American religious-Zionists kick off campaign to save Beit Harav Kook

“Beit Harav Kook’s presence being threatened should concern anyone who cares about Israel.”

Beit Harav Kook
When the Land of Israel’s first chief Ashkenazi rabbi, Avraham Yitzhak Hakohen Kook, lived and taught on the street that now bears his name, his home was surrounded by the modest dwellings of poor people.
Now the building housing the home and yeshiva finds itself in the city center of Jerusalem, near downtown’s Zion Square and Ben-Yehuda Street, surrounded by fancy apartment towers and a posh boutique hotel.
It is no wonder that developers are interested in knocking down what has been known as Beit Harav Kook and building more stately apartments for the wealthy.
One obstacle to replacing the historic structure with modern luxury apartments is that ownership of the building is in dispute. The long-standing legal battle centers on who owns the second floor, which was built for Rabbi Kook years after the first floor.
One party, the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Congregation of Israel General Committee organization, occupies the first floor of the building, and has been fighting for ownership of the entire complex. It presumably would like to sell such valuable real estate to raise money for charitable use.
The other party, the organization known as “Beit Harav Kook,” is on the second floor. It runs the building’s museum, whose displays show visitors what life was like nearly a century ago for the revered rabbi and his family, including private quarters, a ritual bath, synagogue, library and a film. Classes on the rabbi’s philosophy and teachings are given to the general public on a regular basis.
Last week, the Religious Zionists of America announced a campaign to save Beit Harav Kook and ensure that Kook’s teachings will be relayed there to future generations. RZA’s dedicated president Martin Oliner, who is the mayor of Lawrence, New York, vowed to do everything possible to keep Kook’s legacy alive where he taught in Jerusalem.
“Beit Harav Kook is a national treasure and it must be saved,” said Oliner, who came to Jerusalem for meetings of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
“To lose the testament to Rabbi Kook’s ideology and philosophy would be unacceptable and unforgivable.”
The involvement of the Religious Zionists of America could inject new zest into the complicated legal battle that has gone on for decades to save Beit Harav Kook.
The first floor of the building was built in 1872 as part of one of the first neighborhoods outside Jerusalem’s Old City walls. The Congregation of Israel General Committee that was housed there distributed money to the poor who lived in the neighborhood and others like it.
When Kook was appointed chief rabbi in 1921, a new wing was built on the second floor, thanks to a donation from American philanthropist Israel Aaron (Harry) Fischel. It was inaugurated on May 27, 1923, with the attendance of the high commissioner of Palestine, Herbert Samuel.
Kook lived and taught there until he died in 1935. The battle for ownership of the property began immediately. While Kook’s family was sitting shiva, the Congregation of Israel General Committee already began trying to evict them.
Fischel stipulated in his will that the building must be used to continue to spread Kook’s teachings.
The battle intensified after Kook’s yeshiva left for the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood and became Merkaz Harav.
Twelve years ago, the Congregation of Israel General Committee asked the courts to make Beit Harav Kook pay them $500,000 for past use of the building.
The case is still in court; the judges, prudently, would like to see the litigants compromise out of court, although that seems unlikely.
“This legal battle has been going on for 80 years,” said Beit Harav Kook’s chairman, Rabbi Yohanan Fried.
“It is hard to study here with all the noise from the surrounding construction, but it would be worse if we did not do it.”
Noisy heavy equipment recently created a massive hole right outside Beit Harav Kook, presumably in preparation for additional towers of fancy apartments built by the same people who built the others.
However, the construction is not the only source of noise. Students of a haredi yeshiva for challenged youth housed on the first floor can be rowdy. Some of them, apparently with anti-Zionist views, recently tried to drown out a speech by President Reuven Rivlin, who came to dedicate a Torah scroll that Kook saved from the 1929 Hebron massacre and had been restored.
There are regular classes at Beit Harav Kook in his old study hall about the rabbi’s teachings, and students come from Merkaz Harav to study there regularly.
There are prayer services on Shabbatot and holidays, and on Independence Day the prayers are especially lively.
Rabbi Avraham Sylvetsky, a teacher at Merkaz Harav, said religious activity, studying and teaching has taken place in the building for decades and it must continue.
Several months ago, Sylvetsky established a study group of between 10 and 20 men from Merkaz Harav Yeshiva who study every night of the week in the study hall of the building.
“This is the place where religious Zionism came from, the place where the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva came from, where the Hesder [combined religious study and military service] yeshivas were born, and from where Rabbi Kook created the Chief Rabbinate,” Sylvetsky said.
Sylvetsky said Beit Harav Kook has both historical importance and importance for the future.
“Being in central Jerusalem, it can serve as a center for people who want to come and learn Torah in general and about the teachings of Rabbi Kook in particular. It is important that the spirit of Rabbi Kook, his love of all Jews, and his teachings continue to be felt in this place,” he said.
Fried, who has studied at Beit Harav Kook since 1959, reacted cautiously to the RZA’s involvement. The judge in the case has been pushing for a compromise, and a high-profile campaign to save the building could negatively influence the legal battle. He will be speaking with Oliner to see how best to handle the effort.
Oliner spoke about the fate of Beit Harav Kook with Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, who will need religious-Zionist support to succeed in national politics.
He also raised the issue with American ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.
“Beit Harav Kook’s presence being threatened should concern anyone who cares about Israel,” Oliner said.
“This landmark is part of the history of Israel and the land before the state. Jews around the world appreciate Rabbi Kook, who reached out to the secular. In intend to lobby and do whatever I can to ensure that this piece of history is not lost.”