The Ramban Synagogue is one of the oldest active synagogues in the Old City of Jerusalem. It was founded by Nahmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman) better known as Ramban.  In 1267 a 72 year old Ramban made an aliya to the Holy Land after being exiled from Spain. Soon after his arrival to Jerusalem he found marble arches and a pillar on the Mount Zion. He decided to build a synagogue on that spot with an idea of reviving the Jewish community in Jerusalem. Few years after his death the synagogue was moved inside the Old City walls. In 1586, due to Moslem incitement the synagogue was ordered to close by the orders from the Ottoman governor. It was turned into a warehouse and the cheese factory. In 1948 it was completely destroyed, along with many other Jewish holy sites by the Arab Legion during the War of Independence.  It was rebuild after a Six Day War and is currently  located at the corner of Ha-Yehudim Street and the main square in the Jewish Quarter.

 





















 

The Hurva Synagogue


Hurva SynagogueStory of Hurva synagogue reads just like a history of state of Israel itself. It’s a familiar story of the destruction and a resurrection that has been part of Jewish existence for thousands of years. It’s also a story of indomitable spirit of the people who did not give up on their their dream despite seemingly impossible odds.

The story of Hurva synagogue begins in 1697, when a charismatic Polish Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Hasid influenced few hundred of his supporters to follow him on the aliya to the Holy land. It was a complete leap of faith on the part of the rabbi and his followers as the Holy Land and specifically Jerusalem were The Hurva Synagouge under the control of the Ottoman Empire, an entity not particularly friendly towards the Jews.

 Nonetheless the venerable rabbi and his followers embarked on the treacherous journey. It took this group quite a while to get to the Holy Land as they had to pass through several countries and bribe the local officials in order to get the permissions to cross the borders. Many members have died during the trip as they succumbed to the extremely difficult traveling conditions. While rich on spirit the travelers were not particularly well off financially and had to endure tremendous hardships.

The surviving members finally arrived to Jerusalem in 1700 but only few days later Rabbi Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Hasid unexpectedly passed away. Neither Ottomans nor the local Arabs were particularly fond of hundreds of European Jews coming to Jerusalem to live there and practice their religion. In addition under the pact of Umar, issued in 637 AD, no new non-Muslim house of worship was allowed to be constracted in Ottoman Empire. Thankfully many Ottoman government officials believed in taking backshish, local lingo for bribes.

The new immigrants were able to scrape together some money and borrow the rest from the local Muslims to buy a parcel of land right next to remains of the Ramban synagogue. The old Ramban synagogue itself was in the very poor shape and was used by Arabs as a charcoal warehouse and a cheese factory. The Ha-Hasid group started building a small synagogue on newly acquired land with an idea of building a larger synagogue later when their financial situation would improve. The constraction project has gone on for some years but has eventually floundered due to lack of funds and internal bickering over the design.

In 1720 the Arab creditord destroyed the unfinished synagogue and burned the 40 Torah scrolls it housed. The site was later named Hurva Rav Yehudah Ha-Hasid or Hurva for short. The word Hurva literally means “ruin” in Hebrew. The Ottoman authorities put the blame for the disturbances on the Ashkenazi Jews. The remaining congregation was expelled from Jerusalem and the outstanding construction debt was charged to the entire Jewish community of Jerusalem. Jerusalem’s original Jewish community was already impoverished; living on the donations from abroad and new Ottoman sanctions devastated them for years to come.

Almost 100 years later in 1812 another group of religious Ashkenazi Jews from Lithuania made an aliya to the Holy Land. These were the followers of the well-known kabbalist rabbi Vilna Gaon. They were also known as Perushim or “separated ones” who were seeking the separation from the worldly pleasures to dedicate themselves to God and study of Torah.

Over 500 of them tried to reach Jerusalem enduring great hardships along the way only to be rebuffed by Muslim authorities who did not want Ashkenazi presence in Holy City. There was also a great concern that a century old debt incurred by the Ha-Hasid followers would be slapped on them by the descendants of the Arab creditors. Because of those reasons the majority of new immigrants have settled in Safed, currently part of northern Israel.

