Meeting a personality in the Old City

Bringing joy to the Jewish Quarter

Simcha Holtzberg visted hospitals and rehabilitation centers weekly. Here, around the time of the Six Day War, he visits the sick alongside Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (photo credit: EPHRAIM ERDE)
Simcha Holtzberg visted hospitals and rehabilitation centers weekly. Here, around the time of the Six Day War, he visits the sick alongside Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach
(photo credit: EPHRAIM ERDE)
When I started to think about how to share stories about the history of the Old City before Yom Yerushalayim, I decided to search for a personality.
Someone who knew stories of the past but was an integral part of the present-day history of the Old City. I set out to find someone who was in the Old City in 1967 and still living in the Jewish Quarter today.
During one of my work meetings in the Old City, I was introduced to Rav Ephraim Holtzberg, an enthusiastic and humorous rabbi and a resident of the Jewish Quarter. I asked him to share some of his experiences living in the Old City. For him to begin, he insisted that I take a walk back in history with him to hear stories about his father, Simcha Holtzberg, who was his inspiration in life.
Simcha Holtzberg was a survivor of the Holocaust and took part in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. After surviving the horrors of the concentration camp, he moved to Israel in 1949. Although he began to rebuild his life in Israel as an art dealer in Tel Aviv, he remained inspired by the tzaddikim in Jerusalem. He became very close to Reb Aryeh Levine, the “father of the prisoners,” who encouraged him to devote his life to caring for wounded soldiers. Simcha visited hospitals and rehabilitation centers weekly and became a vocal advocate for wounded soldiers’ rights, making sure they got the care they deserved.
This defined his goal in life, to fulfill his mother’s wishes and to “bring simcha [joy] to the lives of people who are in distress.” This made a huge impression on Simcha’s son, Rav Ephraim, who watched his father visit the wounded soldiers, saw him emotionally support patients in the Hansen Lepers’ Hospital as well as financially support those in need, sometimes giving them appliances from his own home.
During his lifetime, Simcha Holtzberg got to know many of the historical figures in Israel’s history and was even a proud recipient of the Israel Prize. At his eulogy, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin praised him as a “man snatched from the fire of the Holocaust, so deeply concerned for the State of Israel, a haven for Holocaust refugees, who did everything in his power so that the catastrophe would be remembered… For all the wounded, the disabled and the bereaved families in the name of the IDF and in the name of the State of Israel. I salute you.”
You may be wondering where his connection to the Old City began. Simcha sent Ephraim to learn at Yeshivat Hakotel in the Old City in 1967. Rav Ephraim recalls the first Yom Kippur where Jews could pray at the Western Wall after the reunification of the city. It was an emotional holiday for everyone, yet for his father the biggest concern was how the worshipers would make it home without breaking their fast first. He quickly arranged for drinks and food to be brought down to the Western Wall Plaza as soon as the fast ended.
What started as a way to “bring simcha” to the people praying at the Western Wall for the first time on Yom Kippur has become a yearly tradition continued by Rav Ephraim after his father’s death. This will be the 50th year that he will be serving break-the-fast snacks and drinks to people who have walked from far and wide to pray at the Kotel. He jokes that his inspiration is “Ben Gurion.” Not the Ben-Gurion you are thinking of, but Nakdimon Ben Gurion, who dedicated his life to supply water to the people who came up to the Temple. God blessed Nakdimon with enough water to satiate the Twelve Tribes.
Rav Ephraim also continues his father’s tradition of visiting the wounded soldiers and the sick in the local hospitals while living in the Old City. He brings them food, music and some good laughs.
When I asked him for one of his favorite Old City stories he began to tell me about a story that began 35 years ago when he approached the local council in the Old City to ask them to build a new mikve (ritual bath). They agreed that he would buy the land and they would help fund the building project within five years so he set out to find the right piece of property.
He chose a 100-square-meter property on Ha’omer Street and the council agreed to begin building. All construction in the Old City begins with a call to the Israel Antiquities Authority. When they started to excavate the area, they were excited to find an old Roman bath from the time of the Roman legions, most likely used by the Romans after the destruction of the Temple. Under that they found a unique water well from the time of the Temple more than 60 meters wide and six meters high.
What really excited them was that the water was crystal clear. The archeologists soon learned that an intricate water system had been set up to bring water from Bethlehem all the way to this water well in Jerusalem.
Needless to say, this slowed down the construction of the mikve, which had its grand opening last week, 35 years later.
So where can you find the Holtzbergs today? Now that you know the story of Reb Ephraim and his father Simcha, it is not surprising to know that Rav Ephraim started a wedding and bar/bat mitzva hall and named it the Simcha Hall overlooking the Kotel, bringing simcha to the lives of many people who celebrate there and to those that can see the Kotel virtually through their new high-definition Kotel Cam.
Rav Ephraim recently stepped down from running the family “Simcha Hall” overlooking the Kotel and passed on the reins to his son, Yaakov. But you can still see Rav Ephraim walking through the alleyways of the Old City and stopping in for a cup of coffee at the Simcha Hall.
The writer is the founder of Fun In Jerusalem ( and Party In Jerusalem ( She lives in Jerusalem with her husband and three kids; Learn more The Simcha Hall Kotel Cam This online service enables people around the world to see what is happening at the Kotel – including the Birkat Kohanim (priestly blessing), flag parades, soldier swearing-in ceremonies and slihot during the month of Elul. Simcha Hall Rav Ephraim & Yaakov Holtzberg