‘Haredi students have seized control of Hurva synagogue'

Historic Old City site turned into private study center.

Hurva Synagogue 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post)
Hurva Synagogue 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski/The Jerusalem Post)
Although the rebuilding and rededication of the historic Hurva synagogue was welcomed with much cheer and celebration in Jerusalem’s Old City in March, scores of visitors now complain that they are being turned away from its gates almost all the time by a small group of haredi men who have turned the Hurva into their private study center.
“It makes life very difficult,” tour guide Walter Zanger told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. “Religious attractions, and specifically the Hurva synagogue, have been turned over to the exclusive jurisdiction of the rabbis and religious authorities, even though the sites hold historic and archeological value as well.”
Zanger, who has been working as a tour guide for 30 years, explainedthat on numerous occasions, he has led groups who have expressed greatinterest in seeing the inside of the house of prayer, only to be toldupon arrival at the Hurva’s front gates that they need a reservation,they need to buy tickets or that tours of the site are not available atthat particular time.
“I’m with a group, I’ve told them about the Hurva, I’ve shown thempictures of the Hurva, and they’re excited,” Zanger said. “And then,when we finally get to the Hurva – and surprise! We can’t get in.
“Additionally, they will tell us that the groups have to go on one oftheir tours, with one of their own guides, at times which areconvenient for them, not necessarily for your own itinerary.
“This is an unprecedented situation in world tourism,” Zanger said.
“I have been in the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, inWestminster Abbey in London, in St. Peter’s in Rome,the Duomo of Milano, and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. And hereis the Hurva – the only house of worship on the planet that you have topay to get into, unless you come in at times of prayer, when you can’treally tour.
“And it has nothing to do with crowds or crowd control,” he continued.“In all these famous places, you come when you like and wait in line ifthere is a crowd. You never have to reserve, and you certainly don’thave to pay. It’s really an intolerable situation.”
Rachel Azaria, the chairwoman of the Yerushalmim city council list, hasmade the “intolerable” situation at the Hurva one of her primeconcerns, and has begun working for free access to all who wish tovisit the site.
“The Hurva was built after a government decision allowed itsreconstruction to go forward and with the money of Jewishphilanthropists,” Azaria said. “The idea was that it was supposed to bea national heritage site where everyone could go, and a house ofprayer. It was supposed to be for tourists, and, three times a day,prayers.
“The Hurva was rebuilt by the Company for the Reconstruction andDevelopment of the Jewish Quarter and it is run by the Western WallHeritage Foundation, which built a kollel next to it,” she said.
“The kollel students were supposed to study in the kollel, and touristswould be able to visit the synagogue itself. But now they’ve set it upso that it costs NIS 25 to enter, and you have to make your reservationway in advance,” she said. “They also say that there are safety issues,but this is where it gets complicated.
“They won’t let anyone go into the men’s section, only the women’ssection,” she said. “There are stairs to get there, and only one groupcan go up at a time. So instead of just opening the synagogue andsaying, ‘Okay, you can go in,’ they have closed the men’s section andonly allow people who study in the kollel on that side.
“If they would just take out the men from the men’s section and stickto the original plan it would be much easier,” Azaria said. “The kollelwas also refurbished and enlarged to accompany them, and in my opinionthey are doing this on purpose because they don’t want the Hurva to bea tourist attraction.
“I understand that they want to have separation duringprayer,” Azaria said. “But they are enforcing the separation all thetime. I also have no problem that it operate as a synagogue and thatthey learn Torah there, but that a group of 20 kollel students who arelearning there is causing all of these people to be turned away isunacceptable.”
The first group of those who are enforcing the separation is Companyfor the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter, “which isslowly being taken over by haredim,” she said.
“The second group are the ‘Zilbermanim,’ who follow in theharedi-Lithuanian tradition of Rabbi [Yitzhak Shlomo] Zilberman, andwho have a yeshiva in the Jewish Quarter. They are the ones who arestudying there,” she continued.
“They have security guards, who at the end of the day are financed bytaxpayers’ money, who don’t let people inside,” Azaria said. “Andbasically, they are turning the Hurva into an exclusive place for them.Tens of millions of dollars were put into this place, and yet, theydon’t want tourism, and they don’t want world Jewry to go there.
“And it’s not just the Hurva,” she added,  ”but slowly they are tryingto change the entire Jewish Quarter to fit their needs. So our campaignis very important, because it’s one of the places where we can make adifference. We’ve caught it in time, and the more we put pressure onthem, chances are, we’ll manage to take care of it.”