 In 1912 the city of Safed was hit by the requiring plaque that has decimated its Jewish population. Many of the Safed Jews under the leadership of rabbi Menachem Mendel, a prominent student of the Vilna Gaon, fled to Jerusalem so they could save the remaining Jewish population. This time they were able to remain in Jerusalem and almost immediately began to campaign for re-establishment of Hurva synagogue and in turn the Ashkenazi presence in the city.

To accomplish their goals the Perushim tried to organize meetings with Muslim dignitaries sometimes using the Sephardic Jews, fluent in Arabic, as emissaries. In 1820 they got a major breakthrough when the Sultan himself issued a declaration annulling all unpaid debts left over by the rabbi Ha-Hasid followers many decades earlier. Perushim send Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Tzoref to Constantinople to get an official document from the Ottoman authorities commanding the Jerusalem kadi, Muslim judge who renders decisions according to the Sharia law, to allow the Ashkenazim a freedom to remain in Jerusalem and the ownership of the property where Hurva synagogue resided.

 Even though rabbi Tzoref was able to get the document, the local Arabs who had by that time built the shops on the disputed property refused to move without the compensation. The synagogue itself was in ruin and used as a garbage dump. Over the next couple of decades the Perushim continued working hard on getting the appropriate authorities to give them the permission to rebuild the Hurva synagogue. No stone was left unturned.

They approached many powerful people from Egypt’s Mohammed Ali to Russian and Austrian councils in an effort to get the local authorities finally give them the permission they sought for so many years. Only in 1836, five years after Jerusalem was annexed by Mohammed Ali, ruler of Egypt, did the situation change. Rabbi Tzoref petitioned a new ruler for permission to build a synagogue, but Mohammed Ali was unwilling.

Rabbi Tzoref also received backing from Baron Salomon Mayer von Rothschild, who pledged to fund Ali's government. Desperately in need of the foreign invetments Ali finally agreed to grant permission to build a synagogue. However, for various reasons, the Jews opted to build a smaller synagogue, yeshiva and mikveh near the Hurva ruins. The dream still remained to rebuild a full size synagogue on the site where the old one was burnt.

But the road to fulfilling that dream was full of sacrifices. In 1951 Rabbi Tzoreff, who for so many years worked tirelessly on the behalf of Jewish community of Jerusalem and specifically for Hurva synagogue reconstruction project, was treacherously ambushed and killed by the local Arabs. 

Finally the right time came during the Crimean War in 1855. The alliance of Ottoman Empire, England and France has defeated the Russian Empire over the dispute involving the Russian subjects living on Ottoman territories and over the privileges of the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches in the holy places in Palestine.

The British, who now had some influence with Ottoman Sultan, have lobbied on the behalf of Ashkenazi Jews to grant them permission to expend the compound and rebuilt the synagogue. That mission was finally achieved with active involvement of British financier and philanthropist sir Moses Montefiore who personally received the permission from the Sultan Abdulmecid in Constantinople.

 Few years earlier sir Moses Monerfiore has collected some funds that were available to bankroll the new synagogue once the permission was granted. In 1856 the first stone was laid down by honorary guest Baron Alphonse de Rothschild. But within couple of years the project has run out of funds. The impoverished Jewish community of Palestine was in no position to support the further construction that required the substantial financial backing.

The emissaries were delegated to collect money from the Jewish diaspora all over the world. Many have donated the funds as the act of donation was seen as a great mitzvoth or a good deed, an obligation of every Jew.

Finally the construction was completed in 1864. It was done in neo-Byzantine style and was overlooked by a Sultan’s personal architect  Assad Effendi. The new construction was named Beit Yaakov Synagogue after James (Yaakov) Rothschild whose family had supported the Jewish community of Palestine for many years. But to most people it was still known as Hurva Synagouge.  

For the next  84 years the newly build synagogue has enjoyed a prominent status in the city full of magnificent religious sites. It was considered to be one of the most beautiful structures in Jerusalem and more importantly represented a symbol of permanent presence of Ashkenazy Jews in Jerusalem. Over the following decades many dignitaries, both Jewish and non-Jewish, have visited the synagogue and prayed within its walls.

That all changed during Israel’s War of Independence. The 1947 U.N. partition plan for Palestine had a special consideration for Jerusalem placing it under a permanent international control. Following the departure of the British forces from Palestine, on May 14th 1948 Jews proclaimed the Declaration of Independence and creation of the new state called Israel.

