Cityfront: Rising from the ruins

After a lengthy restoration faithful to the original plans, the Hurva will be rededicated.

hurva synagogue 311 (photo credit: Gil Zohar)
hurva synagogue 311
(photo credit: Gil Zohar)
After four years of construction, the Jewish Quarter’s landmark Hurva Synagogue – built by Polish Jews in 1701, destroyed by Arab creditors two decades later, rebuilt in 1864 by followers of the Vilna Gaon and dynamited in 1948 by Jordan’s Arab Legion – is being rededicated this Sunday and Monday.
During a media tour this week, a beaming Nissim Arazi, who since 2003 has served as the CEO of the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem (JQDC), showed off the venerable if controversial NIS 43 million project.
Arazi follows a distinguished list of public servants, starting in 1969 with then prime minister Levi Eshkol, who have served as either chairman or director of the government agency charged with rebuilding the Old City’s Jewish Quarter.
In recounting the synagogue’s convoluted story, Arazi hails the many figures responsible for the rebuilding. In 1999, he says, a public committee was formed by then minister of housing Rabbi Yitzhak Levi and headed by Rabbi Simha Hacohen Kook with the intention of recreating the building whose famous dome once dominated the skyline of the Jewish Quarter.
Levi and Kook ultimately prevailed, ending a protracted architectural argument about whether to build a new and modern synagogue or to symbolically copy a building which had been the center of cultural and spiritual life in Israel and the Jewish Quarter in the second half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th. Ultimately, architect Nahum Meltzer’s plan was adopted to faithfully reconstruct the quadrangular synagogue with its central dome designed by Ottoman court builder Assad Effendi, incorporating the extant ruins and making adjustments for today’s building code.
Before construction could begin, Arazi notes, the Israel Antiquities Authority conducted a thorough survey of the site. That dig exposed findings dating back to the First Temple period and three plastered ritual baths from the time of Herod. The most significant discovery was a Byzantine arch standing along the remnant of a stone-paved street leading from the Cardo. The five-meter-high arch is preserved in the basement of the Hurva.
Moving indoors, Arazi discusses the furnishings, stained glass windows and wall paintings. For example, the two-story-high Torah ark is a faithful copy of the original that was carved in Ukraine.
According to photos unearthed by Israel Antiquities Authority restoration expert Faina Milstein, there were three stages in the decoration and painting of the prayer hall, each “correcting” the previous – from 1864 until the 1920s; from the 1920s to the early 1940s; and from 1940-41 until the synagogue’s destruction in May 1948.
Meltzer prevailed over Arazi and his steering committee to select a minimalist approach sensitive to Assad Effendi’s original design – thus visually emphasizing the Holy Ark and pulpit, as well as the remaining non-plastered masonry walls still standing after the building was blown up. Pointing to the relatively small women’s gallery upstairs, Arazi notes that stepped platforms were added in the new building to maximize the worshipers’ view.
Under the barrel dome, Arazi opted to depict holy cities and sites inIsrael. Jerusalem is symbolized by the Tower of David; Bethlehem byRachel’s Tomb; Tiberias by a view of Lake Kinneret; and Hebron by theCave of the Patriarchs. Above the main door is a painting depictingPsalm 137:1 “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept whenwe remembered Zion.”
Turning to discuss the operation of the rebuilt Hurva, Arazi explainsthat though built by the JQDC in accordance with the decision of thegovernment, the synagogue will be jointly operated by the company andthe Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
Rehovot’s Chief Rabbi Simcha Hacohen Kook has been appointed as rabbi for the 200-seat synagogue.