Daily Israel Report

Op-Ed: From Ruin to Reconstruction

After a week of hearing Moslems say that rebuilding a synagogue in the Old City of Jeusalem is a provocation--and the canard that it is on top of a mosque--here is the real saga of the Hurva, a very Jewish tale.
Published: Wednesday, March 17, 2010 11:43 PM


After four years of construction, the Jewish Quarter’s landmark Hurva Synagogue – built by Polish Jews in 1701, destroyed by Arab creditors two decades later, rebuilt in 1864 by followers of the Vilna Gaon, and dynamited in 1948 by Jordan’s Arab Legion – was re-dedicated on March 15-16, 2010. All the rest is commentary.

During a media tour, a beaming Nissim Arazi, who since 2003 has served as the CEO of the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem Ltd. (the JQDC), showed off the venerable if controversial NIS 43 million project which has been his dream for nearly a decade.

As the Hurva’s construction crane was being taken down – and freeing the largest square in the crowded Jewish Quarter - Arazi launched into the synagogue’s convoluted story, hailing the many figures responsible for the rebuilding. In 1999, he explained, a public committee was formed by then Minister of Housing, Rabbi Yitzhak Levi and headed by Rabbi Simha Hacohen Kook with the intention of recreating the building whose famous dome once dominated the skyline of the Jewish Quarter.

The two ultimately prevailed, ending a protracted architectural argument about whether to build a new synagogue or to symbolically copy a building which had been the center of cultural and spiritual life in Israel and the Jewish Quarter in the second half of the 19th Century and first half of the 20th. Tradition won out over modernity: a plan was adopted to faithfully reconstruct the quadrangular synagogue with its central dome designed by Ottoman court builder Assad Effendi, incorporating the extent ruins.

Before construction could begin, Arazi noted, the Israel Antiquities Authority conducted a thorough survey of the site. That dig, directed by archaeologists Hillel Geva and Oren Gutfeld, exposed findings dating back to the First Temple period and three plastered ritual baths from the time of Herod. The most significant discovery was an intact
The outgunned defenders of the Jewish Quarter ... surrendered on May 28, 1948 in arguably Israel’s worst defeat during the War of Independence.
Byzantine arch standing along the remnant of a stone-paved street leading off from the Cardo. The arch - 3.7-meters wide, 1.3-meters thick and five-meters high - is preserved in the basement of the Hurva.

The archaeologists also found a small weapons “slick” from the riots of 1936, seemingly overlooked by the outgunned defenders of the Jewish Quarter who surrendered on May 28, 1948 in arguably Israel’s worst defeat during the War of Independence.

Moving indoors and dodging construction workers and porters delivering the pews, Arazi discussed the furnishings, stained glass windows and wall paintings. (At the time of the tour the chandeliers, Torah ark cover and other furnishings had yet to be installed.) The two-storey high Torah ark is a faithful copy of the original that was carved in Ukraine, he explained. In another layer of symbolism, Arazi noted that Ukrainian oligarchs Vadim Rabinovich and Igor Kolomoisky were key donors of the new synagogue.

Selecting an interior design was problematic since the Hurva had undergone various renovations over the decades, Arazi noted. According to B&W and color photos unearthed by Israel Antiquities Authority restoration expert Faina Milstein, there were three stages in the decoration and painting of the prayer hall, each “correcting” the previous – from 1864 until the 1920s, from the 20's to the early 1940s, and from 1940-41 until the synagogue's destruction in May 1948.

Arazi and his steering committee selected a minimalist approach sensitive to Assad Effendi’s original design – thus visually emphasizing the Holy Ark and pulpit, as well as the remaining non-plastered masonry walls still standing after the building was blown up. Pointing to the relatively small women’s gallery upstairs, Arazi noted that stepped platforms were added in the new building where none had originally existed so as to maximize worshippers’ view.

