Trouble in the Jewish Quarter

Residents are becoming increasingly frustrated by the Jewish Quarter Development Company's bylaws.

Jewish Quarter 224.88 (photo credit: Israel Marc Sellem [file])
Jewish Quarter 224.88
(photo credit: Israel Marc Sellem [file])
The Old City's rebuilt Jewish Quarter stands as one of Zionism's proudest accomplishments - a showpiece of history and spirituality that attracts millions of Israelis and foreign visitors annually to the Western Wall and the neighborhood's myriad tourist attractions. But the 600 families living in the picturesque quarter have a different perspective on life there. Many are fed up with the arbitrary quasi-bylaws imposed upon them by the Jewish Quarter Development Company (JQDC) - the government corporation established after the Six Day War to restore the then-ruined, historic neighborhood. In particular, residents are irate about the inadequate parking arrangements imposed upon them by the JQDC. Two outdoor parking lots serve the area - one of 170 spaces reserved for residents and a 70-car visitors lot. Residents pay a nominal NIS 150 annual parking fee. "The two lots were supposed to be for the residents only but from their great chutzpah the Hevra [JQDC] operates one for visitors to make money," charges Shmuel Yitzhaki, a member of the residents committee who has been living in the Jewish Quarter since 1979. Attendants who work for a JQDC concession zealously man the two parking booths around the clock. Both are accessed through Armenian Patriarchate Road, a narrow one-way lane leading from Jaffa Gate through the Armenian Quarter. Cars exit either through Zion or Dung Gates - which are often tied up in massive traffic jams caused by bar mitzva celebrations or other events at the Western Wall. "Parking is a major issue and has been for the last 30 years," explains Abe Abramowitz, a resident of the Jewish Quarter since 1973. Rather than drive, the retired CPA used to walk to Kikar Safra, where he would catch a bus to his job in Givat Shaul. "Sometimes if you come late at night you can spend an hour looking for a [parking] spot. You can get marooned here for hours, especially during Hol Hamoed or when there's an IDF swearing-in ceremony at the Kotel. Some people don't move their cars for fear they'll lose their spot." Especially irksome, he says, is that residents' children need a parking sticker to visit their parents. Abramowitz complains he spends NIS 1,000 annually for visitors' permits for his brood of 13. The constant parking headache, adds Abramowitz, has even been enough to send some former residents packing. One inhabitant, Stefan Jacobson - a new immigrant from Australia now working as a pediatrician at Shaare Zedek Hospital- was recently refused the coveted purple parking sticker notwithstanding that he was ready to pay, because the previous owner of his apartment, had accrued an NIS 80,000 debt to the JQDC for "changes made to the property." The previous owner had "shaved" the thick stone walls to create a few extra meters of interior living space. While interior renovations do not require a building permit, the JQDC obsessively spies on residents and hits them with arbitrary fees, says Jacobson, who purchased his apartment in 2004. "I never touched this apartment. The renovation was done in 1993," he explains. "It's extortion," he charges, adding he knows of six local families prevented from using the parking lot by the JQDC. "These so-called caretakers have refused parking to all the above, causing a great amount of misery, worry and discomfort. They are totally non-negotiable and seemingly beyond the law. When asked what they would do if I did not have a car, they answered: 'Oh, don't worry, we have other means available to extract money from you.' "These offices have a particularly unhappy name as far as unfair dealings with the inhabitants of the Old City," he adds. "I personally suspect that money changes hands under the table but this is difficult to prove. Can you imagine not being allowed to park outside your house anywhere [else] in Israel as a punitive measure?" Yitzhaki concurs that the parking lots are being are being operated in an arbitrary and discriminatory way. "We're suffering greatly for this." He issues guest passes, including a voucher valid from Friday through Motzei Shabbat. To his great frustration those passes are often not honored by the parking-lot guards, requiring visitors to shell out NIS 50. "Boris [the parking booth manager] decides who gets in, according to the instructions of Daniel Shukran, the Hevra's parking head honcho," explains Yitzhaki. Shukran declined to be interviewed. RESIDENTS AREN'T the only people suffering from the parking restrictions. Yossi Barak, a plumber who frequently works in the Jewish Quarter, has had many unpleasant experiences in the parking lot. "I've had a lot of run-ins with Boris. Give somebody a little bit of power and he gives you a bloody headache," says Barak. "It's so petty. He screams at me before he even asks questions." When approached for an interview, Boris becomes belligerent and threatens to call the police when asked to pose for a photograph. His weekend assistant, Hassan Rassar, had no such compunctions in talking about the fees the parking lot levies. Matters came to a head one recent Friday as residents were rushing home to prepare for Shabbat, he relates. Jacobson returned to the Jewish Quarter from Shaare Zedek Hospital, where he had been checked for a cardiac