Herzog College: Leading the renaissance at Hechal Shlomo

TODAY, HERZOG has embarked on an ambitious restoration of Hechal Shlomo in an effort to restore it to its former glory.

Hechal Shlomo, the former headquarters of the chief rabbis of Israel, is now the home of Herzog College’s Jerusalem campus and its International Center of Jewish Heritage (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hechal Shlomo, the former headquarters of the chief rabbis of Israel, is now the home of Herzog College’s Jerusalem campus and its International Center of Jewish Heritage
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On Thursday, May 8, 1958, hundreds of dignitaries gathered to dedicate Hechal Shlomo, a stately new structure in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, as the seat of Israel’s Chief Rabbinate and its Supreme Rabbinical Court. Among those in attendance at the impressive ceremony were 12 chief rabbis representing cities from around the world, the leading politicians of the day, and Israel’s two chief rabbis, Rabbi Yitzhak Halevi Herzog and Rabbi Yitzhak Nissim.
The Hechal Shlomo project, championed by Herzog, was intended to serve as the spiritual center of the divided city of Jerusalem. A shofar was sounded, the guests sang “Hatikvah,” Rabbi Herzog addressed the assemblage, and Sir Isaac Wolfson, the principal donor, dedicated the building in memory of his father, Solomon Wolfson. The building featured a vast auditorium, spacious offices for the rabbinical judges, a substantial library of Torah literature and a rooftop balcony offering a dramatic view of Jerusalem’s Old City, which was then in Jordanian territory.
“Rabbi Herzog dreamed of creating a world center for Judaism,” explains Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Brandes, president of Herzog College in Alon Shvut, which has become the principal occupant of Hechal Shlomo. “At that time, two new entities had come into existence – the State of Israel and the Chief Rabbinate. Both the Knesset and the Jewish Agency were near Hechal Shlomo, and Rabbi Herzog wanted the area to be like the National Mall in Washington, representing Jewish culture. From Hechal Shlomo, Torah would go out to the world.”
Three things happened, explains Brandes, that diminished the destiny of Hechal Shlomo. First, a little more than a year after its completion, Rabbi Herzog passed away in July 1959. Then, in 1967, after the Six Day War, in the wake of the reunification of Jerusalem and the return of the Jewish presence to the Old City, the Supreme Rabbinical Court moved to the Old City. Finally, in 1992, with the election of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau as Chief Rabbi, the Chief Rabbinate fell under the control of haredi elements. Rabbi Lau moved the offices of the Chief Rabbinate from Hechal Shlomo to the city entrance, says Brandes, because the building had been primarily identified with the religious Zionist movement.
In the ensuing years, though various national religious Zionist organizations utilized the building as their headquarters, the building lost its luster and deteriorated, both physically and in its overall significance. The once-famous library gave most of its books to other libraries, and the building’s Wolfson Museum of Jewish Art, which housed a rich collection of religious objects that had been brought by Jews from their native lands, was eclipsed by collections of other museums, such as those of the Israel Museum.
Architectural rendering of Heichal Shlomo auditorium (Vivi Astrinsky Architects, Ra’anana)Architectural rendering of Heichal Shlomo auditorium (Vivi Astrinsky Architects, Ra’anana)
Finally, in 2013, Herzog College, one of Israel’s leading teacher training and pedagogic colleges – named after Yaakov Herzog, diplomat, scholar, and son of the late Chief Rabbi Herzog – moved its master’s degree programs to Hechal Shlomo, and in doing so, signaled its desire to revitalize Hechal Shlomo and restore it to its original mission of becoming a center of Jewish heritage and learning for Jews around the world. Herzog is now investing significant efforts to rejuvenate the building as a center of Jewish tradition.
“Hechal Shlomo has its own amuta [nonprofit organization] that has been in existence since 1959,” says Yehuda Aaronson, vice president of strategic development at Herzog College. “They needed someone to revive it, to grow it, and to turn it into something to actualize its potential.” That “someone” ended up being Herzog College.
