Monday, November 9, 2015

A Symbolic Synagogue

It is a surprisingly ironic fact that a synagogue whose name means “ruin” has, for many decades, been a symbol of hope. The Hurva Synagogue of Jerusalem, which was once known for its lone arch soaring over its ruins, has a fascinating history of building and destruction.

While excavations during the most recent (and hopefully final) rebuilding of the Hurva Synagogue revealed artifacts from as far back as the First Temple period, the location became significant when it was purchased by Rabbi Judah Ha’chasid (1660 - 1700), a Polish rabbi who led a large group of pilgrims to settle in Jerusalem. Alas, Rabbi Judah died suddenly the same week that he arrived in Jerusalem and purchased the property.

Rabbi Judah’s followers, who soon made up the majority of the Ashkenazi population of Jerusalem, decided to go ahead and build the synagogue despite their rabbi’s passing. In need of funds, they borrowed from local Arab lenders. The synagogue was built, but the acquired debt became unmanageable.  On November 9, 1720,* the creditors ran out of patience and set fire to the synagogue. Wishing to maintain peace in the city, the ruling Ottomans expelled the entire Ashkenazi community.

In the mid-1800s, followers of the Vilna Gaon who had recently settled in the Holy Land, decided to rebuild the synagogue. The Bais Yaakov synagogue, built in Ottoman style with a beautiful arch-supported dome, became a center of Ashkenazi Jewry in Jerusalem for the next 100 years.

Sadly, after the Jordanians took control of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City (1948), they blew up the synagogue. The Hurva was once again in ruins. Following the 1967 war, when Israel regained control of the city, there was much discussion about rebuilding. After a decade of indecision, one of the structure’s stone arches was rebuilt to serve as a monument to the synagogue and a promise of future reconstruction. The arch became a popular and powerful symbol of hope in Jerusalem. Actual rebuilding finally began in 2002, and the new, stunningly beautiful Hurva officially opened in March 2010.

*There are some differing opinions on the date.

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