problem. He was feeling ill, and his wife was driving. Boris refused to let them into the parking lot. Jacobson then turned off his car engine, blocking the entrance to the parking lot. With Shabbat approaching, a huge queue quickly formed stretching back some 500 meters. The police came and ordered the doctor to park on the narrow road leading to the parking lot. "After being treated like an animal, I decided to get a lawyer," says Jacobson. Oded Afik, a partner with the law firm Ariel Azulay, Afik & Co., is currently preparing a class action lawsuit against the JQDC to be heard in the Jerusalem District Court. The JQDC needs to be disbanded, and the parking lot turned over to the residents committee, Afik urges from his downtown office. "The Hevra is like [a bunch of] gangsters. There is no connection between building issues and withholding parking stickers," says Afik. JQDC director-general Nissim Arzy declined to be interviewed, but his communications director, Gura Berger, responded to a list of questions submitted by In Jerusalem. "One of the subjects agreed upon between the head of the residents committee and the chairman of the JQDC was that the dialogue between them would be direct and open, and would not take place via the media," Berger writes in her e-mail response. THE JQDC director is always a political appointee, and many of the 10 employees and five contract workers have been there for decades, says resident Daniella Ben-Naim. Even though the agency has completed its mandate of rebuilding the Jewish Quarter, it is currently reconstructing the Hurva Synagogue, the quarter's largest place of worship, which was dynamited by Jordan's Arab Legion during the War of Independence. The company is also planning to construct a rooftop promenade linking the Jewish and Muslim quarters, though construction has yet to begin. Referencing the Hurva Synagogue's reconstruction, Ben-Naim claims there are too many empty synagogues in the Jewish Quarter, and suggests that nepotism is the real reason the JQDC hasn't been disbanded. "I don't see any reason why it exists," she says. "They continue to stick around. It gives an income to certain people." According to the 2006 State Comptroller's Report, the JQDC spent NIS 1,112,000 on salaries in 2004, up from NIS 996,000 the previous year. The rebuilt Hurva will only serve tourists, Abramowitz contends, and has swallowed half of the Jewish Quarter's largest square as a temporary construction site. "The Hevra has abandoned its role of cleaning the neighborhood," he continues, decrying the garbage that piles up and which the municipality doesn't remove fast enough. The JQDC Web site states that is is responsible for cleaning the Jewish Quarter, yet recently a tender was issued for a private cleaning company." "The residents have the feeling that the Hevra is the poritz [medieval Polish noble] and we're the tenant [serfs]. This expresses itself in many ways," adds Ben-Naim. Discounts for Jewish Quarter residents at historic sites like the Burnt House and other attractions are no longer being honored, he adds. Residents' frustrations boiled over at a community meeting held at Yeshivat Hakotel between them and Arzy shortly before Yom Kippur, the first such assembly since he was appointed JQDC director in December 2003. "The meeting was held ostensibly to talk about the parking lot. It deteriorated into a lot of yelling," Abramowitz recalls. Construction and Housing Ministry spokesperson Yulya Feldman defended the JQDC's utility. "The ministry sees importance in the continued operation of the Jewish Quarter Development Company, which takes care of many, substantive subjects," she says. However, her statement contradicts former ministry director-general Shmuel Abuav's letter of November 25, 2005, to the state comptroller calling for the JQDC to be merged with the Karta and the East Jerusalem Development Company. The 2005 State Comptroller's Report includes 16 pages of scathing criticism about the mismanagement of the JQDC. "It's worth highlighting that the shortage of parking places is caused, among other factors, by the issuing of parking permits to people who aren't residents of the Jewish Quarter," the report states, adding that the JQDC was operating the parking lot without the required business license. Moreover the JQDC, having spent NIS 415,000 on plans for a four-level parking garage with a commercial development to be accessed via a tunnel underneath the Old City ramparts to Mount Zion, never submitted the plans to the Local Planning Commission. The proposed building would cost NIS 88 million. No other Jerusalem neighborhood is saddled with an agency like the JQDC, says Abramowitz. "Who needs it?" "To live here you need a lot of patience," he concludes. The NIS 28 million synagogue Visitors to the Jewish Quarter can't help but notice the Hurva Synagogue under construction. When completed in two years it will be the largest and most prominent building in the quarter. The distinctive structure, with its landmark dome, was Jerusalem's main Ashkenazi house of prayer from 1864 until it was dynamited by Jordan's Arab Legion during the 1948 War of Independence. The building symbolizes the fortunes of Jerusalem's Jewish community over the last three centuries. In 1700, Rabbi Yehuda Hahassid, a preacher who believed in the false messiah Shabtai Zvi, led an aliya of between 300 and 1,000 of his followers (sources vary on the number) from Siedlce, Poland, to the holy city. It was the