'This place represents layers of Jerusalem history'

Museum about Jews planned for Jerusalem compound built by Protestant missionary

Left empty for years, landmark 19th Century Schneller orphanage-turned-army HQ, on the edge of Mea She’arim, set for $50 million restoration

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

The U-shaped courtyard of the former Schneller German Protestant Orphanage, now slated for renovation and rebuilding as Beit Hakehillot museum and institute (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)
The U-shaped courtyard of the former Schneller German Protestant Orphanage, now slated for renovation and rebuilding as Beit Hakehillot museum and institute (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

There’s a new museum coming to Jerusalem, aimed at celebrating Jewish life, culture and history, to be housed, somewhat ironically, in a 19th century orphanage built by a German Protestant missionary who sought to create an Arab Protestant community in the holy land.

For the religiously observant developers of the museum, called Beit Hakehillot, it feels like a victory to have it based in the 160-year-old building of the former Schneller orphanage, part of the larger Schneller compound in downtown Jerusalem that was long used by the IDF as its Jerusalem headquarters.

The building has stood empty and dilapidated for years, and the $50 million project will include a complete restoration and construction of the Beit Hakehillot museum. The structure is planned as a multi-level edifice that will take visitors on a tour of Jewish history through the ages, using multimedia, audiovisual and virtual reality exhibits along with Jewish ritual objects and manuscripts that will bring to life the names, places and rituals of the Jewish people.

A rendering of the planned Beit Hakehillot gallery, full of manuscripts and Hebrew alphabet-based exhibits to tell the story of the Jewish people (Courtesy Beit Hakehillot)

The entire project is being funded and created by the Kehillot Yisrael Institute, part of Ahavas Shalom, a Jewish outreach organization founded by Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Hillel, an India-born, England-trained rabbi and Jerusalem-based ultra-Orthodox rabbi who has spent 50 years setting up a network of yeshivas, a girls’ seminary and institutions aimed at bringing Jews closer to their Judaism. He is also known to have the largest private archive of Jewish manuscripts from Jewish communities through the world.

“Rav Hillel is the visionary,” said Hanan Benayahu, director of the Beit Hakehillot Project. “His projects are a kind of outreach.”

According to Benayahu, Ahavas Shalom has a range of individual supporters, from secular to ultra-Orthodox, but Beit Hakehillot is a separate project, not aimed at any particular population.

“We’re looking to pass on a message,” he said. “It’s not about going to see movies, but rather learning about subjects and topics in the Jewish world.”

A rendering of one of the planned Beit Hakehillot galleries, full of manuscripts and Hebrew alphabet-based exhibits to tell the story of the Jewish people (Courtesy Beit Hakehillot)

Layers of history

For the architects, designers and managers of the project, it’s a dream opportunity to have $50 million to renovate and create a museum that offers a gateway to Jewish culture.

For those who are part of the Ahavas Shalom network, it seems fitting to have an institution of Jewish history and outreach in what was once a German Protestant compound but is now located on the edge of an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.

Johann Ludwig Schneller (Courtesy)

For the Jerusalem municipality, the museum is the answer to a 13-year-old question of what to do with the 17.5-acre compound, built as a Syrian orphanage in 1860 by German Protestant missionary Johann Ludwig Schneller and used to care for and educate orphaned Arab children until 1940.

“This is for the future of our city,” said deputy mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum at a press tour introducing the museum’s plans.

“This place represents layers of Jerusalem history,” said Hassan-Nahoum. A “sweet irony that from this whole story,” she said, “is that Schneller set up this children’s orphanage, that has merit, but he wasn’t exactly a friend of the Jewish people; he didn’t love us, okay? This place wasn’t welcoming to the Jewish people.”

The Schneller family is considered to be the longest Protestant missionary dynasty in the Orient, according to academic research compiled by architect and urban planner Gil Gordon.

Johann Ludwig Schneller founded the orphanage to save Syrian orphan children, and his sons and grandsons carried on his missionary work into the 1930s, until the arrival of the British Mandate period in Palestine. As the city of Jerusalem grew, the Schneller community expanded as well, but still related to its surroundings, according to Gordon.