Only hours after a new Israeli government announced the news to the nation, the coalition of Arab League countries declared war on the fledgling state and went on offensive. Jordanian army under the command of King Hussein invaded Jerusalem, including the Jewish Quarter in the heart of which stood Hurva Synagogue.

Only 190 Haganah and Irgun fighters were left to defend the Jewish Quarter. The undermanned Jewish defenders fought for each house and rach alleyway but eventually had to abandon the fight suffering serious casualties. Some Jewish defenders were fighting from within the walls of Hurva synagogue but came under Jordanian mortar fire and eventually had to withdraw.

On May 26th the Arab Legionnaires entered the Jewish Quarter. Almost 2000 of permanent Jewish residents, including some of the oldest Jewish families, were forced out by the Jordanians. The Jewish Quarter was left without a single Jew for the first time in almost a millennium. Once the Jewish Quarter was in Jordanian hands they began a wholesale destruction of the ancient neighborhood starting with one of its most important religious relics, Hurva Synagogue, which was blown to pieces.

 Total of twenty two of the twenty seven synagogues of Jewish Quarter were destroyed including such legendary synagogues as Tipheret, Yohana ben Zakkai and Istambuli. It was a planned eradication of any traces of Jewish presence in order to make a return of Jewish residents impossible. That pattern of behavior of desecration of Jewish holy sites repeated itself many times over the next few decades every time Jews have turned the territory over to Arabs.

A year later in April of 1949 the Armistice Agreement was signed between Israel and Jordan. Jerusalem was divided between Israel, who was in control of West Jerusalem, and Jordan who now was in control of Eastern Jerusalem and the Old City with all its holy places. The Armistice Agreement had a provision for Jews to be able to visit the Western Wall, Mount of Olives and Kidron Valley but Jordanians never kept their part of the bargain and in fact had a plan to turn the Jewish Quarter into the park.

While the United Nations and major powers were debating the permanent status of Jerusalem, Israelis on December 11th, 1949 declared it to be the capital of Israel.

The Jewish Quarter remained under Jordanian control for the next 18 years. During the 1967 Six Day war Jerusalem fell under Israeli control and the Jewish Quarter was liberated. Jews and Christians were again able to visit their Holy sites without any restrictions.

Many proposals were floating around regarding the rebuilding of Hurva synagogue but nothing was agreed upon except the recreation of the arch from the original synagogue and some explanatory plaques providing a history of this tortured site. Finally after considering multiple proposals and various models for a new synagogue in 2000 an Israeli government approved a plan presented by architect Nahum Metzger.

His plan was to rebuild the synagogue as close as possible to its original 19th century design of Ottoman builder Assad Effendi. It took almost a decade to complete the construction due to financial and some political issues but the construction of Hurva synagogue was completed and an official opening ceremony took place on March 15, 2010.

The ceremony was attended by Israeli Parlament speaker, many Israeli politicians and chief rabbis. In the video message Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu said the following: “We permit believers of other faiths to conserve their places of warship. We proudly protect our heritage, while allowing others freedom of religion”.

Of course an opening of the synagogue of such historical importance in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem could not go through without a controversy. There was a severe backlash from the Arabs followed by chorus of the protests from some other countries.

Leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshal said that synagogues’ reconstruction “signifies the destruction of the al-Aqsa mosque and building of the 3rd Temple”. Mahmaud Abbas representative said that: “this synagogue will be a prelude to violence and religious fanaticism”.

In couple of years since reopening Hurva synagogue it did not become a place that preached violence and fanaticism. All its early founders were looking for was a place at the Holy Land where they could practice their religion and be close to God. Those were non-violent people who were trying to find a piece of mind and in a place that was highly hostile to them. They did not perpetrate the violence. It was repeatedly perpetrated against them.

The Jewish Quarter and the Hurva synagogue are symbols of hope and resurrection against all odds and across many centuries. I do not foresee any scenario, even if Israelis and Palestinians sign a peace agreement, under which the Jewish Quarter would be ever turned over to Palestinian control. Hopefully it will stand there for many more centuries reminding both Jews and Gentiles what can be accomplished if one believes in something and how far that faith can take them.