Chilean miners event is last at Beit Hanassi for 2 months

President’s residence about to get long overdue renovation; Peres tells miners: “It is very moving to see you after all that you have endured.”

Chile miners in Jerusalem 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Chile miners in Jerusalem 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Were it not for the fact President Shimon Peres had committed himself to hosting a reception this week for visiting Chilean miners, their spouses and significant others, renovations at Beit Hanassi would have begun on Sunday.
However, the president made the promise several weeks ago, so the changes, which in the first phase will cost around NIS 1.5 million, were briefly put on hold.
Smartly attired in their best suits, shirts and ties, 25 of the 33 miners who were rescued after being trapped underground for 69 days, showed up at Beit Hanassi early in the morning, accompanied by their womenfolk and one infant, Richard Villaroel’s four-month-old son.
Peres entered the reception hall accompanied by Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov and Chilean Ambassador Joaquin Montes Larrain.
Lt.-Col. Shai Abramson, the chief cantor of the IDF, sang a collective Birkat Hagomel (blessing for surviving illness or danger), to give thanks for the fact that the miners had survived a terrible ordeal.
“It is very moving to see you and your families after all that you have endured,” Peres said, telling the miners that the whole world had prayed for them. “This was history’s greatest demonstration against despair,” he declared.
“You showed your will power and superhuman strengths, and the world responded with solidarity and love. Israel embraces you warmly,” he said.
Many of the miners are religious and wear crucifixes or other religious symbols around their necks. Peres turned to Psalm 130, which includes: “I wait for the Lord; my soul waits; and in His word I put my hope. My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning...”
Peres said: “From the depths we felt that there was only God and there was hope and there was a sense of mission...”
The president was so choked up that he could barely speak. At the end of January, when accepting the credentials of the Chilean ambassador, he had told him: “Chile certainly gave a message to the world” in sparing no effort or expense in the rescue operation.
I bless you and your families. I pray for you that you will have a better future,” Peres said on Sunday.
Raul Enrique Bustos, speaking on behalf of the miners, said “We thank God that He saved us from the place in which we were confined, and gave us the opportunity to visit the Holy Land. It is a joy to be here, and we express our appreciation for your friendship. May God continue to bless the people of Israel and the people of Chile. We both need His blessings – and may we always be as happy as now.”
Meseznikov, who initiated the visit, said that only a month ago, the committee for symbols and ceremonies had declared this year to be one of fraternity, mutual respect, camaraderie and heroism. How symbolic it was that only a few weeks later, Israel was hosting a group of people who symbolized all those attributes, as well as humanity, survival and refusal to give in,” he said.
“We are proud to have you. You have become a symbol to the world. We’re thrilled to make it possible for you to visit the places that are holiest for you in Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people.”
He wished the miners and their loved ones health and happiness, and that they should return to Chile with memories of good experiences in Israel.
Each of the miners left with a gift from Peres – a silver and gold paperweight model of Jerusalem.
The Chilean ambassador told The Jerusalem Post that the miners have been feted elsewhere, and have been to some very nice places, but none meant as much to them as Israel. “After they spent so much time in the mine praying, the visit to the Holy Land has special significance,” he said.
Ever since he took up residence at Beit Hanassi in July 2007, Peres has been itching for change. It’s been a very slow move, partially because it involves both a lot of money and a lot of bureaucracy, but more importantly, because although it hasn’t been around long enough to be designated a heritage site (it was inaugurated in 1971), Beit Hanassi nonetheless falls into that category, and is a protected building. The façade cannot be changed, even though there is sufficient room in the grounds, and the building has long been too small to accommodate all the people who are invited to special events.
What bothered Peres the most were the eight columns running the length of the reception hall, and frequently obstructing the view of people who sat behind them. But there were a lot of problems, not the least of which was the mistaken belief that the columns were holding up the magnificent ceiling of 63 square panels created by celebrated artist Naphtali Bezem. The panels tell the story of the return to the Land of Israel. Over the years they have accumulated a lot of dust, cigarette smoke and grease, and their original color has faded. They will be carefully removed and taken to the Israel Museum for restoration.
Other art treasures that are permanent fixtures such as the huge Castel reliefs on facing walls and the Reuven Rubin stained glass triptych featuring Jacob’s struggle with the angel; David entering Jerusalem; and Elijah ascending toward heaven will be safeguarded under protective covering while the renovations take place.
A wall that up till now has been used to showcase Jewish ritual objects on loan from the Israel Museum as well as gifts from heads of state and paintings by veteran Israeli artists is to be given over entirely to contemporary Israeli art. Peres wants to feature a different artist every few months. Just renovating the reception hall will cost about NIS 1.5m., which Hanassi received as a gift from Yad Hanadiv, which is actually the Rothschild Foundation.
The president is not allowed to engage in fund-raising, but the matter was urgent, and permission was sought and gained from the Knesset for this one-time request.
Future renovation expenses will come out of the state budget said Yoram Raviv, a deputy director general at Beit Hanassi, who will supervise the renovation.
Another change being introduced is in the president’s private kitchen, which has not known any alterations since Zalman Shazar, the state’s third president, inaugurated Beit Hanassi in 1971.
Raviv described the existing kitchen as “Ben-Gurion spartan with formica surfaces.” He suspects that every middle class family in Israel has a more attractive kitchen than the president of the state.
Some solution also has to be found for the patio area at the side of the reception hall, which was given a temporary roof and walls during the tenure of Moshe Katsav, the eighth president, simply because there was nowhere to hold a pre-dinner cocktail reception in winter for guests invited to state dinners.
The temporary enclosed patio area has developed a certain permanence over the years, but Raviv said it’s unbecoming to a presidential residence.
The huge garden front and back was redeveloped for the papal visit in 2009 for about NIS 3m. Raviv said it requires no extra work.
The old plumbing and electrical wiring systems, however, will be replaced by state of the art systems including niche solar systems on the roof so that they will not be seen even from across the road.
It is important to Peres to make the whole complex accessible to the disabled. “He thinks it’s unconscionable that access to every part of Beit Hanassi is not available to people with special needs,” Raviv said.
When Peres moved in, his staff had the furniture, reupholstered and changed from dark, drab hues to warm inviting buttery yellow. That was permissible, Raviv said, because it had nothing to do with the structure of the building.
In the final analysis, Raviv said, Beit Hanassi will be an efficient, attractive, green residence, a legacy that Peres wants to leave to his successors.
There are many other things at Beit Hanassi that need improving, but Raviv is taking one step at a time. “It’s a lengthy procedure,” he said, and getting through the bureaucratic impediments takes forever.
Meanwhile, he hopes that the reception hall will be ready by Pessah.