‘Haredi students have seized control of Hurva synagogue'

Historic Old City site turned into private study center.

June 6, 2010 05:33
4 minute read.
The Hurva Synagogue. It costs NIS25 to enter, when

Hurva Synagogue 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post)

Although the rebuilding and rededication of the historic Hurva synagogue was welcomed with much cheer and celebration in Jerusalem’s Old City in March, scores of visitors now complain that they are being turned away from its gates almost all the time by a small group of haredi men who have turned the Hurva into their private study center.

“It makes life very difficult,” tour guide Walter Zanger told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. “Religious attractions, and specifically the Hurva synagogue, have been turned over to the exclusive jurisdiction of the rabbis and religious authorities, even though the sites hold historic and archeological value as well.”

Zanger, who has been working as a tour guide for 30 years, explained that on numerous occasions, he has led groups who have expressed great interest in seeing the inside of the house of prayer, only to be told upon arrival at the Hurva’s front gates that they need a reservation, they need to buy tickets or that tours of the site are not available at that particular time.

“I’m with a group, I’ve told them about the Hurva, I’ve shown them pictures of the Hurva, and they’re excited,” Zanger said. “And then, when we finally get to the Hurva – and surprise! We can’t get in.

“Additionally, they will tell us that the groups have to go on one of their tours, with one of their own guides, at times which are convenient for them, not necessarily for your own itinerary.

“This is an unprecedented situation in world tourism,” Zanger said.

“I have been in the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, in Westminster Abbey in London, in St. Peter’s in Rome, the Duomo of Milano, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. And here is the Hurva – the only house of worship on the planet that you have to pay to get into, unless you come in at times of prayer, when you can’t really tour.

“And it has nothing to do with crowds or crowd control,” he continued. “In all these famous places, you come when you like and wait in line if there is a crowd. You never have to reserve, and you certainly don’t have to pay. It’s really an intolerable situation.”

Rachel Azaria, the chairwoman of the Yerushalmim city council list, has made the “intolerable” situation at the Hurva one of her prime concerns, and has begun working for free access to all who wish to visit the site.

“The Hurva was built after a government decision allowed its reconstruction to go forward and with the money of Jewish philanthropists,” Azaria said. “The idea was that it was supposed to be a national heritage site where everyone could go, and a house of prayer. It was supposed to be for tourists, and, three times a day, prayers.

“The Hurva was rebuilt by the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter and it is run by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which built a kollel next to it,” she said.

“The kollel students were supposed to study in the kollel, and tourists would be able to visit the synagogue itself. But now they’ve set it up so that it costs NIS 25 to enter, and you have to make your reservation way in advance,” she said. “They also say that there are safety issues, but this is where it gets complicated.

“They won’t let anyone go into the men’s section, only the women’s section,” she said. “There are stairs to get there, and only one group can go up at a time. So instead of just opening the synagogue and saying, ‘Okay, you can go in,’ they have closed the men’s section and only allow people who study in the kollel on that side.

“If they would just take out the men from the men’s section and stick to the original plan it would be much easier,” Azaria said. “The kollel was also refurbished and enlarged to accompany them, and in my opinion they are doing this on purpose because they don’t want the Hurva to be a tourist attraction.

“I understand that they want to have separation during prayer,” Azaria said. “But they are enforcing the separation all the time. I also have no problem that it operate as a synagogue and that they learn Torah there, but that a group of 20 kollel students who are learning there is causing all of these people to be turned away is unacceptable.”

The first group of those who are enforcing the separation is Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter, “which is slowly being taken over by haredim,” she said.

“The second group are the ‘Zilbermanim,’ who follow in the haredi-Lithuanian tradition of Rabbi [Yitzhak Shlomo] Zilberman, and who have a yeshiva in the Jewish Quarter. They are the ones who are studying there,” she continued.

“They have security guards, who at the end of the day are financed by taxpayers’ money, who don’t let people inside,” Azaria said. “And basically, they are turning the Hurva into an exclusive place for them. Tens of millions of dollars were put into this place, and yet, they don’t want tourism, and they don’t want world Jewry to go there.

“And it’s not just the Hurva,” she added,  ”but slowly they are trying to change the entire Jewish Quarter to fit their needs. So our campaign is very important, because it’s one of the places where we can make a difference. We’ve caught it in time, and the more we put pressure on them, chances are, we’ll manage to take care of it.”

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