Daily Israel Report

Video: First Visit to the Rebuilt Hurva Synagogue

A week before the official dedication - see the inside of the restored and rebuilt Hurva synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem
By Yoni Kempinski
First Publish: 3/8/2010, 2:02 PM / Last Update: 3/8/2010, 5:59 PM

The restoration and construction of the Hurva Synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem nears completion, with the dedication of the synagogue scheduled for next Monday, March 15. The Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter has completed one of the artistic aspects of the project - restoration of the synagogue's wall paintings. Arutz Sheva TV brings you in to the synagogue for a first visit to the restored Hurva.

A significant difficulty in the preservation and internal renewal of the Hurva Synagogue, which had been the center of life in ancient Jerusalem until Arabs destroyed it in 1948, was dealing with the many alterations that took place over the years the synagogue stood. The Holy Ark curtains, wall paintings, lamps, pulpits and other parts of the synagogue had all undergone various changes. leaving the restorers with the need to decide on which period of time the restoration should be based. 

The wall paintings which adorned the synagogue walls during its existence between 1864 and 1948 were changed from time to time, and a brave decision needed to be made regarding which historical paintings would adorn the newly-constructed building. Finally, after a fascinating debate, the steering committee headed by Nissim Arazi,  director of the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter, decided that based on the spirit of the past paintings, each of the synagogue walls would showcase a painting of one of several holy cities in the Land of Israel: Jerusalem (the Tower of David), Bethlehem (Rachel's Tomb), Tiberias (a view of the Lake of Galilee and the old settlement), and Hevron (Cave of the Patriarchs). Bethlehem was included although it is not one of the four holy traditional holy cities, which also notes Tzfat.

Restoration of the wall paintings entailed conducting a search for the names of the artisans who had decorated the synagogue in each period of time separately, an in-depth analysis of the painting methods and technologies of every period, examination of historical photographs in order to compare colors between black and white photos and those in color, analysis of the paintings' compositions and thorough comparison between the periods, and analysis of issues regarding wall paintings in synagogues in general and in the Hurva in particular. 

Israel Antiquities Authority researcher and restoration architect, Faina Milstein, identified three main stages in the development of the paintings in the prayer hall with each one having undergone correction work of different elements: the first – from 1864 until the 1920s, the second – from the 20s to the early 40s of the 20th century, and the last – from 1940-41 until the synagogue's destruction in 1948. 

In the first stage, the wall paintings were focused in the upper levels of the prayer hall and did not completely cover all the walls of the synagogue. In later periods, paintings were added that intensively covered the walls, decorated the wall’s sides and cornices, the walls between the arcs and the dome. 

The current paintings were designed by Hurva architect Nahum Meltzer based on the research material and executed by the artist Yael Kilmenik. Meltzer chose to remain loyal to the original design which allowed for visual emphasis of the Holy Ark and the pulpit against the background of the smooth and light walls versus the color of the wood, while simultaneously adding secondary emphasis to the wall’s sides and dome when looking up. 

For Kilmenik, who worked with and was trained by the French wall painting group Cite de la Creations and worked on all the large wall paintings in Jerusalem over the last several years, this project was extraordinary. "For the first time, I became part of the historical chain of a place", says Kilmenik. "Usually, we paint history; this time I am a part of history". 

Kilmenik used acrylic paints suited for external walls.  Some of the paintings were done directly on the walls while others were first painted on cloth in a studio and later hung in their ultimate location in the synagogue. Altogether, approximately 30 square meters of wall paintings were painted along with another 80 running meters of ornamentation.  The largest of the paintings deals with a verse from Psalms 137, "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept…we hanged up our harps." 

The Hurva Synagogue will be dedicated on the eve of Rosh Chodesh (first day of the Hebrew month) Nissan, 5770 (the day construction of the Biblical Tabernacle was completed), in the presence of ministers, Members of Knesset, rabbis and other dignitaries. 

The synagogue will host regular prayer services, visitors and tours. During the opening week, the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter will conduct free tours during the day and will show a sound and light presentation during evening hours.