Rav Kook slept here - or did he?

Preservationists and developers battle it out on the edge of south Tel Aviv's Neve Tzedek.

Neve Tzedek street 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy, Rosh Yehudi)
Neve Tzedek street 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy, Rosh Yehudi)
It could be any one of a handful of decrepit buildings in south Tel Aviv slated for demolition, or it could be a central piece of Zionist history, but the battle for Sha'arei Torah will not be simple. After court motions, a Knesset hearing and the possible intervention of the Central Planning Council, the future of the compound on the border of south Tel Aviv's Neveh Tzedek neighborhood will be determined in a Supreme Court hearing in the coming weeks. The name Neveh Tzedek itself is practically a metaphor for south Tel Aviv-style gentrification. The neighborhood, on the border of Jaffa, predates the establishment of Tel Aviv itself. In 1886, Aharon Shloush purchased land to build a Jewish community outside the walls of the ancient port city, naming the area Neveh Tzedek. The neighborhood formed one of the two core areas that were later combined to eventually form Tel Aviv, which celebrates its much-vaunted centennial this year. But despite its historical significance, Neveh Tzedek suffered during the middle part of the last century. What started out as a center of the emerging Hebrew literary culture slowly declined into a slum as the middle- and upper classes migrated to new neighborhoods in the north of the city. At one point, the municipality even had planned to demolish the old buildings and narrow alleyways in order to build new, modern Tel Aviv on the rubble. Sitting in one of the neighborhood's remaining empty lots - or at least a lot that might as well be empty - is the compound known as Sha'arei Torah. Built around 1894, the complex originally housed the Sha'arei Torah Yeshiva, a Talmud Torah, a synagogue and a technical school. In recent decades, the compound - run by a religious public trust - has largely fallen into disrepair, with the site of the Talmud Torah used as a parking lot. Then Iranian-born, Israel-raised real estate magnate Edmund Shamsi appeared on the scene and bought the entire complex from the religious trust in June 2008 for $6.3 million. Tel Aviv Municipality officials said that Shamsi's original intent was to build on the site - which covers over 1,600 square meters - a high-rise similar to the nearby Neveh Tzedek (Nehushtan) Tower. With real estate prices in the area reaching upward of $10,000 per square meter, high-rise apartments would more than return the investment. The outlook for Sha'arei Torah was not promising. The neighboring Kahal Hasidim synagogue was already demolished, and the area has since become a real-estate project, and a second neighboring historic synagogue - Mar'ot Hasulam - also languishes, like Sha'arei Torah, abandoned and decrepit. ENTER THE ghost of none other than Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Hacohen Kook, the spiritual guru of religious Zionism. The revered rabbi, who became the chief rabbi of Jaffa in 1904, adopted the compound's synagogue as his personal place of worship. In the shadow of the man simply known as "the Rav," preservationists and ideological descendants jumped into the fray, attempting to block the compound's demolition. At the forefront of the Kook/preservationist charge is the organization Rosh Yehudi, led by Yisrael Ze'ira, who said that the organization acts to preserve the legacy of Rabbi Kook by bringing Israelis closer to Judaism. Ze'ira argues that the Sha'arei Torah Yeshiva, founded in 1894, was special in that it combined Torah studies with labor, and was perhaps the first practical application of Rabbi Kook's ideology that ultimately led to the establishment of the Merkaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem and to religious Zionism as a movement. Ze'ira emphasizes that the organization will continue to struggle against "turning historical sites into real-estate assets" and will advocate for the complex to be converted into a cultural center. Ze'ira argues that those who managed the Sha'arei Torah trust acted against their role, and preferred to sell the property rather than restore it. The trustees' sale of the property will eventually be fought out in the Supreme Court, with Rosh Yehudi arguing that a publicly-held religious trust had no authority to sell the buildings. Rosh Yehudi maintains that the sale of the site by the haredi-controlled religious trust was linked to Kook's association with the site. "The trustees are haredim, who have personal interest at stake, and acted against the legal nomination that they received, and sold a property that they had no authority to sell - out of a desire to gain an easy profit and to destroy the religious Zionist legacy." But the trust's representatives dismiss these claims, arguing that the rabbinic court had instructed them to sell the property, and that the compound had no connection to the legacy of the first chief rabbi. While waiting for the Supreme Court, the organization also petitioned MKs to hold a hearing on the future of the complex, although separation of powers precludes the legislature from directly intervening in an issue currently being deliberated in the Supreme Court. Earlier this month, the Knesset Education Committee answered the organization's request and met to discuss the fate of Sha'arei Torah. IN THE Knesset hearing, Yossi Feldman, director-general of the Council for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, described Sha'arei Torah as "one of the most creative complexes in Tel Aviv that are standing neglected." He added that "the complex was a point of Torah light. It was one of the more important sites, one of the important centers of Tel Aviv." Feldman said that the first time his organization was made aware of the complex was in 1986, when most of the synagogue collapsed and authorities reportedly found Torah scrolls covered in excrement. "We were shocked to see what we encountered. Even then we began to wake up and see what we could do." After raising funds, drawing up a general plan and fixing the synagogue's roof, Feldman said he was confident that it was secure, because the property was under the care of a religious trust. But, he said, experience proved otherwise. "Nobody cared about the Torah scrolls, nobody cared about anything. The trustees didn't care about what was happening with the building. It was one of the things that shocked us. I had never before encountered such a cultural phenomenon as this. "I thought that the trustees would spring to action and that together we would restore the area. I met with them in the Religious Council," recalled Feldman. "I spoke about Rabbi Kook and what he symbolizes for secular Israelis, as well. I was shocked to hear from one of the members that none of that meant that Rav Kook was a great scholar. I remember that until this day. I was in shock, and only later they explained to me that there are problems within this sector." But attorney Y. D. Schor argued that the claims regarding Kook were baseless. The local rabbinic court, he said, had already issued a ruling that "The area has no connection with the legacy of Rav Kook. 'Rosh Yehudi's' claim regarding that is lacking authority and is inconsistent with the real legacy of Rav Kook." Furthermore, said Schor, it was the rabbinic court itself that initiated the sale, telling the trusteeship to appoint a power-of-attorneys to manage negotiations for the purchase. And in any case, he added, Shamsi has no problem with preserving the synagogue for what Schor termed "sentimental" reasons. The Knesset meeting closed without any decision - after all, pointed out MK Zvulun Orlev, MKs are neither historians nor judges - on the legitimacy of the sale, or the Kook legacy. But in a move that surprised the preservationists, Yermi Hofman of the Tel Aviv Municipality announced during the Knesset hearing that the municipality had submitted to the regional planning and building council a plan to preserve the complex. Tel Aviv's preservation plan would allow for residential building on the approximately 50 percent of the lot that is not built on already, but restricts the height of any building erected there to no more than three stories and mandates that it have shingled roofs, making the new construction consistent in height and style with the surrounding complex. REAL ESTATE experts say that the historical designation will reduce the building's property value by approximately half. Any investor would be forbidden to demolish either the old Talmud Torah or the synagogue - and previously rumored plans to build a residential tower there would have to be scrapped. In addition, any investor - future or current - on the site would have to shoulder costly preservation expenses for the extant buildings. Hofman said that city planners had ignored the question of whether or not Rav Kook did, in fact, operate out of the area when determining whether and to what extent the site should be protected. Opponents of the petition have 60 days to submit their arguments. Hoffman estimated that the entire approval process could take a year. And in the meantime? The over-century-old structure will continue to bear the strains of weather and time, while the planning authorities, two high courts, one parliament and the most powerful municipality in Israel fight out its future in courtrooms and conference rooms.