A diplomatic mission

A walk along Rahel Imenu Street reveals a wealth of Zionist history – as well as a tour of former embassies and consulates.

Recha Freier Square 521 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Recha Freier Square 521
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Like every other red-blooded American girl whose mother was active in Hadassah, I grew up believing that the organizer’s founder – the great Henrietta Szold – also established Youth Aliya (Aliyat Hanoar). It was only while preparing for this week’s Street Stroll that I found out truth: when the idea was first suggested to Szold she rejected it. Only after the true founder, Recha Freier, began sending youngsters out of Germany and saving them from Hitler’s clutches did Szold begin to participate with a vengeance.
This week’s street is Rahel Imenu, located in the Katamon neighborhood next to the German Colony.
I suggest you begin your stroll where Rahel Imenu Street meets Mishmar Ha’am Street, circle Recha Freier Square and end your outing with a choice of coffee shops on Emek Refaim Street.
Although there was already a Greek Orthodox monastery in Katamon, the rest of the area was almost completely desolate. Houses began to appear en masse only after the British conquered Palestine in 1917 and set up headquarters in Jerusalem.
Unlike Rehavia, Beit Hakerem and other planned Jewish neighborhoods, Katamon was developed ad hoc mainly by wealthy Christian Arabs who bought empty land from the Greek Orthodox Church.
Together with other buildings from the 1920s and 1930s, houses were designed in the International (Bauhaus) style common during that period, or they were eclectic, art deco or a combination of all three but constructed with local materials and bearing a definite local stamp.
While some of the houses were built as family dwellings, quite a few were meant as investments and were rented out to high British officials, Armenians, Catholics, Muslims and a few Jews. The neighborhood also became a haven for consulates, embassies and pensions – European-style bed-and-breakfast inns.
Life in this extremely well-to-do neighborhood was quite European. The women frequented seamstresses known for their haute couture, the families had cars, and even houses for their servants, gardeners and laundresses. Houses did not bear street numbers on their facades: everyone knew everyone and the houses were named for their owners or residents. This was all to change in 1948, for during the early part of the War of Independence, and especially after the battle for Katamon (April 1948), Arabs living in the neighborhood abandoned their homes.
Stand next to 48 Rahel Imenu, today a large, wholly unremarkable structure from the late 1950s known in Hebrew as a shikun. Prior to 1948, two beautiful Arab homes filled the large plot, one of which was rented out to the Belgian Embassy. All that is left of these structures is a lovely stone column with a decorative disk in the middle on the gate near Entrance A.
Still in place, with a modern addition which has ruined the original look, is the building at No. 45. The red-tiled roof has disappeared and it is hard to tell where the early structure ended and the modern portion begins.
A far more impressive renovation occurred at 40 Rahel Imenu. Built in the 1920s, it has also lost its redtiled roof. Yet the rest of the 90-year-old building is still there, and has been wonderfully preserved.
YOU ARE approaching Recha Freier Square, a traffic circle that was here before many of the houses. Freier certainly deserves her name on this impressive “square.” Teacher, musician, rabbi’s wife, resident of Berlin and the mother of four children, she began planning the rescue of Germany’s Jewish children in 1932. She came up with what was, in Germany, the revolutionary idea of sending them to agricultural settlements in Palestine.
Although Freier approached Henrietta Szold, responsible for Palestine’s social services under the Jewish Agency, Szold didn’t think the plan was feasible.
Freier’s pleas were also rejected by Jewish organizations in Germany, for at the time Jews there were generally unconcerned about possible anti-Semitism.
Indeed, for many Zionism was still just an abstract idea.
Despite numerous obstacles, and the cold-shouldering of her fellow Jews, Freier stubbornly persisted.
Szold eventually agreed to organize the project in Palestine, and Youth Aliya was officially established on January 30, 1933, the very day that Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany.
From her home in Germany, Freier sent thousands of children to schools and settlements in Palestine. She fled Germany in 1940, and in 1941 moved into a house on Rahel Imenu Street (further down the block).
And now for the homes around the square.
The building on the right-hand side of the street, 39 Rahel Imenu, was erected in the 1930s by a Greek merchant named Louizides.
Although the lines are simple, it looks a bit like an accordion and incorporates a variety of stonework. While he lived in one of the apartments, the others were filled by high-ranking British officials. You can still see the pole that held a British flag above the entrance.
You can’t help but pay special attention to the five-story apartment building at No. 34, both because of its size and its rounded façade. Built in 1998, this is the only modern structure around the square but does a great job of fitting in.
Continue on the right-hand side of the street and walk a few meters to the corner of Bustanai and Kovshei Katamon streets. Pass a lovely palm tree, and then turn right onto Kovshei Katamon. Shaded by a second palm tree, the house at No. 22 once housed the Lebanese Embassy.
