Dr. Amit Dolev and his uncle, Rafi Ninio, remember when they were kids and on Yom Kippur, hungry and thirsty, they would lay on the wide synagogue windowsill looking out at the Tiberias promenade and the Kinneret beyond.
The two, descendents of Rabbi Haim Shmuel Hacohen Konorti, stood Wednesday in the 173-year-old synagogue that bears the honorific by which their ancestor was known - "the senior." It is one of the last remnants of old Tiberias, hemmed in on one side by a hotel and on the other by a cheap burger place. The Kinneret is no longer visible from the window.
The two have decided to restore the synagogue. Prayers are still held there, thanks to the family's efforts. But the cluster of houses where the family lived, known as the "Ninio courtyard" is disintegrating. Its hexagonal colored floor tiles, high, barrel-vaulted ceilings, niches with closets with carved wooden doors and the remains of blue paint overlaying plaster are all that remains of the life that once bustled here. Below these buildings is a basement and an ancient ritual bath that is to be cleared and restored.
Ninio is a seventh-generation descendent of the "senior" and Dolev, the eighth. "We have a special emotional connection to the place," Ninio says. "I still remember where everyone sat on the stone benches in the synagogue. We have an obligation to preserve this place."
Dolev and Ninio have established a non-profit association for the conservation of the Ninio courtyard, and have recently brought several groups into the project of rescuing the site. Conservation work began this week, supported by the Tiberias municipality, the city's economic corporation and the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites.
As society workers clean the stone-vaulted basement, Ninio says excitedly, "This is where the butcher Yiluz lived. It was a living, breathing compound that all at once froze and was abandoned. We want to bring it back to life."
The story of the compound and the synagogue will be presented in two weeks at a conference in Tiberias dealing with the city's heritage, the conservation of which is a goal of the city, according to Tiberias Mayor Zohar Oved.
"The senior," Rabbi Haim Shumuel Hacohen Konorti, was one of the prominent sages of 19th-century Tiberias. Born in Spain in 1792, he came to live in Tiberias at age 45, and was a driving force behind the city's reconstruction following the devastating earthquake of 1837.
On his many journeys to raise money for the community among Jews abroad, he collected rare books and manuscripts and brought them home to the compound.
According to Dolev, family lore holds that the senior's son died after his father put a curse on him following harsh words the son spoke to the father. Another legend says that Rabbi Ninio, who married the sister of the unfortunate son, was in the Ashkenazi synagogue nearby when the 1837 earthquake struck. All 50 worshippers in the synagogue were killed - except for Rabbi Ninio. The Ninio family has lived in the compound ever since.
"It's like the Casbah in Nablus, or in Hebron or Peki'in," Dolev says. "Courtyard within courtyard, house within house," he explains, showing the rooms that belonged to Rahmun and Leah Ninio, the last to live here. Their daughter, Rachel Lev, is the source of the family lore Ninio and Dolev are working to preserve.
With the Israel Defense Forces' conquest of Tiberias in the 1948 war, the Arabs fled and the Jewish inhabitants were told by the army to leave their homes in the old city. Most of the area was destroyed, except for the synagogues.
Rahmun Ninio decided not to leave. "He lived here under very difficult conditions, worked as a tailor and raised three children here," Dolev says.
In 1981, thieves broke into the compound and beat him, causing fatal injuries. No one lived in the compound again. Thieves have also broken in on other occasions, making off with dozens of valuable books.
"There was a belief that anyone who stole from here would become paralyzed. One time it happened and then nobody dared take out any books," Ninio says. "But in recent years there's no faith and no values, and the thieves, including yeshiva students, aren't afraid to break in here."