Out of the Ruins

After nearly 40 years of architectural discussions, the famous Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem's Old City is to be rebuilt.

Nadav Shragai
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Nadav Shragai

One of the monuments that has featured in just about every postcard of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem's Old City since the Six-Day War is soon to disappear from its skyline. The high arch commemorating the Hurva Synagogue, which was destroyed in 1948, is to be removed. After nearly four decades of academic and architectural discussions and successive plans that were put forward and dropped, the Hurva is to be rebuilt. The famous arch that commemorates two destructions that occurred on the site where it stands, in 1721 and 1948, will no longer be needed.

The immigration of Rabbi Yehuda Hahasid from Poland to Israel 305 years ago stirred great excitement in Jerusalem. Immediately upon his arrival, on a Thursday, which was also Rosh Hodesh (the first day of the month of) Heshvan, Rabbi Hahasid purchased the courtyard adjacent to the synagogue built by the Ramban (a Hebrew acronym of Rabbi Moshe Ben Nahman, also known as Nahmanides) some 430 years earlier, in order to build a new synagogue there. The Ramban Synagogue, which the Arabs plundered from the Jews, was no longer in use then. The Ashkenazi community of Jerusalem at the time compromised around 200 of the 1,200 Jews living there and the immigration of Rabbi Yehuda Hahasid and 300 of his disciples caused a stir. However, the day after his arrival, he did not feel well. And on the Monday, just five days after reaching Israel, he died.

In the courtyard purchased by Rabbi Yehuda Hahasid, construction of a yeshiva and synagogue began, but the building was never completed. The Jews were long in repaying a loan taken from the Arabs for construction of the building and 21 years after Rabbi Yehuda Hahasid's death, the Arabs set fire to the unfinished synagogue and the 40 Torah scrolls housed inside it. The fact that the site remained desolate and only partially built was the origin of its name (the Hebrew word hurva means ruin). The synagogue built some 150 years later by the disciples of the Vilna Gaon on the same spot was known as Hurvat Rabbi Yehuda Hahasid or the Hurva.

After its rebuilding in 1864 the Hurva, or the Beit Yaakov Synagogue in the Rabbi Yehuda Hahasid courtyard as it was ormally known, became the largest, grandest and most important synagogue in the Land of Israel and the focus of the Jewish Quarter. For decades, it functioned as the spiritual and cultural center of Jerusalem. Most of the important events of the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community in Israel) until the 1930s took place in the Hurva, which maintained its place as Jerusalem's central synagogue. Even mass gatherings and general celebrations were held there.

Ze'ev Jabotinsky organized a rally at the Hurva in order to enlist volunteers in the Jewish Brigade. It is also the place where the ceremony to hand over the flag of the Jewish Brigade was held on the day Jerusalem was conquered in 1917. Herzl visited there in 1898. The installation of the Ashkenazi rabbis of Jerusalem and of the Land of Israel took place at the Hurva and from there the call to save European Jewry was sent out during a public fast and day of prayer organized by hundreds of rabbis.

In 1925, when Herbert Samuel ended his term as the British high commissioner in Palestine, he came to the Hurva, was called up to read from the Torah and was honored with the last reading of Parshat Nahamu (the Sabbath immediately after the fast of Tisha B'Av, when the haftorah, the additional reading from Scriptures, begins with the words "Nahamu, nahamu ami" which means "Comfort My people, comfort them"). When Samuel reached the words "and on his throne a foreigner shall not sit" (in the blessing that is recited after the reading of the haftorah), Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook stood up and repeated those words aloud. Rabbi Kook's action resonated for many years afterward in the Jewish world and only reinforced the seemingly eternal standing of the place.

Two days before the fall of the Jewish Quarter in 1948, the Jordanians blew up the synagogue and the Jordanian commander in charge reported to his superiors: "For the first time in a 1,000 years, not a single Jew remains in the Jewish Quarter. No building there stands undamaged. This makes the Jews' return here impossible." However, in 1967 the Jews returned. The Jewish Quarter was rebuilt, but the Hurva remained in its desolation and a long-running architectural disagreement began.

Stone for stone

The plan to be carried out by the Jewish Quarter Redevelopment Corporation is architect Nahum Meltzer's reconstruction plan. Meltzer proposed rebuilding the Hurva Synagogue in its original format, almost stone for stone and restoring it to its original function. This approach won the backing of the previous chairman of the corporation, Dov Kalmanowitz, and of its previous director general, Yinon Ahiman, and was adopted.

The counter approach, which lost in the debate, was presented in architect Lewis Kahn's plan. Kahn sought to build a new synagogue with numerous modern architectural elements and whose dimensions were well beyond those of the original synagogue. He spoke of building a boulevard between the Hurva and the Western Wall and sought to establish a symbolic dialogue between the two. For years, his model was on display in the Israel Museum. A third approach, which was also shelved, proposed maintaining the site in ruins as a memorial to a large monument whose glory was in the past. In the interim, the place took on the aura of a memorial site. A large plaza was built around it and in order for visitors to be able to grasp the proportions of the destroyed building, a large arch, whose highest point is the height of the bottom of the dome of the Hurva Synagogue before its destruction, was built.

