Veterans of a veteran neighborhood

For the first time, exemplary residents of the Jewish Quarter will be conferred with a special title

zvi eyal311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
zvi eyal311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
‘It is a real privilege to live in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City,” says Varda Ruth Frankel, a 22-year resident of the Jewish Quarter. “This feeling of privilege is the anchor that keeps people here despite the difficulties.”
And difficulties there are. Living in what may be the world’s most renowned tourist site is not easy. In addition to endless noise, litter, crowds and parking problems, there are also major inconveniences during special national and religious events, when the neighborhood becomes almost inaccessible.
“The Rova [Jewish Quarter] is not just another Jerusalem neighborhood,” continues Frankel, who for 18 years volunteered with the Civil Guard there. “It is the heart of Jerusalem, the Jerusalem for which Jews prayed for more than 2,000 years. And it is more like a small town. The residents are close and care for one another. There is a feeling of family.”
Frankel is one of seven veteran Jewish Quarter residents chosen by popular vote to be honored with the title of “Yakir Harova” (Worthy Citizen of the Jewish Quarter) for their outstanding contributions to the neighborhood. The ceremony will be held on August 24 at 7:30 p.m. in Gan Hatekuma. Sponsored by the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter, the Jerusalem Municipality and Ariel, the ceremony will feature entertainment by Israeli singer and master of ceremonies Yehoram Gaon, whose own ancestors lived in the Jewish Quarter.
Two prominent former Jewish Quarter residents, Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman and ex-minister Yitzhak Levy, will be guests of honor. In addition, there will be snippets describing moving or humorous aspects of living in the Jewish Quarter, as well as an exhibit of photos from the early days. Present and former residents are being encouraged to come, meet and relive memories and adventures.
It was following the Six Day War that Jews returned to live in the Jewish Quarter after their expulsion by the Jordanians in 1948 and the quarter’s destruction. In 1969, the government set up the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter, an autonomous government corporation, to rebuild, develop and repopulate the quarter.
The company began selling homes in 1970, encouraging former Jewish Quarter residents, government officials, army officers, artists and large families to move in. Reconstruction was basically completed by the end of the 1970s. Today, approximately 600 families live in the Jewish Quarter.
“When we first came here, some 30 years ago, there were no paved roads and the Rova was still a building site,” recalls resident Prof. Zvi Eyal, retired head of surgery at Hadassah Hospital, who is receiving the Yakir Harova award along with his wife, Hefzibah, a retired professor of zoology and life sciences at the Hebrew University. “For years, my wife was very active in trying to clean up the litter situation, alleviate the parking mess and improve public transportation. And today, you can see that things have improved. But the Rova is still a pressure cooker, and there are problems connected with events. Living here is not like living in a quiet neighborhood like Rehavia,” he says.
Born in Holland, Eyal received a Zionist education. “My family believed that the Jewish people needed a state, and we spoke about coming to Eretz Israel. Unfortunately, my father never made it here. He died in Auschwitz along with some 100 other family members. My brother and I managed to escape from Westerbork, where we had been scheduled for the last transport to Auschwitz – the one Anne Frank was sent on,” he recounts.
In 1946, Eyal came to Israel with Aliya Bet (illegal immigration) and fought in the War of Independence in Gush Etzion, where he was wounded. In 1967, as head of an army field hospital in the Sinai, he was in the midst of surgery when he heard that Israel had liberated the Old City.
“I cried behind my surgical mask,” Eyal reveals. “As soon as I could, I came with my wife to Jerusalem and to the Old City. It was an unbelievable emotional experience for us.”
The couple wanted to live in the Jewish Quarter. At that time, the apartments were allotted by lottery, and they won.
“In the early days,” Eyal recounts, “the Rova had a mixed secular/ religious population, and there were many secular institutions. Over the years, it has become more and more religious with very few secular Israelis remaining. As someone who does not wear a kippa, I think we have exemplary relations here in the Rova between secular and religious. The image presented of haredim in the media is not the reality here.”
The awarding of Yakir Harova grew out of a desire to honor the early residents and the historic, euphoric days after the Six Day War when a Jewish presence returned to the ancient site. Three residents – Amnon Shiloni, Prof. Meir Schwartz and Leah Abramowitz – formed an organizing committee and asked Jewish Quarter residents to nominate candidates.
“It was not an easy task,” says Shiloni, as there were many suitable candidates.
Those chosen, in addition to Frankel and the Eyals, are Yosie Ben- Schachar, who for decades organized the Jewish Quarter’s volunteer ambulance team, and his wife Vardit, who ran one of the city’s first free-loan medicine funds; Rabbi Yishayahu Hadari, head of Yeshivat Hakotel; and Gabi Sheinin, a youth leader and organizer of the “youth minyan” at the Western Wall, who as a Hevra Kadisha (burial society) official has provided assistance and guidance to Jewish Quarter residents dealing with the loss of a loved one.
“The Rova is a real experience,” Eyal says, summing up three decades in the quarter. “The inconveniences have never outweighed the pluses of living here. From the balcony of my home, I look out over the Kotel. I feel that I am living the ongoing, amazing experience of Jewish history. The Rova is the cultural treasure of the Jewish people. Hefzibah and I are as captivated by life here today as we were the first day we came. So it is no wonder that we chose to live here and continue to do so.”