largest immigration to the Land of Israel in centuries. The group bought the courtyard next to the Ramban Synagogue, which itself stood on the ruins of the Crusader Church of St. Martin. The Ramban Synagogue, named for the Spanish sage who founded the house of worship in 1267, had been closed by the Ottomans in 1589 due to Muslim incitement. Here Hahassid's followers began building a large synagogue to accommodate Jerusalem's growing Jewish population. The project foundered on internal dissent, debt and the sudden death of the rabbi. In 1721 Arab creditors burned the unfinished structure together with the 40 Torah scrolls it contained, after which the ruined site became known as Hurvat Rav Yehuda Hahassid, the Ruin of Rabbi Judah the Pious, or simply "the Hurva" (the ruin). The site remained abandoned for 135 years until 1856, when Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Tzoref together with British philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore received a royal decree from Sultan Abdulmecid permitting a new synagogue. Montefiore personally brought the imperial edict from capital Constantinople (today Istanbul) during his fifth visit to the Holy Land. The cornerstone was quickly laid in the presence of chief Rabbi Shmuel Salant and Baron Alphonse James de Rothschild, brother of Edmond James de Rothschild who dedicated much of his life to supporting the Jews of Palestine. The synagogue was officially named Beit Ya'acov (House of Jacob) after their father Baron James (Ya'acov) Rothschild, although it is most commonly known as the Hurva. Construction fitfully progressed. Emissaries criss-crossed Europe collecting funds with the slogan "Merit eternal life with one stone." Though built as an Ashkenazi house of prayer, the largest single gift came from Yehezkel Reuben, a wealthy Sephardi merchant from Baghdad, who donated one-10th of the one million piasters needed. Another contributor was Prussia's King Frederick William IV. The edifice, finally completed in 1864. was designed by the sultan's court architect, Assad Effendi. It contained 14-meter-high window arches and a domed ceiling that rose 27 meters. After the reunification of Jerusalem in the Six Day War, Tzoref's great-great-grandson Ya'acov Salomon led a campaign to rebuild the Hurva as part of the reconstruction of the Jewish Quarter. Salomon turned to architect Ram Karmi. Karmi proposed the famous Philadelphia modernist architect Louis Kahn. Between 1968 and 1973, Kahn presented three ambitious designs for the Hurva, each of which would have left the synagogue ruins in place as a memorial garden and placed a new structure on the adjacent lot. More controversially, his plan called for a promenade, dubbed "the Route of the Prophets," to link the complex with the nearby Western Wall. For years, Kahn's model was on display at the Israel Museum, but after the architect died in 1974 his plans were shelved due to a combination of bureaucratic inaction and aesthetic misgivings about the design which was described as "too radical" for government officials. Kollek wrote candidly to Kahn in 1968 that "the decision concerning your plans is essentially a political one. Should we in the Jewish Quarter have a building of major importance which competes with the mosque and the Holy Sepulchre, and should we in general have any building which would compete in importance with the Western Wall?" In 1978, one of the four arches that had originally supported the synagogue's dome was rebuilt as a stark evocation of the monumental building that once stood there. The elegant parabola became a favorite calendar shot and postcard image, demonstrating the architectural adage "less is more." But for the Jewish Quarter Development Company, more is more - NIS 28 million more to be precise. In 2005, the government announced that Effendi's 19th-century design would be faithfully rebuilt, and allocated the appropriate funds to the JQDC. Jerusalem architect Nahum Meltzer was given the task of updating the Ottoman design to today's building codes. When restored, the Hurva will be an almost exact replica of the original structure, albeit in concrete clad with stone. Although completion is still two years away, on February 15 Rehovot Chief Rabbi Simcha Hacohen Kook was appointed as the Hurva's spiritual leader. When he assumes the pulpit, he will preside over one of the largest synagogues in Jerusalem, rivaling the Great Synagogue and Belz World Center. - G.Z. Rebuilding Jerusalem The Jewish Quarter Development Company was established under the auspices of the Construction and Housing Ministry in 1969 to rebuild the desolate Jewish Quarter, explains architect and preservationist David Kroyanker, an expert on the holy city's urban legacy. Like most of the country, the quarter stands on property leased from the Israel Lands Administration. Residents hold long-term leaseholds. "Most of the houses in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City were destroyed by the Jordanians in 1948. After the Six Day War, the government and the Jerusalem Municipality undertook new construction there, in keeping with the traditional standards of the dense urban fabric of the Old City," says Kroyanker. "Among the important preservation and renovation projects that were carried out here were the uncovering of the ancient street called the Cardo, and the construction of modern commercial and residential buildings above it." The JQDC office is located in Rothschild House. - G.Z.