Architect Meltzer based his plan on measurements of the remaining walls and other remnants of the building at the site and a large number of interior and exterior photos, as well as several written and oral testimonies. Based on this information, a draft of the Hurva was sketched and a model was built which is reminiscent of the old pictures of the Hurva showing the pre-1948 skyline of the Jewish Quarter.

Meltzer feels that "the placement of a building that speaks in a totally new architectural language" is inappropriate for the place where the Hurva Synagogue stood. More appropriately, it should preserve the original organic language of the Jewish Quarter and the Old City and preserve the simple and living memory of the building as it was in its historic environment. "In later generations," he notes, "the Hurva Synagogue became a symbol of sorts of a synagogue for all times.

"The Hurva is the first synagogue in the country built with a stone dome in its center and this model was an inspiration for many synagogues built afterwards. If you ask the average Jew today what he sees as the image of a synagogue, most likely he will say `a building with a dome.' Synagogues dating from the Mishnaic period in the land of Israel, the synagogues of Spain prior to the Expulsion, synagogues in Poland, all have unique character, but did not establish a foothold as the architectural image of a synagogue the way the Hurva did."

Meltzer feels therefore "both out of respect for the historical memory of the Jewish people and out of respect for the built-up area of the Old City, it is fitting for us to restore the lost glory and rebuild the Hurva Synagogue the way it was."

Donkeys and cranes

The reconstruction of the Hurva is being done in accordance with a government decision. Some NIS 28 million have been allocated for the project, but so far only the Housing and Construction Ministry has upheld its commitment and transferred funds for this purpose. The tourism and interior ministries have yet to transfer their share of the funding for the project.

Nissim Arazi, the director general of the Jerusalem Redevelopment Corporation, estimates construction will take years. "In order to bring the construction materials needed to rebuild the Hurva through the narrow alleys of the Jewish Quarter, donkeys or cranes will be needed and traffic to and from the Quarter will have to be restricted for designated periods." Arazi notes that the eastern wall, sections of which remain intact, will be dismantled, numbered and reconstituted. The building itself will be built atop the four foundations on which it rested in the past, and like the Hurva of long ago, will not have support pillars in the interior space. The height of the dome in the new Hurva will reach 24 meters. The scaffolding and external work has already been started by the Minrav Company and is expected to last two years. The interior work will take another two years.

Strong as the leopard, swift as the eagle

What, then, will someone looking at the completed structure a few years from now see? The best answer apparently lies in descriptions of the synagogue as it was prior to its destruction. Aharon Bier, in "Sefer Harova" (The Book of the Jewish Quarter) offers one of the most accurate and nicest descriptions:

"The synagogue prayer hall was reached via an entrance with three iron gates. But it was almost square. The length was around 15.5 meters and the width was around 14 meters. The height of the synagogue to the bottom of the dome was around 16 meters and to the top of the dome it was 24 meters. During the synagogue's heyday, the ark in the middle of the eastern wall dominated the interior. This ark was crafted by a Jewish artisan in eastern Poland and then brought over. Worshipers approached the ark by ascending stairs surrounded by a rail and iron gates, which separated the chapel from the hall. The alcove where the ark stood and the area above the ark were adorned with dazzling woodcuts of flowers and birds. The ark itself had two levels, was covered with a curtain and held 50 Torah scrolls. To the right and in front of the ark was the cantor's podium, which was designed as a miniature version of the two-level ark.

"In the middle of the synagogue, there was a flat platform (bimah) without the high wooden structure that is standard in the other synagogues in the Old City. This bimah was covered with expensive marble plates. The light entered the high synagogue through 12 windows at the base of the dome and via two rows of large windows set in the walls of the chapel - except for the eastern wall, where the ark was located. This way the light from the three other walls was channeled onto the eastern wall. Above the ark was a triangular window with rounded points. The seats were benches that faced east and also lined the walls. The women's section was in the galleries, along the three sides of the chapel, except the eastern side. Access to the galleries was through towers situated at the corners of the building.

"In the four corners were drawings of four animals in accordance with the statement in Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Fathers]: `Be strong as the leopard and swift as the eagle, fleet as the deer and brave as the lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven.'

"The walls of the synagogue had drawings and decorations such as stars of David, the menorah, Mount Sinai and the Tablets of the Ten Commandments. The building facade was covered in finely hewn stone. The four corners had little towers, but the construction of only one was completed and it had a small dome. The three others were missing the dome and the upper level. The base of the dome was surrounded by a veranda, which offered a fine view of large parts of the Old City and the area around Jerusalem. The synagogue was also known as Beit Yaakov (Jacob), after Jacob Rothschild, the father of the `well-known philanthropist' (Edmond de Rothschild). Baron Alphonse de Rothschild, the brother of the well-known philanthropist, was given the honor of laying the foundation of the synagogue and he named the synagogue after their father."

"I encountered the ruined Hurva many times," writes author Yehuda Haezrahi. "The first encounter occurred at the height of the Six-Day War. I arrived in the Jewish Quarter and without realizing it, looked upward, to see the loft dome of the Hurva Synagogue, and use it as a landmark, in my search for the sites of the Jewish Quarter, and couldn't find it. I still couldn't believe it had disappeared and was no more. I walked on the ruins of homes and sometimes didn't know where I was and then I entered a little courtyard and the destruction struck me in all its cruelty. The Hurva is no more, I said to myself. It has been erased." Haezrahi is no longer alive, but the Hurva that was erased is about to be rebuilt.



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