Under the barrel dome Arazi opted, based on the spirit of the past paintings, to depict holy cities and sites in Israel. Jerusalem is symbolized by the Tower of David; Bethlehem by Rachel's Tomb; Tiberias by a view of the Sea of Galilee; and Hebron by the Cave of the Patriarchs. Above the main door is a painting depicting Psalm 137:1 “By the waters of Babylon there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” Artist Yael Kilmenik’s designs, none of which include human figures, allude to the romantic style of Bezalel founder Boris Schatz.

Turning to discuss the operation of the rebuilt Hurva, Arazi was on shakier ground. Though built by the JQDC in accordance with the decision of the Israeli government, the synagogue will be jointly operated by the Company and the Western Wall Heritage Foundation now headed by Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich.


Rehovot's chief rabbi Simcha Hacohen Kook was appointed as a rabbi for the synagogue. Kook, who is considered close to the ultra-Orthodox non-Hassidic leader Rabbi Yosef Elyashiv, was chosen by a panel of rabbis, with the blessing of Sephardic Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar.

Arazi promised the Hurva will be operated for the general public, including Jewish Quarter residents, Israeli visitors and foreign tourists. With only 200 seats in the vast building, it remains to be seen who the congregants will be.

The Hurva symbolizes the fortunes of Jerusalem's yishuv over the last three centuries. In 1700, Rabbi Yehuda he-Hassid (Segal), a preacher who may have secretly believed in the false messiah Shabtai Zvi, led an en masse aliya of between 300 and 1,000 of his followers (sources vary on the number) from Siedlce, Poland to the Holy City. It was the largest immigration of Jews to the Land of Israel in centuries.
 
The group bought the courtyard next to the Ramban Synagogue – which itself stood on the ruins of the Crusader church of St. Martin. The Ramban synagogue, named for the Spanish sage Moshe ben Nachman who founded the house of worship in 1267, had been closed by the Ottomans in 1589 due to Muslim incitement. Here the rabbi and his Ashkenazi followers began building a large synagogue to accommodate the increased Jewish population of the city.
 
The project foundered on internal dissent, debt and the sudden death of the charismatic rabbi. In 1720 Arab creditors burned the unfinished structure together with the 40 Torah scrolls it contained. Whence the ruined site became known as Hurvat Rav Yehudah ha-Hasid — the Ruin of Rabbi Judah the Pious, or simply "the Hurva".

In 1836 the site was returned to the Ashkenazi community by the Egyptian reformer Ibrahim Pasha, and a modest
In May 1948, the Jordanians blew up the synagogue in an act of cultural vandalism, just as they desecrated all 58 of the Jewish Quarter’s synagogues.
synagogue, yeshiva and mikveh were consecrated there the following year. In 1856 Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Tzoref together with British philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore received a fiman from Sultan Abdulmecid permitting an expansive new synagogue – and forgiving the old debt. Montefiore personally brought the imperial edict from Constantinople (today Istanbul) during his fifth visit to the Holy Land. 

The cornerstone was quickly laid in the presence Chief Rabbi Shmuel Salant, who had been instrumental is raising the necessary funding – and paying the requisite baksheesh, and Baron Alphonse James de Rotschild, brother of Edmond James de Rotschild who dedicated much of his life to supporting the Jews of Palestine. The not yet built synagogue was officially named Beit Yaakov — House of Jacob — after their father Baron James (Yaacov) Rotschild although popularly it continued to be called the Hurva.

Construction progressed fitfully. Emissaries crisscrossed Europe collecting funds with the slogan "Merit eternal life with one stone". The new synagogue was intended as an Ashkenazi house of prayer, in particular for the Perushim also called Misnagdim – disciples of Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman Kramer (1720–1797), better known as the Vilna Gaon, who had immigrated to Palestine in the early 1800s but settled in Safed to avoid the outstanding debt from the time of Yehuda he-Hassid. Dressed in the traditional Damascene garb of local Arabized Jews, called Musta’arabeen, some of the Perushim had moved to Jerusalem, especially after the earthquake that devastated Safed in 1837.

