On May 27, 1948, the Hurva Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter was reduced to rubble by troops from the Arab Legion of Jordan, shortly after they conquered the Old City during Israel’s War of Independence. As the tallest structure in the Old City, the Hurva was a symbol for Jews and Arabs alike of the Jewish presence in Jerusalem. Its destruction, after a showdown between Haganah fighters holed up in the synagogue and the Arab soldiers, came to symbolize the loss of the Jewish Quarter by the fledgling state. In fact, it was but one of 34 synagogues in the Old City blown up after the fall of the Jewish Quarter to the Jordanians.
The name “Hurva” means “ruin,” but the name became associated with this synagogue not in 1948, but after 1720. At that time, an earlier synagogue built on the site was set afire by Arab moneylenders who had run out of patience with the Jewish creditors to whom they had provided funds to pay for its construction. Those Jews were members of a group of Ashkenazi (European) Jews who had emigrated from Poland with Rabbi Judah the Hasid two decades earlier.
After the destruction of the original synagogue, the Ottoman authorities banished the Ashkenazi newcomers from Jerusalem, and they resettled in Safed, Hebron and Tiberias. It was nearly another century before Ashkenazi Jews were permitted to return to Jerusalem, after the statute of limitations on the synagogue loans expired.
In 1856, after a very lengthy series of diplomatic efforts, the sultan, Abdulmejid I, granted a permit for the rebuilding of the Hurva, giving the assignment to his official architect, Hassan Effendi. This is why the rebuilt Hurva had a design very similar to a Turkish mosque, with the structure topped by a dome spanning the entire prayer space. Funding for the new synagogue was provided by philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore and by Shlomo Zalman Zoref, a Lithuanian-born rabbi and silversmith.
The height of the synagogue, to the top of the dome, was 24 meters, making it one of the tallest structures in the walled city, and a balcony that wrapped around the dome gave visitors an outstanding view over the city. The interior was decorated with ritual objects donated by different Jewish communities in Europe, and the Holy Ark, which could store up to 50 Torah scrolls, had come from the Nikolaijewsky Synagogue in Kherson, Russia.
From 1856 until 1948, the rebuilt Hurva served as the unofficial center of Jewish life in Palestine, with important ceremonies such as the installation of Abraham Isaac Kook as chief rabbi of the country taking place there in 1921.
On May 25, 1948, during the battle for Jerusalem, the head of Jordanian Arab Legion, Major Abdullah el Tel, warned the Red Cross that he would attack the synagogue if members of the Haganah, the pre-state Jewish militia, did not abandon their positions there. The head of Haganah forces in the city, Moshe Russnak, knew that loss of the Hurva was tantamount to loss of the Jewish Quarter in general, and refused to leave. The Jordanians laid siege to the synagogue, and after finally taking control and raising the flag of Jordan from its dome, proceeded to destroy it, together with the adjacent Etz Chaim Yeshiva.
After Israel’s reconquest of East Jerusalem, and the Old City in particular, in the 1967 Six-Day War, there was almost immediate discussion about the possibility of rebuilding the Hurva. Probably the most prominent plan proposed came from American-Jewish architect Louis Kahn, who visited the city at the invitation of Mayor Teddy Kollek and drew up a proposal for an entirely new structure that would have provided a visual link, in terms of its design, and physical link as well, to the newly liberated Western Wall. Kahn’s design was controversial and he died before it could ever be realized; eventually, an arch reaching to the height of the destroyed synagogue was raised at its former location, marking both ruin and the inability of the Jews to agree on a plan for reconstruction.
Finally, in 2000, the government approved a plan by Jerusalem architect Nahum Melzer to build an exact replica of the 1856 structure. Funding was provided by the government of Israel and by two wealthy Russian-Jewish businessmen. The reconstructed Hurva was finally opened to the public on March 15, 2010.
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