Tel Aviv's tiny 'American Colony'

Most of us would never have realized that Tel Aviv had an American colony.

By HAIM SHAPIRA
October 31, 2005 15:56

 
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Most of us would never have realized that Tel Aviv had an American colony. The quarter - if a few houses strung along one short street can be called that - is located on Rehov Beer Hoffman, off Rehov Eilat, between Jaffa and Tel Aviv. It was to this spot that 157 American Protestants, members of the Church of the Messiah, came in 1866, to help prepare the Holy Land for the return of the Jewish people. The site, in the dunes about a kilometer from Jaffa, was chosen by George Adams, a preacher who had originally been a follower of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon faith. He bought it with the help of Herman Leventhal, a Jewish convert to Christianity who served as the American vice-consul. Most of Adams's followers came from the northeastern US, around New Hampshire and Maine, which had a thriving industry producing prefabricated wooden homes. The would-be settlers brought 22 such homes with them on the ship Nellie Chapin. Refinements might have been beyond the means of the families from the US, who faced hardships not unlike those experienced by the early Jewish settlers. The homes were situated beside a large cemetery and many died of typhus and dysentery in the first six months. Their crops were meager. Less than two years after they arrived, Mark Twain visited the colony and described its condition. Some of those touring with him on his visit to the Holy Land took pity on the Americans and paid the fare of those who wanted to return to the US. A few did remain. One of them was Rolla Floyd, a colorful figure who established the first organized transport service between Jaffa and Jerusalem. Later Floyd was to become the agent for the Thomas Cook tour company in the Holy Land. The members of the Church of the Messiah were not missionaries. They believed that the Jews should return to the Holy Land to follow their own faith. However, when they left their property was acquired by a variety of individuals and religious groups including missionaries and the members of the German Protestant sect, the Templars, who also settled elsewhere in the Tel Aviv area, as well as in Haifa and Jerusalem. AS A German settlement the area became known for its cleanliness, order and greenery. One of the German settlers, Theodore Sandel, was a pharmacist who opened a hospital. Others opened hotels. When the British conquered Palestine in World War I they expelled the Germans, but the latter returned in 1921. In later decades some of the Germans attended high school in Germany and returned as Nazi supporters. They were again rounded up by the British at the outbreak of World War II, some were interned in Australia, and others were exchanged for Jews. The German property was taken over by the British. It is thus that the large concrete building on the corner of Rehov Eilat and Rehov Beer Hoffman was to become headquarters of the British CID or secret service, where members of the Jewish underground were detained and questioned. The building was bombed twice, which accounts for its present delapidated state, but if you look closely you can see that it is a rather handsome Bauhaus structure. On the other side of the street, next to the restaurant, is the Hotel Jerusalem, built in the 1880s. Over the doorway is an inscription in German and English from Isaiah, 'Thou shall call thy gates praise.' The rooms of the hotel, in which many of the early Zionist leaders stayed, had no numbers but were named for prophets and disciples of Jesus. Although in poor shape the building has not been altered and thus resembles its original state. That is not the case with Immanuel House next door, which is well kept, but has been substantially altered. The building, now a hostel run by a missionary group, was formerly the Park Hotel, which belonged to Baron Ustinov, grandfather of the actor Peter Ustinov. According to Tuchler, this hotel had a fine garden designed and cared for by the first graduate of Mikve Yisrael, the first Jewish agricultural school. Tuchler says that when Baron Rothschild saw the garden he immediately hired away the gardener to care for his own projects. The little house across from the hotel belonged to Rolla Floyd, and it was here that he had the office of Thomas Cook Tours. Further up the street, at 13 Rehov Beer Hoffman, is another house built by the Americans. This home is in very bad shape, but Tuchler hopes it can be restored. Although the Templars did not believe in having churches, the German settlers eventually did build one. The vestry, known as Church House, is at 9 Rehov Auerbach. Built at the beginning of the century it still has the handsome original staircase inside. The church itself, also known as Immanuel Church, has undergone considerable renovation inside, but it is interesting to note the inscriptions in Hebrew and the large organ, said to be one of the best in the region.

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