Israel’s War of Independence ended with Jerusalem divided in two — and the Old City in Jordanian hands. Unfortunately, during the course of the war, two of the Old City’s magnificent and historic synagogues were razed to the ground by the Jordanian Legion. When the Six Day War of 1967 reunited the Holy City, the Jewish Quarter returned to Israel. Restorations began on a number of important sites, including several sanctuaries that had been demolished, desecrated or taken away by the Muslim authorities over the centuries. Here are a few of their stories:
Four Sephardic Synagogues
Rabbi Yochanan Ben-Zakkai was a first century sage and a member of the Sanhedrin (the highest Jewish court and council in ancient times) who kept Jewish learning alive after the fall of the Second Temple. In the 16th century, a sanctuary in Jerusalem was named after the famous rabbi, which was joined, over the next 200 years, by three adjoining houses of worship. Called the Four Sephardic Synagogues, that complex is located on the edge of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City and serves as a major spiritual, educational, and financial center for Sephardic Jews. Indeed, it is here that the Chief Rabbi of the Sephardic community has been anointed since 1893 (except during the years of Jerusalem’s division). The largest of the four chambers is the Ben-Zakkai Synagogue on which site, according to tradition, the revered rabbi taught Bible. A smaller sanctuary next door, named for Elijah the prophet, has been the subject of numerous stories. My favorite is the tale about the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) when only nine Jews showed up for prayers (services can’t start without ten). Suddenly a stranger appeared and the worshipers happily began to pray. Immediately after the service, the stranger vanished. It was obvious to the others that the tenth addition had been Elijah — who saves the day on all kinds of different occasions.
Kahal Zion, also known as the Middle Synagogue, is the smallest of the four sanctuaries. On the wall are framed computer-produced memorials. These replace stone memorials which were destroyed by the Jordanians during and after the War of Independence. Built by immigrant Jews from Istanbul, and today used by Jews from Kurdistan as well, the fourth chamber is called the Istanbuli Synagogue. This 18th-century sanctuary boasts an extraordinary pulpit with exquisite ornamentation; its gold-plated wooden ark has been lovingly restored.
In 1948, this place of worship was a last refuge for the Jews of the Old City, who were forced to surrender when the soldiers of the Arab Legion closed in on them. Nineteen years later, when Jewish soldiers re-entered the synagogue complex, they found that the Jordanians had turned the historic house of worship into a stable. Since that time the synagogue has been completely restored.
When completed in 1872, Tiferet Yisrael was three stories high and its dome was one of the tallest spots in the Old City. It was built by followers of a religious movement founded in the 18th century, when Judaism was sometimes considered the sole domain of scholars and community leaders. The new movement, called Hasidism, made Judaism accessible and attractive to all, teaching that even an ignorant person could find grace in the eyes of God if he had a pure heart and prayed with devotion.
In 1948, Tiferet Yisrael became an important military position and lookout point for Jewish defenders, and the battle over the building led to its destruction. Already badly damaged by heavy shelling, Tiferet Yisrael was completely demolished by Jordanian sappers in the days following the capitulation of the Jewish Quarter. Dome and walls collapsed and covered the building’s foundations. While some of its splendid features can still be seen in the ruins, this is the one early synagogue that has not been restored.
The Ramban Synagogue
Established in 1267, this was the very first synagogue to be built in the Jewish Quarter. Its founder was a well-known Spanish biblical commentator, Rabbi Moshe Ben-Nahman (1194-1270). His name is abbreviated in Hebrew as the famous acronym: the Ramban and he is also known as Nahmanides.
Commander Abdullah A-Tal decided to completely destroy Jewish morale and thus to purge the city of Jews once and for all. He gave an order — and the synagogue was blown to bits
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Nahman immigrated to the land of Israel after participating in a debate on religion with the royalty of Spain. Having won the debate, he was then forced to leave the country. Spain’s loss was Israel’s gain. Rabbi Ben-Nahman wasted no time in building a synagogue, traditionally on this site, utilizing marble pillars and a lovely dome from an abandoned edifice in its construction. Since the synagogue was a religious center for all of the Jewish groups in the city, the Jewish Quarter developed around it. In 1586, the Turkish governor of Jerusalem kicked the Jews out of their synagogue and Muslims began using the building as a storeroom for a neighboring mosque. The beautiful interior of the synagogue, reconstructed after the reunification of Jerusalem and returned to use after almost four centuries of neglect, contains one of its former columns. The pillar bears the Hebrew inscription “Avraham, Yitzhak, Ya’akov” (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob).
The Hurva Synagogue
Several decades ago, a naked arch was erected above a pile of rubble in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter. It quickly became a Jerusalem landmark, seen on countless postcards and photographs. Considered by many to be a symbol of wanton destruction – and to others the promise of future redemption – the arch has completely disappeared. It was replaced by the complete restoration of the exquisite Hurva Synagogue, which stood on this site before its destruction by the Jordanian Legion in 1948.
The first synagogue to be erected on this spot was built in 1705 by Ashkenazi followers of Rabbi Yehuda HaHasid. Five years earlier, the rabbi and his disciples had come to Jerusalem from eastern Europe to hasten the coming of the Messiah. Although the rabbi passed away soon after his arrival, his followers were desperate for a synagogue. Since money was scarce, they were forced to borrow heavily from the local Muslim populace in order to complete its construction. A few decades later, when the Jews were unable to pay back the loans, Muslim rioters demolished the synagogue and expelled the Ashkenazi community from Jerusalem. In 1836, a small place of Ashkenazi worship called Menachem Zion was constructed at the site; a house of study, Sha’arei Zion, was added in 1856. But the very large center for Ashkenazi Jews that would stand here eventually was completed only in 1864, with the help of the philanthropic Rothschild family. Officially named Beit Ya’akov, after the Baron James (Ya’akov in Hebrew) de Rothschild, it continued to be known as the Hurva (“Ruin”) of Rabbi Yehuda HaHasid.
A splendid edifice, Beit Ya’akov was the tallest structure in the Jewish Quarter, with lovely interior wall decorations and a stunning Holy Ark from Russia. The synagogue became the center of Jewish life in Jerusalem, so important that, during the War of Independence, defenders of the Jewish Quarter kept the fighting away from the site. On May 27th, 1948, when the Jewish Quarter was under siege and its buildings devastated, Commander Abdullah A-Tal decided to completely destroy Jewish morale and thus to purge the city of Jews once and for all. He gave an order — and the synagogue was blown to bits. On the very next day, the brave defenders of the Jewish Quarter surrendered. But times have changed. And today, risen from the ashes, the Hurva Synagogue once again towers over the Jewish Quarter. —————————————————————————————————————– Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel. Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.