Hurva Synagogue restoration nears completion

Site in J'lem where Herzl, Kook and Jabotinsky spoke is now being returned to its former glory.

hurva 224 (photo credit: Ishi Hazani)
hurva 224
(photo credit: Ishi Hazani)
It was a focal point of Jewish spiritual and cultural life in Jerusalem. It hosted the installation of the Ashkenazi chief rabbis of Palestine, and the historic addresses by Theodor Herzl at the turn of the century and by Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook over the fate of European Jewry before the outbreak of World War II. And now, six decades after it was destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948, during the War of Independence, a page of Old City history is being revisited: the Hurva Synagogue is being rebuilt. Shortly after the city's reunification in the Six Day War, the first in a series of plans was drawn up to create a new synagogue at the site. Deliberations dragged on for decades over a variety of building proposals, and a commemorative arch was constructed at the site in 1978, spanning the space where the Hurva once stood. The 16-meter high stone arch - which became a prominent Jewish Quarter landmark as well as a great place to stop for photographs and a feature of many Jewish Quarter postcards - was a recreation of one of the four arches that originally supported the synagogue's monumental dome. As a page in history is now being rewritten, the famed arch is being used in the reconstruction of the historic synagogue. The Hurva once served as Jerusalem's main synagogue, and became the largest, grandest and most important synagogue in the Land of Israel. Its Hebrew name, Hurva (ruin), marks its origins amid the ruins of an unfinished synagogue that had been destroyed at the site in 1721 by Arab creditors angered over an unpaid debt by the impoverished Jewish community. The Hurva synagogue was built nearly a century and a half later by disciples of the prominent Jewish sage known as the Vilna Gaon. Following its construction in 1864, the Hurva was the tallest building in the congested Jewish Quarter, its dome and that of the quarter's other main synagogue - Tifereth Yisrael - becoming a vivid and integral part of the city skyline in the second half of the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. For the next 84 years, the structure became a center of Jewish spiritual and cultural activity, first under Ottoman and then under British rule. Until the 1930s, most of the important events of the pre-state Jewish community in Israel took place in the Hurva, which maintained its place as Jerusalem's central synagogue. It was also used for public assemblies and general celebrations, such as special prayers upon the coronation of King George V in 1910, and a public fast and day of prayer organized by hundreds of rabbis for the doomed Jews of Europe. Ze'ev Jabotinsky organized a rally at the Hurva to enlist volunteers in the Jewish Brigade. It is also the place where the ceremony to hand over the flag of the Jewish Brigade was held on the day the British conquered Jerusalem in 1917. Both the Hurva and Tifereth Yisrael were among 29 Old City synagogues demolished by the Jordanian Army during the 1947-1949 Arab-Israeli war. The Jordanians blew up the Hurva two days after the Jewish Quarter fell into their hands. "For the first time in 1,000 years not a single Jew remains in the Jewish Quarter. Not a single building remains intact. This makes the Jews' return here impossible," the Jordanian commander who led the operation reportedly told his superiors. Sixty years later and after decades of planning and debate, the mammoth NIS 28 million building is expected to be completed by next year's High Holy Days, said Nissim Arzy, the director-general of state-run Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter, which is overseeing the project. The plan to rebuild the synagogue, which received governmental approval in 2000, originally envisioned the state funding about 85 percent of the cost, or NIS 24m., with private donors footing the rest of the bill, Arzy said. In the end, the government only paid NIS 11m., with the remainder of the funds donated by the Ukrainian Jewish leader Vadim Rabinovitch, a prominent businessman and philanthropist, who recently donated the golden menorah that now overlooks the Western Wall Plaza. The reconstruction of the synagogue began at the end of 2005 after the state-run company received the required city building permits, and following the requisite pre-construction archeological "salvage excavation" at the site. The dig uncovered finds dating back to the First Temple Period, as well as an underground ammunitions depot dating to the days and weeks before the synagogue's destruction in the War of Independence. A closed tender was held among Israel's 10 biggest construction companies, and the company that submitted the most inexpensive offer was awarded the contract, Arzy said. More than two years after construction got under way, the outside of the synagogue - including its famed dome - has been completed, almost exactly as it originally stood. A ceremony marking the completion of the dome will be held at the site on April 15. The reconstruction plan presented by the architect, Nahum Meltzer, stipulates rebuilding the Hurva Synagogue in its original format, almost stone for stone. Previous proposals that were rejected included building a new synagogue with numerous modern architectural elements and whose dimensions were well beyond those of the original synagogue, as was a proposal to maintain the site in ruins as a memorial. Workers will soon begin work on the interior, with everything from the prayer platform, or bima, to the Torah ark, windows, doors and chairs set to resemble the originals as much as possible. "Obviously we understand that the chairs of today are more comfortable than how they were back then," Arzy said, saying that 21st century comforts would be taken into consideration. "We want to make it an almost exact copy of what it was until 1948," he said. When completed, the Orthodox synagogue will seat 200 people in the men's section, and 50-60 in the second-floor women's section. Arzy said the goal was to make the Hurva synagogue not simply a place of worship but a center for world Jewry as it once was. "We would like to see the Hurva back in all its former glory as both a synagogue and a center for World Jewry," he said.