A return to its former glory

The Old City’s landmark Tiferet Israel Synagogue is the last of those destroyed in 1948 to be rebuilt.

Tiferet Israel Synagogue (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Tiferet Israel Synagogue
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
While there was recently a cornerstone-laying ceremony to rebuild the Old City’s Tiferet Israel Synagogue, don’t expect to see the 20-meter-high new/old hassidic landmark return to its former glory anytime soon.
The synagogue was dedicated in 1872 and dynamited by Jordan’s Arab Legion in 1948. Speaking at the cornerstone ceremony in May, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat referred to the building as “one of the important symbols of the Jewish community in Jerusalem.” He stated that “the municipality attaches great importance to the preservation and restoration of heritage sites in Jerusalem, and we will continue to maintain the heritage of Israel in this city.”
Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel, citing Lamentations 5:21, added, “We have triumphed in the laying of yet another building block in the development of Jerusalem, a symbolic point in the vision that continues to come true before our eyes: ‘Renew our days as of old.’” But although the two politicians symbolically placed a stone salvaged from the ruined building, construction will take three years, according to the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem Ltd. (JQDC) – a public company under the auspices of the Construction and Housing Ministry. Funding for the project, which is budgeted at NIS 50 million, is coming mainly from anonymous donors.
Fund-raising to purchase the land for Tiferet Israel, also known as the Nissan Beck synagogue, was initiated in 1839 by Rabbi Israel Friedman of Ruzhyn, Ukraine (1797-1851) and his student Rabbi Nissan Beck (1815- 1889). Though the Holy Rizhiner, as Friedman’s followers called him, finally bought the land in 1843, he didn’t live to see construction begin.
Motivating the two men was a desire to foil Czar Nicholas I’s plans to build a church and monastery on the hilltop site overlooking the Temple Mount.
Outmaneuvered by the hassidic rabbis, the czar instead purchased land northwest of the Jaffa Gate outside the Old City, which ultimately became the site of the Russian Compound.
Beck, who designed the massive project and served as its contractor, spent more than a decade fund-raising and six years building the synagogue. Upon its inauguration on August 19, 1872, he named the three-story building, with its iconic dome, in honor of his rebbe.
The quick-witted Beck was able to complete the ornate synagogue thanks to a donation from Kaiser Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary. In 1869, while visiting Jerusalem en route to dedicate the Suez Canal, the emperor asked his subjects – those Jerusalemites who had come from Sadhora, in the remote Austrian province of Bukovina – why their synagogue had no roof. (In 1840, having spent two years in Russian prisons on charges of complicity in the murder of two Jewish informers, Friedman had fled to Sadigora, as it was known in Yiddish, to escape persecution from Nicholas I.) Seizing the moment, Beck replied, “Your majesty, the synagogue has doffed its hat to you.”
The kaiser, understanding the royal fund-raising pitch, responded, “How much will it cost me to have the synagogue replace its hat?” He then donated the necessary money to complete Tiferet Israel’s dome, thereafter known to locals as “Franz Joseph’s cap.”
In the winter and spring of 1948, that soaring dome served as a key Hagana military position and lookout point for the Jewish Quarter’s outgunned defenders.
Badly damaged by heavy shelling, the house of worship was demolished by Jordanian sappers on May 21, 1948. A few days later, following the neighborhood’s surrender on May 25, the nearby Hurva Synagogue – the main sanctuary of Jerusalem’s mitnagdim (antihassidic Ashkenazi followers of the Vilna Gaon) – met an identical fate.
Tiferet Israel’s collapsed walls and smashed dome covered the building’s foundations, which were revealed during the reconstruction of the Jewish Quarter after the Six Day War. When the JQDC finished rebuilding the Hurva in 2010, Tiferet Israel became the last major Old City synagogue destroyed in 1948 that had yet to be rebuilt.
Both buildings are stone-clad, concrete and steel facsimiles of their original structures, updated to fit modern building codes and equipped with elevators.