On the other side of Rahel Imenu, the edifice at No. 28 was built by Christian Arab Abdin Husheimi. Husheimi served in Britain’s Palestine Police Force in different areas of the country. In the early 1930s, he was transferred from Ramallah to Jerusalem, where he met and married a Jewish nurse from Odessa. After they bought this plot and completed construction of a two-story home, the adjacent traffic circle became known as Husheimi Square.
The Husheimis rented their home to the Polish Embassy in 1948; it was inhabited by the Venezuelan Embassy from the 1960s until 1980, when Jerusalem was officially declared the capital of the State of Israel. They then moved to Tel Aviv along with the city’s other embassies.
Venezuela’s most notable ambassador to Israel was famous poet Vicente Gerbasi. He lived in the house during the early 1960s, and was so inspired that he wrote a poem called “Calle Rahel Imenu” (Rahel Imenu Street).
Today the building houses the One Family Fund, established to help victims of terror throughout Israel.
CONTINUE ON Rahel Imenu to No. 33, the home of Recha Freier. Not nearly as elegant or well preserved as some of the other 1930s structures, it nevertheless features unusual gateposts, pinkish chiseled stone, hollow rosettes on the balcony railings, and decorative windows.
Once in Israel, Freier continued her good works. Unfortunately, a personality clash with Szold kept her from participating in the Youth Aliya effort. Instead, she established an agricultural training center for children. And, a gifted pianist herself, she also created several foundations promoting musical creativity and Jewish composition. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1954, and awarded the Israel Prize three years before she died at the age of 91.
A variety of residents passed through the exquisite dwelling at 24 Rahel Imenu, on the corner of Tel Hai. The most recent occupants belonged to the Uruguayan Embassy, and when they abandoned Jerusalem in 1980 the house remained empty for the next decade.
Developers who purchased the property in 1990 intended to add at least two stories and to make other changes to its splendid exterior.
Fortunately, the project was rejected because the house had both historic and architectural value. But the developers were desperate to build on this very valuable plot. So they came up with a plan to move the house from its original venue (where a tall, modern building stands today) further into the front yard, leaving space for their planned construction.
This was the first time in Israel that a house was transferred in its entirety to another spot.
It took months, during which the walls were reinforced and channels dug around the building.
The house was uprooted from its foundations, and it was then moved on iron tracks centimeter by centimeter to its present location.
Today the magnificent edifice houses the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, whose president is Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations, Dore Gold. It is called Milken House (Beit Milken) because a donation from the Milken Family Fund helped purchase the property for the center.
Turn onto Tel Hai Street to see the building from the side. While there, turn around and look back toward Rahel Imenu Street. Kittycorner from Beit Milken, at No. 31, a Greek flag flies proudly over the a stunning rounded structure. Although during the British Mandate this was home to the Egyptian Consulate, it has hosted the Greek Consulate since the establishment of the State of Israel.
I couldn’t find any material suggestion that the fabulous edifice at 22 Rahel Imenu has historic or architectural value. But don’t pass by without taking a closer look at its brilliant rosy color, unusually decorative fence and graceful windows.
Constructed in the 1930s, the sumptuous building at No. 20 boasts a beautiful garden, a monumental entrance, and an arcade on each floor. During the British Mandate it served as the Czechoslovakian Consulate but now it houses the International Christian Embassy, a worldwide organization that views Israel as the God-given home of the Jewish people.
Christian Arab Ibrahim Hakki, who built the imposing structure, also erected the sadly altered edifice next door. In the 1930s and ‘40s it served as a club for British soldiers but was taken over by the Jerusalem Battalion of the Irgun during the War of Independence.
Continue down to Ganei Katamon, a very exclusive complex from the 1990s. It is situated on the plot of land that originally hosted the soccer games played by the Hapoel Jerusalem Sports Club. For a better look walk up Haim Bajajo Ascent to Ofira Navon Park.
Back on Rahel Imenu Street, and further down the block, the red-tinted, one-story house at No. 12 is a perfect example of an original Arab-built villa. Walk to the entrance to view the unusual blue door and continue down the sidewalk to look back at the wellpreserved roof.
Stroll down to Emek Refaim Street. Does the building on the corner, at 2 Rahel Imenu, look familiar? It should, if you spend any time at all downtown. Walk all the way around to find that it was designed by the same architect who created the striking, rounded Sansour Building on Zion Square: he had lots of stone left over, and erected this house on the corner for his family.
You are now on the area’s main commercial drag, a great place to end your jaunt. Do stop and warm yourself up with a cup of coffee or tea at any one of a dozen wonderful eateries.