This Day in Jewish History

1909: First Hebrew High School in Pre-state Israel Is Founded

The cornerstone for the Herzliya Gymnasium was laid in Tel Aviv, which itself had been founded just three months earlier.

American Colony (Jerusalem), Wikimedia

On July 28, 1909, the cornerstone of the first permanent home of the Herzliya Gymnasium, the first Hebrew high school in pre-state Israel, was laid in the new, Hebrew-speaking city of Tel Aviv, which itself had been officially founded three months earlier.

The school Gymnasia Herzliya, as it’s called in Hebrew, had actually been founded four years earlier, by Fania and Yehuda Leib Metman-Cohen.

The Metman-Cohens, both educators from Odessa, had been invited in 1904 by the city fathers of Rishon Letzion to come to Palestine and set up a Hebrew-speaking school there.

Once they arrived, however, the couple, both of whom had impressive credentials as educational reformers but were also involved in political causes, came into conflict with the town council of Rishon.

They moved to Jaffa, where, in 1905, they opened what they called the Jaffa Schule. They began the school year in their own apartment with 17 students and ended it with 47, by which time they had moved into larger quarters in Neve Shalom, one of the first Jewish neighborhoods built outside of Jaffa.

Named for Herzl the man

The idea to establish a Hebrew gymnasium -- in the European sense, that of a secondary school offering an academic curriculum that would equip graduates for entry to university – was discussed at the 1907 Zionist Congress, held in The Hague. Jacob Moser, a delegate from Bradford, England, announced on the spot that he was prepared to donate 10,000 francs for such an institution, on the condition it be named for Theodor Herzl, who had died three years earlier. (Thus, the name “Herzliya” is a reference to Herzl the man, not the city north of Tel Aviv that was named for him in 1924.)

As plans went ahead for such a school, three different municipalities vied for the privilege of hosting it – Zichron Yaakov, Petah Tikva and, again, Rishon Letzion. But the association entrusted with planning the school decided in the end to house it in the planned new neighborhood of Ahuzat Bayit, the first neighborhood to be established in the new municipality of Tel Aviv, and it asked the Jewish National Fund to buy it a parcel of land there.

At the same time, the association invited the architect Joseph Barsky to design it. The plan he came up, together with Bezalel Schatz, with was supposed to be evocative of the walled city of Jerusalem, with the central section of the school said to be based on the Bible’s description of Solomon’s Temple.

Without the dome, though

Barsky’s plan was approved by the World Zionist Organization in the spring of 1909, although it asked him to remove the dome he had included in the plan, which the officials thought made it resemble a mosque.

The plot designated for the building was at the corner of Herzl and Ahad Ha’am streets. It was there, on the afternoon of July 28, 1909, that students, teachers and officials met for the official laying of the cornerstone.

A choir sang the Zionist hymn, Hativka, and there were addresses by Yehuda Leib Metman-Cohen, Baruch Mosinzon, a teacher, and Menachem Sheinkin, from the school association.

Addressing the young people there, Metman-Cohen declared, “Don’t think that our goal is simply to create another physician, another architect, another learned person. Our concern is for an entire generation, and it is our greatest hope that the Gymnasium will bring forth a generation of learned Hebrews, who will be fitting, according to their opinions and feelings to walk before the people, showing them the way.”

The ceremony ended with the chanting of El Malei Rahamim, in memory of Theodor Herzl.

The first floor of the school building was complete by the following spring, and the second floor by late summer, so that the new Gymnasia Herzliya could open for the 1910-1911 school year that fall. It remained in operation through 1959, when it was closed and later demolished, so that the Shalom Meir Tower, at the time the Middle East’s tallest building, could rise on the location.

Public regret over the destruction of what was widely perceived as a landmark, replaced with what came to be considered an eyesore, led to stricter preservation rules.

For its part, the Gymnasia moved to a new building on Jabotinsky St. All that remains of the original building erected in 1909 is a silhouette of it on the front gate of the campus.