Notwithstanding the inter-ethnic rifts between the Sephardim and the two main Ashkenazi factions the Hassidim and their opponents who followed the Vilna Gaon, the largest single gift to build the Hurva came from Yechezkel Reuben, a wealthy Sephardi merchant from Baghdad, who donated one tenth of the one million piasters needed. Another contributor was Prussia's King Frederick William IV.

The synagogue, finally completed in 1864. was designed by the Sultan's official architect Assad Effendi – who had come to Jerusalem to restore the Islamic shrines on the Haram ash-Sharif. Effendi’s neo-Byzantine design, evoking Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia cathedral and imperial mosques, contained 14-meter-high window arches and a domed ceiling that soared 27 meters.

The Hurva became identified with the return of the Jewish people to its homeland. Theodor Herzl visited there in 1898. Similarly shortly after Sir Herbert Samuel disembarked in Jaffa in 1920 wearing a white uniform with a gleaming sword strapped to his waist, the first British High Commissioner for Palestine stood up in the Hurva on the Sabbath following Tisha b’Av to proclaim: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, says the Lord.” (Isaiah 40:1)

But the hour of redemption had not come. Two days after conquering the Jewish Quarter in May 1948, the Jordanians blew up the synagogue in an act of cultural vandalism, just as they desecrated all 58 of the Jewish Quarter’s synagogues. Abdullah a-Tal, commander of the 6th Battalion of the Arab Legion, reported to headquarters: "For the first time in 1,000 years not a single Jew remains in the Jewish Quarter. Not a single building remains intact. This makes the Jews' return here impossible."

After the re-unification of Jerusalem in the 1967 Six-Day War, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Tzoref's great-great-grandson Ya'acov Salomon led a campaign to rebuild the Hurva as part of the complete reconstruction of the Jewish Quarter. Salomon turned to Ram Karmi, who was to subsequently design Israel's Supreme Court together with his architect sister Ada Karmi-Melamede.

Karmi proposed Louis Kahn, the famous Philadelphia modernist architect who was also a founding member of Teddy Kollek's Jerusalem Committee. Between 1968 and 1973, Kahn presented three visionary plans for the Hurva, each of which would have left the synagogue ruins in place as a memorial garden, and placed the new structure on an adjacent lot. More controversially, his plan called for a promenade, dubbed "the Route of the Prophets," to connect the complex with the nearby Western Wall.

Kahn’s Hurva, like his similarly never realized Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, represented a fresh paradigm for synagogue architecture. As Susan Solomon writes in Louis I. Kahn’s Jewish Architecture, the buildings transcended modernism to define a new identity.

For years, Kahn's model was on display in the Israel Museum, but after the architect died in 1974 his plans were shelved. This was due to a combination of bureaucratic inaction and aesthetic misgivings of the design which was described as "too radical" for government officials. Former mayor Teddy Kollek wrote candidly to Kahn in 1968 that "the decision concerning your plans is essentially a political one. Should we in the Jewish Quarter have a building of major importance which competes with the (al-Aqsa) Mosque and the Holy Sepulcher, and should we in general have any building which would compete in importance with the Western Wall?"

Boston-based architect Moshe Safdie, who has built extensively in Jerusalem including Yad Vashem and Mamilla, and who trained with Kahn in Philadelphia, also favored a modern design for the Hurva. "It's absurd to reconstruct the Hurva as if nothing had happened. If we have the desire to rebuild it, let's have the courage to have a great architect do it."

The aesthetic brouhaha ultimately led to the losing of the gift of Sir Charles Clore, a British financier and owner of Selfridges department store. Yet another plan was drawn up by Sir Denys Lasdun, the designer of London's Royal
In 1978, one of the four arches that had originally supported the synagogue’s monumental dome was symbolically rebuilt.
National Theatre. But then Minister of the Interior Menachem Begin refused to sign the papers authorizing construction to begin. Time ran out, Clore passed away in 1979, and the Hurva was not rebuilt.
 
