The doctor was in

Against the decrees of the rabbinical leaders, medical facilities began to spring up in disease-ravaged Jerusalem in the mid-19th century.

Misgav Ladach Street in the Jewish Quarter. (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Misgav Ladach Street in the Jewish Quarter.
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Jerusalem in the early 19th century was nothing more than a squalid hole in the wall. Animal carcasses lay in the road, gnawed upon by stray dogs, and sewage flowed through the streets. Lacking any kind of proper sanitation, it was no surprise that disease was rampant in the city. Indeed, in the 1860s a cholera epidemic killed off one-third of the population.
Yet there was nary a doctor or a medical facility to be found in Jerusalem. Patients were “treated” by shamans and butchers using spells, talismans and special herbs. Moses Montefiore, on one of his trips to the Holy City, was aghast at the sight, but his idea for a hospital was vehemently opposed by the old-guard Ashkenazi establishment both in the Land of Israel and abroad. After all, a physician would naturally bring modern ideas to the city, and that was anathema to the ultra-Orthodox of the times.
Into this niche stepped the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews (LJS). An Anglican organization whose name said it all, the LJS was established in London just over 200 years ago and quickly expanded from its home base into countries all over the world.
But in 1820, when the LJS decided to take its message of salvation through Jesus to the Jews of the Jerusalem, the society hit a brick wall, for the Turks did not want Protestants moving into the Ottoman Empire. So the LJS offered something the Turks didn’t have but of which they were desperately in need: health care.
Two early attempts were followed in 1838 by the city’s first professional medical facility. Headed by a doctor and a pharmacist, it offered free medical care while preaching Christianity to Jewish patients.
Four years later, after joining the LJS, Dr. Edward Macgowan arrived with the intention of building a modern “hospital for poor, sick Jews.” In the meantime, he continued to provide health care in the city.
Jerusalem’s rabbis strongly discouraged Jews from taking advantage of the LJS’s medical care. And as most of them depended upon alms from abroad and distributed by local rabbis, they had a terrible choice to make. Nevertheless, and despite the financial loss it entailed, many chose the LJS.
Montefiore decided it was time to butt heads with the establishment. In 1842, he opened a medical facility that was headed by a Jewish doctor. But there was no contest: The facilities that Macgowan could offer were better.
Then, on December 12, 1844, the LJS launched Jerusalem’s first modern hospital. Located on the edge of the Jewish Quarter, at the corner of Ararat and Bikur Cholim streets, it was well equipped and had plenty of beds. Officially known as the English Mission Hospital, it provided medical missionaries with the opportunity to heal the Jews while convincing them to accept Jesus as the Messiah.
Both Ashkenazi and Sephardi rabbis published what amounted to a curse against any Jew working for or being treated at the LJS hospital. If they did, they “would be excluded from the congregation, their butchers’ meat would be considered unclean, their sons wouldn’t be circumcised, Jewish burial rites would not be performed, and they would not be buried in a Jewish cemetery.” That worked on the Jewish community for a few weeks, but what choice did they have? On January 1, 1845, a Greek Jew being treated at the hospital died. The chief rabbi conditioned his agreement to bury the body on a dismissal of all the Jewish patients and a promise that no Jews would be allowed inside in future. As a result, the body was interred in the British cemetery. A threat of excommunication was proclaimed on any Jew using the hospital, and all the Jewish patients and workers streamed out. But it didn’t last long, and within two weeks they returned.
Jews continued to frequent the hospital until, in 1854, Baron James (Jacob) Meir Rothschild came to the community’s spiritual rescue with another modern facility. Rivalries between Jewish groups led to the establishment of another hospital by a group called Bikur Cholim. Their facility, run by an Ashkenazi sect called Prushim appeared in 1867 on Ararat Street.
Not long afterwards, the city’s Sephardi population decided it needed its own medical facility. And when Rothschild Hospital moved outside the walls of the city, Misgav Ladach moved into its structure.
Nothing is left to remind us of these hospitals’ historic 19th-century foray into the world of medicine except a sign on what was once Bikur Cholim.
Nevertheless, a fascinating off-the-beaten-track walk through the Jewish Quarter leads you past their former sites and into charming, meandering lanes with other attractions as well. It begins at the Tower of David and ends at the Jewish Quarter parking lot.
Start with the Christian Heritage Museum directly across from the Tower of David. Opened in 2001, it illustrates the history of the Anglican Mission in Jerusalem. Along with historic documents and artifacts, medieval Bibles and contemporary models of the city, it boasts a multicolored 1864 depiction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre with removable domes.
Walk back towards Jaffa Gate and immediately turn right up the stairs onto Maronite Convent Street.
