Cabinet Approves NIS 28 M Hurva Restoration Plan

Gideon Alon
Nadav Shragai
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Gideon Alon
Nadav Shragai

The government voted yesterday in favor of a NIS 28 million plan to restore the Hurva synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Under the plan, the four-year restoration process is to be funded by the Housing, Tourism and Interior ministries.

The Hurva synagogue, in the Old City's Jewish Quarter, was built 500 years ago. Two days after the Jewish Quarter fell to Jordanian legionnaires during the 1948 war, the Jordanians blew up the Hurva. The Jordanian commander on the scene reported to his superiors: "For the first time in 1,000 years, there's not a single Jew left in the Jewish Quarter, and not a single building that hasn't been damaged. This will make the return of Jews here impossible."

Fifty-six years later, one of the major planning disputes in the history of modern Jerusalem, the argument about the fate of the Hurva, has come to a close. The government's approval of the Hurva restoration plan will bring back to life what was, between 1864 and 1948, the most important synagogue in Eretz Israel.

A few months ago, the Jerusalem Municipality's planning and construction committee approved the restoration plan formulated by the architect Nahum Meltzer. The plan is to restore the building according to its original design, and recreate its function as a synagogue.

An alternative proposal, advocated by architect Louis Kahn, has been promoted since the late 1960s, and is now destined to remain on the drawing board. However, for years it seemed as though Kahn's Hurva proposal would oust any other idea about the famed synagogue. Kahn wanted to create a new, modern synagogue that integrated new architectural conceptions, and which would be built with dimensions and features that were well beyond the original scope and character of the Hurva. Among other ideas, Kahn proposed building a walk that would connect the Hurva and the Western Wall.

The origins of the Hurva date from 1700, when Rabbi Yehuda Hasid and a small group of a few hundred followers arrived in Eretz Israel. The rabbi purchased the courtyard in the Old City for the synagogue, and construction of the facility was started after his death, but was never completed. Due to the non-payment of a loan taken by Jews from Arabs for the construction of the synagogue, Arabs burned down the site, desecrating its 40 Torah scrolls. The destruction wrought at the time became the root of the name of the "Hurva" (ruin) synagogue, and building recommenced in the late 1830s, by Perushim followers of the Vilna Gaon.

After its completion in 1864, the Hurva loomed as a cultural and religious symbol in Eretz Israel and Jerusalem. The Hurva retained its status as Jerusalem's leading synagogue, and public gatherings and celebrations were held in it. Among other events, a prayer gathering to mark the coronation of King George V was held at the Hurva.

Zionist activist Ze'ev Jabotinsky held a rally at the Hurva to stimulate enlistment in the Jewish Legion during WWI, and the Legion's flag was flown at the synagogue in a special service held after the British conquest of the city. Herzl also visited the Hurva in his 1898 trip to Eretz Israel.

After the 1967 Six-Day War, the Hurva became the subject of an endless stream of planning and architectural proposals. As one idea after the other failed to materialize in a re-building project, the Hurva became a poignant symbol of destruction wrought by the Jordanians during their years of control of the area, before 1967. The ruined synagogue became a memorial to the fall of the Jewish Quarter in 1948. A large square was created around the site of the Hurva; and visitors could measure the dimensions of the synagogue which once stood at the locale. An arch was built at the site which rose to about half the height of the destroyed building, which is as high as the top of the synagogue's dome.

Appearing before the Jerusalem Municipality's planning committee a few months ago, the architect Nahum Meltzer explained: "The Hurva was the first synagoge in Eretz Israel built with a stone dome in the center, and this model served as a source of inspiration for a large number of synagogues that were built in later years. If you ask a Jew today what a synagogue looks like, he's likely to answer a `building with a dome.'"

Synagogue design from other places and times, such as Spain before the expulsion, or in Poland, "never exercised as much architectural influence as did the Hurva," Meltzer stated. "Both in terms of displaying respect for the Jewish people's historical memory and also in terms of showing respect for the built-up areas of the Old City, it's vital to restore the Hurva synagogue as it was."

Then housing and construction minister Yitzhak Levy appointed a public committee in 1999 to issue recommendations about the Hurva. The committee proposed restoring the Hurva in keeping with its former design. Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert and current Housing and Construction Minister Natan Sharansky were among those who lobbied for this recommendation.