Forty Years On, They Still Come Back to Pray

The Great Sephardic Synagogue in the Yemin Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem is a story of continued social protest. Almost 40 years have passed since the municipality evicted the neighborhood's veteran residents. Nevertheless, every Shabbat and holiday they continue to come, from all corners of Jerusalem, to the synagogue they had restored with their own hands. They hold lessons and prayers according to the traditions and melodies of the Turkish Jewish community, and they find it difficult to forget the eviction they consider an insult.

The municipality evicted the Yemin Moshe residents after the 1967 Six-Day War to set up an artists' colony in the quarter. The synagogue left behind is not merely a place of worship, but also a means of returning week after week to what once was, to the Yemin Moshe of those days.

Reuven Gafni, an expert on Jerusalem synagogues, has published a new book about the synagogues hidden in the heart of the city ("House of Prayer," in Hebrew). The Yemin Moshe experience, he says, represents a unique form of social protest: "While it is possible to remove the residents from the neighborhood," says Gafni, "it is not possible to remove the neighborhood from [the hearts of] the residents."

Meager compensation

Until 1967, Yemin Moshe was, in effect, a border neighborhood. The new immigrants housed there, mostly from Turkey, faced financial and security woes, with shooting from the Jordanian side of the border making their lives in the quarter especially difficult. However, post-Six-Day War, none of the powers that be remembered how the residents had managed to survive those difficult days. The city paid the residents little compensation for their homes. Despite protest, almost all of them were forced to leave.

In the 1970s, the quarter's colorful lanes, emptied of the less well off, became the home of the rich.

The first families in Yemin Moshe had been mostly Sephardi, and they wished to establish a Sephardic synagogue in their neighborhood. They were allocated an unusual space for a synagogue - inside the windmill next to Mishkenot Sha'ananim, which was built in 1860, some 30 years before Yemin Moshe. A few years later they asked for a permanent site and they had quite an original plan. It is customary in Jerusalem for one of the walls of a synagogue to face the Western Wall of the Temple, but the Yemin Moshe house of prayer was built as a continuation of the row of houses attached to it higher up the street, so for worshipers to face the Western Wall in the east, the Holy Ark was placed in its northeastern corner, and the bima in the center of the prayer hall, on a slant, so it would be opposite the Holy Ark.

Getting there on foot

Old-time former residents were not eager to talk about their eviction. Haim Yom-Tov, the cantor, Yaakov Gabai and their friends recall a proposal to turn the synagogue into a small museum on Yemin Moshe's past. The worshipers turned it down, preferring to come to the synagogue from their new homes, though some were distant. Haim Yom-Tov comes there on foot from his home on Bethlehem Road. Others walk and some come by car. Haim Mills comes from the northern neighborhood of Neveh Yaakov; Mordechai Fransis from Katamon; Menashe Penso from Bak'a and Yaakov Gabai from Malcha. Yemin Moshe, they say, was characterized by an atmosphere of a community with "open doors" with the synagogue serving as a focal point of their lives, nothing like today's affluent neighborhood of artists, journalists and foreign residents, some of whom live here only a few months a year.

Early on Yemin Moshe was known as a neighborhood where rabbis and scholars lived, the vast majority of them from the Sephardi community. Gafni says that over the years, quite a few well-known rabbis served in the neighborhood synagogue. A well-known Torah scholar, Rabbi Yitzhak Ben-Michael Badahav, lived for several years in a room under the synagogue. He was also an important collector of books and manuscripts. Another well-known book collector who prayed at the synagogue was Rabbi Ben Zion Koyanka, who was best known for editing and publishing a journal about Torah studies, "Hame'asef."

Rabbi Yaakov Hai Bechor Nissim was the chief beadle in the early years, and other founders were Rabbi Shmuel Meyuhas and Rabbi Yitzhak Dassa, who used to earn a living by grinding flour in the mill he owned in a nearby Arab neighborhood. In the 1940s, the British authorities appointed his grandson, Moshe Nissim Dassa, the "mukhtar" (chief) of the quarter. He served in this post until the area was evacuated during the War of Independence. After the war, the Dassa family founded an alternative synagogue for the refugees from Yemin Moshe, in the Lifta Illit quarter of Jerusalem, which was called Beit Yaakov, after Rabbi Yaakov Dassa, the last Sephardi rabbi of Yemin Moshe.

A hideout in the Holy Ark

The synagogue reflected the security difficulties the neighborhood faced. When the residents were forced to leave for a few months during the War of Independence, the synagogue stood deserted. Gafni writes in his book that as early as the 1930s, the residents of Yemin Moshe tried to reach an accommodation with the Arabs living on the slopes of Mount Zion and its surroundings (who would shoot at them) by making a covenant with the (Arab) Dajani family who lived on Mount Zion.

After the anti-Jewish violence of 1929, in which Yemin Moshe was attacked, the neighborhood committee put up iron gates that were locked at night. But homes and the synagogue still came under fire and were hit. With the help of the Haganah, the pre-state underground army, residents created hidden weapons caches. One of them was in the Sephardic synagogue's Holy Ark.

Early in 1948, the Arab forces repeatedly tried to break through to the houses of the quarter, and during February almost all the residents of Yemin Moshe fled to other neighborhoods. The synagogue was converted into a military outpost.

When the war was over, those who had been evacuated did not return. The quarter was populated with new immigrants. One of the first steps the mostly Turkish Jewish immigrants took was to restore the empty synagogue, but the security problems did not disappear and during the 19 years from 1948 to 1967, the neighborhood and synagogue suffered repeated salvos of fire from the positions of the Jordanian army. The bullet marks are still visible on the eastern side of the bima.