Hurva History: Rebuilding a Legend
To many, the recently reconstructed Hurva Synagogue symbolizes a tremendous step for Israel on a world scale and on a Jewish scale. Just after U.S. Vice President Joe Biden's visit to Israel to pressure the Jewish State to cease all construction in Jerusalem, Israel completed the Hurva Synagogue in a message that clearly read, 'We are our own country. We can no longer be pressured by you.'
Israel National Radio's Yishai Fleisher interviewed Meir Eisenman, a man with close family ties to the synagogue, about its deep and rich history and about its symbolic nature for Jews around the world. Click here to listen to the interview.
Meir Eisenman is an eighth-generation descendant of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Tzoref, who in 1829 tried to rebuild the Hurva Synagogue. Amazingly, Eisenman related, the synagogue's history begins even earlier, in the year 1700 when Yehuda the Chasid made Aliyah with hundreds of Jewish followers from Europe. Israel was under Muslim rule at the time, and the Muslims limited by law the number of Jewish families who could live in one area. However, the Muslims allowed this large group of Jews to stay primarily because the Jews were a great source of income, as the Muslims lent them money at an exorbitant interest rate.
Yehuda the Chasid passed away a few years after his arrival, leaving the Jews without a leader. Nevertheless, the Jews still managed to carve out for themselves dwellings and a small synagogue in the Old City. Later on, the Jews felt the need to build a more extravagant synagogue, but as construction proceeded, it became more expensive. The synagogue was soon completed, but the Jews fell into severe debt. In the year 1720, the Arab creditors lost patience with the Jews and proceeded to raze the synagogue to the ground and burn 40 Torah scrolls. The European Jews were expelled, and no more Jews from Europe were allowed into the area.
In approximately 1811, a group of Jews made Aliyah from Lithuania to Tzfat. Some had originally hoped to settle in Jerusalem instead, but fear of the descendants of the Arab creditors dissuaded them. Despite their fear, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov and some brave followers settled in Jerusalem and made it their goal to rebuild the synagogue. To them, this synagogue symbolized the expulsion of the Ashkenazi European Jewry, and if the synagogue were to be rebuilt, it would reestablish the presence of Ashkenazi Jews in the Holy Land.
They tried several times to have their outstanding debts with the Arabs absolved, but they failed - until the year 1819, when they received ownership of the land acquired from Yehuda the Chasid. This did not grant them the necessary permission to start construction on the synagogue, however. Only in 1836, five years after Jerusalem was annexed by Mohammed Ali, ruler of Egypt, did the situation change. Rabbi Tzoref petitioned Mohammed for permission to build the synagogue, but Mohammed was unwilling. Rabbi Tzoref then received backing from Baron Salomon Mayer von Rothschild, who pledged to fund Ali's government, and Ali finally agreed to grant permission to build a synagogue. However, for various reasons, they left the ruins and built a smaller synagogue nearby, known as Menachem Zion.
In the year 1856, the Ashkenazi Jews felt confident enough to rebuild the Hurva itself. They decided to take advantage of the Crimean War and ask for permission to build the synagogue - and miraculously, they received it. The Jews believed they had a large enough lump sum to pay for the completed synagogue, but as the opulence of the synagogue grew, so did the expenses. Jews around the world, both Sephardim and Ashkenazim, sent in donations to help complete construction; it marked an important moment of Jewish unity.
Finally, in 1864, the synagogue was completed and dedicated. It marked the second time the synagogue stood behind the walls of Jerusalem. The synagogue stood proudly for 84 years until it was obliterated by Jordanian forces on May 27, 1948, in the battle for the Old City during the War of Independence. The Jordanians had threatened to blow up the Hurva unless the Haganah surrendered. The Haganah refused, and the Jordanians made good on their threat and destroyed the holy site.
In 1967, the area was liberated once again by Israeli forces, bringing the entire city of Jerusalem under Jewish control. Many different proposals were proposed on how to either rebuild or commemorate the Hurva Synagogue. No agreement could be reached, and ultimately, planners had to settle on recreating an arch from the original Hurva and placing it on the site. Together, the remains of the building and the explanatory plaques served as a somber reminder of what had been lost.
At long last, in the year 2000, plans were approved to reconstruct the Hurva in the style in which it was built, and after years of extensive research, in the year 2005, construction actually began. On March 15, 2010, the Hurva opened for the third and hopefully final time, and on March 20, Sabbath services were held there for the first time in nearly 62 years.