The compound included a church, boarding schools for boys and girls, primary and secondary schools, a seminary and youth center, and was a center for artisan workshops, including a well-known factory for the production of tiles and bricks. There was also a printing house that produced material in several languages, including “Hashkafah,” a newspaper published by the first Hebraicist, Eliezer Ben Yehuda.

During the Arab-Jewish riots of 1929, when the Schneller grandsons were running the compound, the community was purported to be pro-Arab, Gordan noted. Some of the German staff supported the growing Nazi ideology back in Germany, but Nazi principles were not apparent at the compound, he wrote. All Germans living in Palestine were expelled by the British in 1939, and in 1940, the Schneller compound was closed.

It was only at the turn of the 21st century that distant relatives to the Schneller family began to travel to Israel, according to Gordon’s research. The wife of one of Schneller’s great-grandchildren studied the Jewish history of her own German hometown, and ended up raising money to renovate a former Jewish school as a community center for intercultural dialogue.

From army to army

During the previous decades, the Schneller complex had been used by the British army as a closed military camp, until it was taken over by the Haganah pre-state militia and later by the Israel Defense Forces as an army base known as Camp Schneller, where a portion of the army’s medical care facilities were situated until 2008.

The army compound is situated near the center of downtown Jerusalem, and on the edge of Mea Shearim, one of the city’s oldest ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.

One of the buildings in the Schneller compound, formerly used as a school for the blind, now as a school for religious girls and a municipal parking lot (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

When Camp Schneller was evacuated in 2008, eight of its historical buildings were listed for conservation, and the orphanage building ended up being used by squatters and the homeless.

The municipality decided in 2017 to divide up the compound for private residential construction in order to solve the lack of housing in the city, said Moshe Shapiro, the lead architect of the project from the municipality’s landmark properties department. Many of those projects have already been constructed and are occupied by ultra-Orthodox families.

Unique renovation

Moshe Shapiro, the lead architect on the restoration of the Schneller orphanage into the Kehillot Yisrael museum on August 14, 2020 (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

One initial idea was to turn some of the landmarked Schneller buildings into a community center, but there was no organization in Jerusalem that had the budget to properly restore the building.

The only way to get a landmarked building renovated is with private funds, said Shapiro.

“They should have told the property developers that they had to put money into that building in exchange for the residential projects they gained in Schneller,” he said.

It took 13 years until Ahavas Shalom came along and offered to take over the project.

“It’s so unusual for an organization to invest their own money in something like this,” said Shapiro. “They’ll invest the millions that it needs, and what’s good is that the whole public can come, not just the ultra-Orthodox.”

The project is the largest landmark renovation of its kind in Jerusalem, said Shapiro.

Built from bricks that were made with red mud from the nearby Motza spring, and with tiles constructed at the orphanage, the U-shaped building was designed with a mix of German and local Arab influences, with inner courtyards, arched windows, flat roofs, a domed tower and tiled roof.

“It was the first brick house built in Palestine in 2,000 years,” said Shapiro. “It’s not a Jewish building, it’s the general story of Jerusalem, but you need to take care of its history.”

The former Lutheran church of the Schneller Orphanage in Jerusalem was used at one time as a gym, and now will be refurbished as part of the Kehillot Yisrael museum (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

For those managing the restoration and design, there’s irony for them in the fact that Schneller and his descendants worked to create a Protestant community in the holy land, but that their buildings will be used to protect and teach about Jewish heritage.

“A place like this is the beginning of a conversation,” said Eddie Jacobs, co-director of Berenbaum-Jacobs Associates, the design team responsible for Beit Hakehillot. “We’re trying to stimulate the audience, to make them ask questions.”

The museum will be a platform for learning about the global Jewish community and history, with the museum, workshops and courses, said Benayahu, and open to any kind of visitor.

“Our mission is to bring Jewish culture from abroad to here,” he said. “And we’ll do it in this place.”

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