TODAY, HERZOG has embarked on an ambitious restoration of Hechal Shlomo in an effort to restore it to its former glory. First in its current plan is the refurbishment of the 700-seat auditorium, Jerusalem’s second-largest, on the building’s fourth floor, along with the construction of a glass elevator that will bring visitors to and from the auditorium. The auditorium will host educational and musical events, and play a significant role in the building’s renaissance. The remodeling of the new auditorium is well underway, and Aaronson estimates that it will be completed sometime between Purim and Passover. Aaronson, who provided this writer with a virtual tour of the construction site on a video call, could not hide his excitement when he entered the auditorium and saw the advanced state of the redesign.
“The potential here is incredible,” he says.
Along with the remodeling of the building, Aaronson explains that Herzog College, which operates under the aegis of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shvut, is developing a wide variety of courses for the community at large.
“We see the potential of Hechal Shlomo as an educational institution,” he says.
Herzog is offering a number of “Beit Midrash” programs at Hechal Shlomo that appeal to a wide range of ages and interests. The school’s Boker Limud (Morning Study) program offers weekly study in Jewish philosophy and Bible in two separate tracks. Like all of Herzog’s programs at the moment, they are provided on Zoom in live and prerecorded formats. Aaronson points out that the ability to present and record classes on Zoom expands Herzog’s audience worldwide.
A second program, entitled “Beit Midrash Sevivati,” explores the history and geography of the Land of Israel through a combination of weekly havruta study and classroom lectures, plus monthly hikes that bring the classroom learning alive.
Herzog offers two women’s Talmud Beit Midrash programs, including a master’s-level program promoting the female voice in halachic discourse through coursework and publication of scholarly halachic articles, and a second program for haredi women that offers studies in Talmud, Halacha, and Jewish thought. An additional Beit Midrash program that was begun in 2018, Beit Midrash B’Merchav, offers young men and women the opportunity to meet and socialize in a beit midrash-style setting to discuss social and spiritual current events.
Herzog’s formal master’s degree program at Hechal Shlomo offers advanced degrees in the teaching of the Bible, Jewish philosophy, Jewish education, Oral Law, mathematics, special education and educational systems. Currently, approximately 450 students are enrolled in the various master’s programs in the school. Aaronson points out that Alon Shvut will remain the college’s main campus while Hechal Shlomo will be the center for the master’s program and for the educational and cultural programs that are geared toward the general community.
In addition to the college’s educational courses in Israel, the school provides professional development opportunities for teachers, principals and administrators in Israel and throughout the Jewish world. Herzog is providing international teacher training for teachers in South America, North America and France.
Architectural rendering of new library (Vivi Astrinsky Architects, Ra’anana)Architectural rendering of new library (Vivi Astrinsky Architects, Ra’anana)
RETURNING TO the physical redevelopment of Hechal Shlomo, Aaronson says, “We want to do more. The development of the auditorium is the opening shot in the project.”
On the drawing board are plans to modify the Renanim Synagogue in the building, and turn it into an active, vibrant beit midrash where people can study each night; creating a redesigned library, in the words of Brandes, “for master’s degree students, and also to be a library in the center of the city that people can visit, with an emphasis on learning and technology;” creating educational programs utilizing the extensive collection of religious artifacts in the building’s Wolfson Museum; and holding events on the building’s rooftop, which Brandes points out, “offers a 360-degree panorama of Jerusalem and the surrounding mountains.”
“Herzog College,” says Brandes,” is one of the few institutions in the world to formally join academics, Torah, and education.” Brandes mentions that the school regularly issues a circular about science in the weekly Torah reading and offers a course that teaches Judaism and democracy, providing civil discourse about the Torah and the country.
“These, we believe, are not just for religious Jews, but for Israeli society as a whole.”
Aaronson cites the words of the rector, Dr. Ezra Kahalani, in summing up the educational approach of Herzog College in training teachers throughout Israel and the Diaspora.
“Dr. Kahalani said that we have to be concerned about every Jew anywhere in the world. We may not have an answer for every Jew, but it must be in our minds. We’re responsible for the education of every Jew in the world and making sure that they have a proper Jewish education.”
Almost 62 years after its opening, Hechal Shlomo, through the efforts of Herzog College, is reassuming its position as an international center of Jewish study and heritage for Jews in Israel and around the world. Once again, Torah is going forth from Hechal Shlomo.