Liberating the Hurva

Tourists and local activists are bemoaning the fact that the Hurva Synagogue has become a kollel with limited access for visitors. Haredim claim a compromise can be reached but that the yeshiva students must be allowed to study in peace. A guided tour of the newly reopened site – by appointment only.

Hurva (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The residents – young and less young, religious and secular – that gathered last Wednesday in the main plaza of the Jewish Quarter were not just another group celebrating Jerusalem Day. Members of the Yerushalmim movement and sympathizers, including head of the religious feminist movement Kolech Dina Feldman and the head of the Israel Religious Action Center Anat Hoffman, showed up following a call to protest the haredization of the recently renovated Hurva Synagogue.
Less than two months have passed since the inauguration of this unique site, but today it is clear that the initial plan to combine the location as a synagogue and tourist site is not working.
City council member Rahel Azaria, leader of the Yerushalmim party, says she has received many complaints from visitors, telling her that a group of yeshiva students spends most of the day inside the synagogue studying and does not allow access to others.
Azaria, together with other organizations that work against haredization in the city, is leading a campaign to combat this situation. She says that only a persistent concerted effort will remedy the situation.
Last Tuesday, 75 retired men and women from Haifa arrived in the Jewish Quarter to see the much-vaunted rebuilt Hurva Synagogue. It was a hot day, and at least five of the visitors walked with canes. When they reached the entrance to the synagogue, which is barred by a gate and a guard, they discovered that they would not be allowed in. “Since when does a Jew need authorization to get into a synagogue?” asked Moshe, 70, dumbfounded. The guard, though very polite, remained unmoved. “All visits to the synagogue have to be arranged in advance and tickets [for NIS 25] bought through the office’s reservation center,” he explained.
Some of the members of the group tried to go around the building, hoping to find another entrance that would be more welcoming. “We knocked on the back door, and a haredi man told us that it was forbidden to enter now because they [the yeshiva students] study there,” recounted two elderly women. “We made the trip from Haifa especially to see the Hurva after we saw on TV how beautifully it has been renovated. It’s a disgrace. How could we have known that we had to arrange the visit in advance?”
Moshe added that they were members of a seniors club in their neighborhood, who joined a group from another neighborhood and had spent days planning the trip to Jerusalem, which was focused on a visit to the Old City and, above all, the Hurva, and now they felt so frustrated to discover that they couldn’t get in.
Meanwhile, another group arrived at the little plaza near the synagogue. This was a group of American Jews on a trip to Israel. They too had heard about the Hurva, and they too discovered too late that they should have arranged their visit in advance.
“I didn’t think that a visit to such a famous synagogue should be scheduled in advance,” said Martha, a member of the group. “We’re leaving tomorrow, and I don’t think we’ll have the time to come back. It’s a pity.”
After a while, I explained to the guard that I was a journalist on an assignment. After calling the office of the Jewish Quarter Development Company, he allowed me in. I was invited to join a guided tour that was already inside. I noticed that there were many guards inside to ease the visit but probably also to avoid any mistake from the visitors: No one was allowed inside the synagogue itself. The tour includes only the women’s section and the roof. From a quick consultation with one of the group, I learned that they were tourists from abroad and that the reservation with the office had been made through their tour operator.
When we reached the roof, we were able to see inside the main hall of the synagogue. A small group of haredi men were sitting on the benches on the left, studying. The rest of the hall was empty but, nevertheless, no visitors were allowed in.
Upon its inauguration, thanks to a generous private donation and funding from the government and the municipality, it was clear that the synagogue would not become a museum but would serve as both a place of worship and a tourist site.
The Hurva is under the aegis of the Western Wall Heritage Fund and the JQDC. Former deputy mayor (Shas) and previous city council member Shlomo Attias has recently been appointed to head the JQDC.
Attias says that these are just adjustment problems, adding that soon everything will be running smoothly. “Such things take time. It has only been a few weeks, and as long as I am the director of the organization, no one will turn the Hurva into a kollel or a yeshiva.”
According to Attias, since the decision taken by the state was that the Hurva would also function as a synagogue, “Things have to be worked out so we can live together in peace – visitors and worshipers alike.”
A source from within the JQDC remarked that at the beginning there was some hope that students from the Zionist yeshiva nearby, Yeshivat Hakotel, would be interested in going to the Hurva to study. “But for some reason it hasn’t happened yet, and only haredim are coming which of course makes the situation more tense between the factions,” says the source.
As for prayer times, according to Attias, the synagogue is open to all men who want to pray there. “This is a synagogue that functions as a synagogue should – if someone comes in for Shaharit [morning prayers], nobody will prevent him from entering the synagogue, and no one will check whether he is coming to see the site or to pray,” he explained. Neither Attias nor anyone else who manages the site is apparently aware that women cannot enjoy the synagogue on this basis, since the women’s section is used for guided tours.
Deputy mayor Yitzhak Pindrus, head of the United Torah Judaism party on the city council, doesn’t think there are any particular problems with the Hurva. “It is first and foremost a synagogue, not a museum. And true, it is also an important tourist site, so we have to manage to work it out so that both sides are satisfied.”
Regarding the fact that even the scheduled tours do not include the main hall of the synagogue, Pindrus said that this cannot be changed, as yeshiva students study there. But, he adds, “This is not a kollel. These are independent people who want to study Torah in this important place, and nothing is preventing tourists from coming to visit the site.”
“The Hurva belongs to Jerusalem and all the Jewish people,” said Azaria. “There is no way we are going to give up and leave it to haredi hegemony. As with the gender-segregated buses, there is no other way than a unified struggle by secular and religious – all the Zionists factions – to have it be open to the general public. We have proven in the past that when we are determined to fight back, we get results,” she asserts.