Continue through a courtyard and continue to the left with the road. Next to the steps as you descend stands Foyer Mar Maroun, a Maronite (Catholics based in Lebanon) convent and guest house. In 1851 the building was bought by a German Protestant order of nursing nuns and served as a small hospital for many years. Until a few years ago, anyone could enter and climb to the roof for a splendid view of the city, but now only guests are allowed inside. In 1894 the hospital moved to the new city, into a building that for many years had been part of Bikur Cholim Hospital (see next week – Part 2 of Jerusalem’s Historic Hospitals).
Continue down the stairs and through a quaint little alley. At its end, turn right onto St. Mark Street and right again at Bikur Cholim Street. Before you continue on, enter the Lutheran Hostel to your left. Constructed in the mid-19th century on 12th-century foundations, it was once part of the Ophthalmic Hospital of St. John.
Today, it serves as a beautiful guest house with a tranquil garden and lovely view.
Now follow Bikur Cholim Street into the Jewish Quarter but stop at the corner of Ararat Street. Jewish families live there today, but it was here – at No. 2 Ararat – that the English Mission Hospital made medical history in 1844. At the very end of Bikur Cholim Street you will reach Yeshivas Bircas Hatorah, formerly the Bikur Cholim Hospital.
Backtrack to Ararat Street and turn right, then head left on Syriac Convent Street and right on Chabad Road. Watch for a hush – a residential courtyard – on the right. There were many of these courtyards in the 19th century. Today we call them neighborhoods, with homes, synagogues, ritual baths, community ovens and cisterns.
Across from the courtyard sign, on the left, descend the steps and turn left onto Jewish Quarter Road. Head right at the restrooms to reach an enormous wall whose exposed portion is 65 meters long and seven meters wide. Archeologists have named it “The Broad Wall,” referring to the phrase “They restored Jerusalem as far as the broad wall” (Nehemiah 3:8).
King Hezekiah ordered the wall’s construction around 700 BCE, when Jerusalem was in danger of being overrun by the Assyrians. Ultimately, although most of Judah was destroyed by the Assyrians, the enemy was defeated in Jerusalem.
Continue straight ahead toward Hurva Synagogue Square. Pass the restaurants and at the very end, by the two yellow lions, turn right onto Misgav Ladach Street.
Although the road is named for the hospital that once stood somewhere along the byway, not a trace of it is left.
Turn right on Hayei Olam Street and ascend the steps on the left. Winding lanes lead you past flower boxes to a wall covered in artwork (immediately before No. 5), all that is left to remind us that this was once the home of famous sculptress Leah Majaro Mintz.
Keep going, to end up at a large plaza called Batei Hamahaseh Square, lined on one side with long rows of dome-covered houses. Dominating the square is a graceful two-story building with a porch and ornate arches.
During the 19th century, Jerusalem experienced a population explosion. Existing apartments were already jam-packed, and sanitary conditions were intolerable.
And still the Jews came to the city.
In 1857 wealthy Jews from a Dutch-German association purchased the square and the area around it, land that had been empty for centuries. They constructed 100 apartments for the poor that were luxurious by contemporary standards, for each had two rooms with a kitchen and a courtyard. Rent was minimal, and at times the apartments cost nothing at all. Fourteen years later, Baron Karl Rothschild of Frankfurt built the largest of the buildings – the elegant domicile bearing the Rothschild coat of arms.
The last remaining Jews in the Jewish Quarter congregated in this square on May 28, 1948. Soldiers were sent into captivity in Jordan, along with some of the population, while other civilians were packed off to west Jerusalem. The square was restored after the Six Day War.
Cross the square and go around Rothschild House to its left (your right), and you will reach a modest monument (galed in Hebrew) to defenders of the quarter. Those who fell during the last days of fighting couldn’t be taken outside the walls for burial and were hastily laid to rest on this spot. Their bodies were re-interred on the Mount of Olives after the Six Day War.
Now turn left on Galed Street. The building at No. 14 was Beit Hapekidim Ve’amarkalim (House of the Clerks and Treasurers), a branch of the Amsterdam organization that distributed funds to Ashkenazi Jews living in Jerusalem and studying Torah. The founder and head of the organization was ultra-Orthodox Dutch rabbi/banker Zvi Hirsch Lehren. He was a strong believer in waiting for the Messiah and an extremely loud voice against the Zionist ideal.
Turn right at the tiny alley. As you continue, you will see a sign for the Spanish Courtyard. At one time, this courtyard hosted an important Sephardi school for children from infancy until they reached the age for rabbinical studies. Take a quick peek inside, then exit next to the quarter’s four Sephardi synagogues and the parking lot. To return to the Tower of David, pass the lot and follow the road left as it curves and ascends to the right.