Monday, August 15, 2016

The First Neighborhood

Until the end of the 19th century, the barren hills outside of the 16th century walls of Jerusalem’s Old City were the territory of marauders and wild animals. Inside the walls, overcrowding and poverty were the challenges faced by the Jewish, Muslim and Christian residents.

When American Jewish businessman and philanthropist Judah Touro passed away in 1854, his will appointed British philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore and New Orleans activist Gershon Kursheedt as co-executors of the $50,000 he bequeathed to the Jews of the Holy Land (approximately $1.34 million in 2016 dollars).

Montefiore and Kursheedt traveled to Jerusalem with the intention of using the funds to build a hospital. They purchased a plot of land just outside the walls facing Mount Zion, and on August 15, 1855, with great fanfare, the cornerstone for the future building was laid.

Back in England, Montefiore arranged for a windmill to be built on the land to serve as a means of providing food and livelihood for future residents of the area.  He returned to Jerusalem with Kursheedt in 1857, but with a new plan after discovering that a hospital had just been built by the Rothschilds of Paris. Montefiore proposed an Almshouse instead.

Completed in 1860, the long rowhouse contained 16 small apartments. There was a modern iron pump, a mikveh and a community oven. Montefiore named the community Mishkenot She’ananim, taken from Isaiah 32:18, which means “pleasant dwellings.” The house and the windmill were the only buildings outside the Old City.

Although living conditions in the Old City were painfully challenging, finding residents for the new building proved incredibly difficult. In fact, even with a financial incentive, those who came to the neighborhood preferred to return to the walled city at night to sleep in safety. Eventually, however, proper residence was established, and in 1866, Montefiore added a second, smaller complex.

Today, the buildings and the windmill of Mishkenot She’ananim are a popular Jerusalem tourist site. Although it went through rough times (bordering on Jordanian territory from 1948-1967 and deteriorating into a slum), the first neighborhood of the new city of Jerusalem was refurbished in 1973 and is now an elegant international cultural institute and conference center.

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