Instead in 1978, one of the four arches that had originally supported the synagogue’s monumental dome was symbolically rebuilt as a stark reminder of the grand building that had once stood there.
 
Finally in 2005, the Israeli government announced that Assad Effendi's 19th-century design would be faithfully rebuilt, and allocated NIS 28 million to the Jewish Quarter Development Corporation. Jerusalem architect Nahum Meltzer was given the task of updating the Ottoman design to today's building code.

While the project is now finished, the ghosts of the past still haunt the scene. Writing in Forward in 2007 as the Hurva was rising, historian Gavriel Rosenfeld, co-author of Beyond Berlin: Twelve German Cities Confront the Nazi Past, noted the manifold links between architecture, politics and memory.

“The reconstruction of the Hurva seems to reflect an emotional longing to undo the past. It has long been recognized that efforts to restore ruins reflect a desire to forget the painful memories that they elicit. Calls to rebuild the Word Trade Center towers as they were before the September 11, 2001, attacks represent a clear (if unrealized) instance of this yearning. And the recently completed reconstruction of Dresden’s famous Frauenkirche — long a heap of rubble after being flattened by Allied bombers in February 1945 — represents a notable example of translating this impulse into reality.

“And yet, the reconstruction project is problematic, for in seeking to undo the verdict of the past, the project will end up denying it. Denial is inherent in the restoration of ruins, as is frequently shown by the arguments used to justify such projects. In Dresden, for example, many supporters of the Frauenkirche’s restoration portrayed themselves as the innocent inhabitants of a city that was unjustly bombed in 1945, thereby obscuring the city’s
In seeking to undo the verdict of the past, the [rebuilding] project will end up denying it.
longtime support for the Nazi regime and its war of aggression during the years of the Third Reich. Similarly, the physical appearance of the restored Frauenkirche — despite its incorporation of some of the original church’s visibly scorched stones — has effectively eliminated the signs of the war that its ruin once vividly evoked.

“In the case of the Hurva, the situation is somewhat different. If many Germans in Dresden emphasized their status as victims to justify rebuilding their ruined church, the Israeli campaign to reconstruct the Hurva will do precisely the opposite — namely, obscure traces of their victimization. As long as the Hurva stood as a hulking ruin, after all, it served as a reminder of Israeli suffering at the hands of the Jordanians.

Kollek said as much in 1991, when he noted: “It is difficult to impress upon the world the degree of destruction the Jordanian authorities visited upon synagogues in the Old City…. The Hurva remnants are the clearest evidence we have today of that.” Indeed, as a ruin, the Hurva served the same kind of function as sites such as Masada and Yad Vashem — which, by highlighting the tragedies of the Jewish past, helped to confirm the Israeli state as the chief guarantor of the Jewish people’s future.

“At the same time, however, it seems the Hurva’s existence as a ruin conflicted with the State of Israel’s Zionist master narrative: the idea that ultimately, heroic achievement triumphs over helplessness. In fact, in the end it may be the project’s ability to confirm the national desire to control its own destiny that best explains its appeal. Israel faces many intractable problems that make present-day life uncertain. But in the realm of architecture, Israelis can indulge in the illusion that they can at least control and manipulate the past. In this sense, the Hurva’s reconstruction may express deeper escapist fantasies in an unpredictable present.”

Rosenfeld’s theorizing makes little impression on Nissim Arazi. Even as the CEO faces the end of his term at the helm of the JQDC, he is moving ahead with his next visionary project on the scale of the rebuilt Hurva – a faithful reconstruction of the Jewish Quarter’s second largest destroyed synagogue the Tiferet Israel.

Together the two rebuilt monuments will engage Jerusalem’s skyline not as authentic landmarks but, as Rosenfeld noted, "postmodern simulacrum."