The early 1880s were years of terror for Jews living in the vast Russian empire, as one massacre followed another. Fleeing for their lives, thousands of destitute refugees headed for the Holy Land. At the start of this mass immigration, leaders of the Zionist movement asked wealthy Jewish banker Baron Edmond de Rothschild for help establishing colonies in the Land of Israel. At the time, he declined.
The port city of Jaffa, where the newcomers disembarked, and Jerusalem, where many ended up, had nothing to offer these impoverished newcomers. In Jerusalem, hundreds of refugees received help from an Anglican missionary group backed by the Church of England known as the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity amongst the Jews. Although proselytizing was the group’s primary goal and its missionaries talked about Jesus as the messiah whenever the opportunity arose, its members were happy to assist the needy as well. Indeed, hundreds of indigent Jews were clothed, fed and housed by the Society.
The Society’s schools and hospital were soon filled to bursting with Eastern European Jews. The able-bodied among them were given work on land owned by the mission building walls, planting trees and clearing away rocks. Others attended the mission trade school, and both boys and girls attended Society schools for an education denied them elsewhere. The Society even founded the first modern hospital in the Middle East in 1844; its first patients were Jews from Baghdad and Germany.
Jerusalem rabbis were appalled at the Jews’ close links to the Society, and were especially vehement in their opposition to Jewish hospitalization at its medical facility. But since they weren’t in any position to find work, education, medical care and housing for their fellow Jews, there was little they could do about the situation. In fact, Rothschild, who became one of pre-state Israel’s largest contributors, may have finally begun underwriting Jewish settlement there because the Jews depended on missionaries for everything important in their daily lives.
The Society was based in a complex just inside Jaffa Gate that included the first Protestant house of worship in the region. Purposely stripped of Christian symbols, the mid-19th century church resembled a synagogue in many ways and was filled with Hebrew inscriptions to help Messianic Jews feel comfortable in this place of worship. It was called Christ Church, and is known in Hebrew as the Church of the Messiah.
For decades, Christians and Messianic Jews — that is, Jews who believe in Jesus — flocked to the compound’s picturesque guesthouse, secluded garden, coffeeshop and restaurant, worshiped in the church in a variety of languages, and visited the compound’s unusual heritage center.
All this came to a screeching halt in the pandemic era. With nary a tourist on which to base its income, the London Society — known today as the Church’s Ministry among the Jewish People (CMJ) — decided to actively encourage visits by local Israelis.
To that end, it has rebranded itself and today the Christ Church compound is the Emanuel Compound, offering an interesting selection of tours and lectures in Hebrew and English, along with diverse musical evenings. Since there are no Christian symbols in the compound and not a whisper of proselytizing to Israelis, non-Christians can relax and enjoy the programs and/or lodge at the inexpensive and recently renovated guesthouse.
Despite the fact that tourists are back, at least for the moment, Emanuel has continued to cater to the Israeli public. Last month, we took part in several of the center’s activities, including a fascinating lecture by Hana Bendcowsky. Bendcowsky, program director of the Jerusalem Center for Jewish-Christian Relations, offered detailed insights on the connection between early missionary societies — mainly Anglican — and Jerusalem. The lecture took place in the church, which also frequently hosts musical programs.
We also participated in a tour of the Old City and Mount Zion with Emanuel tour guide Idan Pinhas. The tour was billed as the Protestant Spirit.
To set the mood for the tour, it began with an afternoon English tea served in the compound’s garden next to the 19th-century building that once housed early British consuls to Palestine. Featuring typical English finger sandwiches, mints, and scones topped with butter, clotted cream and jam, the spread was washed down with cups of English tea.
Pinhas encouraged us to enjoy our treats as he offered an in-depth introduction to the Protestant ethos. Afterward, he led the group into the church, where he explained that the missionaries cloaked the gospel message in cultural packages tailored to their listeners. Later, he took us into Emanuel’s heritage museum, which showcases the Society’s significant contribution to Jerusalem. On display are stunning pieces of olivewood furniture created in the Society’s trade school — the House of Industry. Established in 1843, the school, like the church, was the first of its kind in the Middle East and offered its students printing, carpentry, shoemaking, reading, writing, arithmetic and Bible studies.
Next stop: the former site of the Society’s pioneer hospital on Bikur Holim Street in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. It was this hospital, acknowledged as the foremost medical facility in the region, that apparently spurred Rothschild into establishing a hospital specifically for Jewish patients.
The group then walked through the Byzantine Cardo for a short explanation about the mosaic Madaba Map displayed on its wall. And, finally, we reached our last stop: the Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion.
The cemetery is located on the grounds of the Jerusalem University College, also known as the Institute of Holy Land Studies. Here lie the remains of the great 19th-century Anglican movers and shakers. Among them are Danish-born John Nicolayson, said to have been the first permanent Protestant missionary in Jerusalem, and the German missionary Conrad Schick.
Schick was a genius who taught himself carpentry, architecture, archaeology and model-making. Historic 19th-century buildings designed by Schick are scattered throughout the older sections of Jerusalem, among them the imposing east wing of the Bikur Holim Hospital, the impressive Hanson House (once a leper asylum), St. Paul’s Anglican Church, and his own, unique, personal dwelling.
Schick is also famous for creating superbly accurate wooden models of important Jerusalem sites, three of which are found in Emanuel’s heritage museum. The most elaborate is a model of the Old City produced in 1873 that includes an exact reproduction of the Temple Mount. Indeed, so meticulous was Schick that his model also includes perfect replicas of what lies inside and underneath each site in the model.
Offering riveting explanations of Schick’s handiwork spiced with anecdotes and humor, historian Dr. Eyal Meron lifted the roofs off a number of different sites in the model. He even debunked several common myths and beliefs about sites in the Old City, like the legend claiming that the Golden Gate was closed by the Muslims to prevent the entrance of the Jewish messiah.
When the roofs came off, we saw pools and an underground channel. Most interesting, perhaps, was the exciting moment when the top came off of the Dome of the Rock. Underneath stood an exact replica of the Foundation Stone, believed to have been the rock on which the Ark of the Covenant stood in the Holy of Holies, and, according to Islamic belief, from which the Prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven.
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