Few men in history have impacted the renewal of Jewish life in Jerusalem more indelibly than Irving Moskowitz, who died on Thursday at the age of 88.
Through The Moskowitz Foundation, founded in 1968 with his wife, Cherna, Moskowitz donated untold millions of dollars to buy homes and institutions for Jews in eastern Jerusalem’s primarily Arab neighborhoods via Ateret Cohanim and the Ir David Foundation.
“The hundreds of families of the Old City, the old Yemenite village of Shiloach, Ir David, Ma’aleh Hazeitim, Shimon Hatzaddik, Kidmat Zion, Abu Tor, Beit Orot and the future families of Ganei Yitzchak are all ‘his families and homes,’” Executive Director of Ateret Cohanim Daniel Lauria said on Sunday.
Moskowitz first became involved with the return of Jews to eastern Jerusalem 38 years ago, following an introduction to Ateret Cohanim’s founder Mati Dan by the philanthropist’s Los Angeles rabbi, Avraham Yeshayahu (Simon) Dolgin.
“From his first check helping to purchase or redeem Yeshivat Chayei Olam (today Yeshivat Bratslav Shuvu Banim), to the unfolding building project of the Shefer Hotel (Ganei Yitzchak) near Mount Scopus and the Shimon Hatzaddik neighborhood, Irving and Cherna have been involved in nearly every significant building project in the eastern sectors of Jerusalem,” Lauria said.
Indeed, after purchasing Yeshivat Bratslav Shuvu Banim nearly 40 years ago in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, Lauria said Moskowitz’s involvement grew exponentially.
His efforts were not without controversy.
In 1996, Moskowitz’s ambitious project to open the Western Wall’s tunnels to tourists was met by Arab rioting following fallacious claims by Islamic groups that the true goal of the initiative was to take over the Temple Mount.
“It had nothing to do with the Temple Mount, he just wanted the Jewish people to appreciate the full extent of the Western Wall tunnels,” Lauria said. “Since then millions of people have walked through the Kotel’s tunnels all because of his involvement.”
Moskowitz also became involved in establishing Yeshiva Beit Orot, between Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives, while concurrently spearheading controversial housing projects in the City of David and Silwan.
According to Lauria, the driving force behind Moskowitz’s work was the loss of 120 family members during the Holocaust.
“Because of the number of people that were lost in his family in Europe, I think that one of the things that drove him was he couldn’t handle the concept that Jews were not allowed to live in certain areas,” he said.
“So the revival of Jewish life in Jerusalem – the fact that we had our own state and weren’t going to be told where to live – was very paramount in his thinking. I think that in the back of his mind, Jews being driven out of Europe and Jews being driven out of the Yemenite village (Silwan) – to be able to go back there was very important for him, and if there were Arabs ready to sell than he was ready to get the job done.”
Perhaps most notably, in 1996 Moskowitz laid the ground work for his “crown jewel” Maaleh Hazeitim, a community housing 110 Jewish families in the Arab neighborhood of Ras el-Amud, located on the Mount of Olives.
“That is without a doubt one of the biggest success stories of the organization,” said Lauria, noting that the development drew international condemnation from the UN, EU and Arab League, among numerous other organizations.
“Now there are 110 Jewish families on the Mount of Olives, with each family having seven or eight children.
He purchased and purchased more, he built Jewish neighborhoods, he added Jewish life to the Holy Basin, and thus easily stepped into the enormous shoes of Rothschild and Montefiore.”
Posthumously, Lauria said Moskowitz’s contributions can still be felt throughout the Old City and surrounding areas every day.
Moreover, plans are presently under way for the Jewish neighborhood of Kidmat Zion, which will include 300 residential units east of the Mount of Olives, located on the eastern border of Jerusalem.
While Lauria conceded that approval for the neighborhood is still ongoing, he said that Moskowitz’s contributions in the capital remain unmatched.
“He had the crown of Jerusalem on his head,” he said of the father of eight, grandfather of 42, and great grandfather of seven. While Laura and countless other Jews from across the globe praised Moskowitz for his contribution to the Jewish return to all areas of Jerusalem, he also drew the ire of critics who claimed he was using his money to “change facts of the ground.”
Yonotan Mizrachi, executive director of Emek Shaveh, a leftwing consortium of archeologists and activists which has repeatedly condemned the “Judiazation” of east Jerusalem, is among them.
“I think that Moskowitz for decades tried to change the Old City and east Jerusalem by buying houses and making Jerusalem more Israeli, and he received a lot of attention for this,” Mizrachi said on Sunday.
“Everybody has the right to their own ideology, but my point of view is that this conflict cannot be solved with money. It’s not about money and how many houses you can buy and how many donors you get, which is really important. And I think that Irving Moskowitz is an example that money cannot change Jerusalem because after decades of what he did east Jerusalem is still mostly Palestinian.”
Noting that the vast majority of Israelis do not venture into the eastern portion of the capital, Mizrachi contended that despite the millions he donated, little has actually changed.
“I’m not underestimating what he did, and I’m not saying he didn’t cause a lot of problems by trying to take over houses in east Jerusalem, but he didn’t change the character of east Jerusalem, and it’s not because of his ability or because he is not rich enough or not good enough or not smart enough… it’s because this is a political conflict that cannot be solved with money.”
Still, Lauria asserts that Moskowitz “redeemed and reclaimed Jerusalem for the Jewish people, and has thus ensured that a united Jerusalem stays in Jewish hands for generations.”
“There are many Jews who know from where they came,” he said. “They have history, heritage and roots, but they may not have a sense of the now – of the greatness of the hour for the Jewish people. Irving Moskowitz had both. He knew from where he came, and he knew where he was going.”