshiva began operating there.

The battle for the building, which began shortly after the rabbi died in 1935, revolves around the agreement between Fischel and the Va'ad, which states that the building must never be sold and will be the home of the Ashkenazi chief rabbi forever.

Over the years the building became a museum for Kook's heritage. The Va'ad, which has other holdings in the city it uses to house poor Haredim, tried for years to gain ownership of the premises, claiming it is not fulfilling its purpose, which they say is to help the poor.

After repeated attempts were rebuffed by the rabbinic courts, in 2007 the Supreme Rabbinic Court determined that the Va'ad is the owner of the building. According to the ruling, the religious-Zionist association promoting Rabbi Kook's heritage may remain in the building, but must pay rent to the Va'ad.

The association fears the ruling threatens its control of the building because it will not be able to afford the rent, according to Rabbi Yohanan Fried, one of the association's directors. The association claims that the Supreme Rabbinic Court ruling, made by Rabbi Avraham Sherman, was changed after Sherman signed it, and has filed a complaint with the judicial ombudsman.

The attorney representing the Va'ad, Rephael Stub, said the religious Zionists' claim that the Va'ad wants to take over the site - the only small building in an area surrounded by high-rises - because of its real estate value, are baseless. He added that the religious-Zionist association has no connection to Kook's legacy, nor to his family, as opposed to Rabbi Sherman, who is married to Kook's niece. He said the association does not pay rent, despite the ruling.