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The Ruin Synagogue

Moshe RothchildComment

When roaming around the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, it is impossible to miss the large, white domed synagogue. This building is called “The Hurva Synagogue” which means the “Ruin Synagogue”---a very strange name indeed. Of course there is a story behind the name and here it is:

In the year 1700, Rabbi Yehuda Hachasid was intent on emigrating from Europe with his followers to Jerusalem in order to hasten the arrival of the Messiah. By building a community of people who were ready to rebuild the Temple and create the facts on the ground, how could God deny them? Unfortunately, just a few days after Rabbi Yehuda Hachasid arrived with 500 of his followers, he passed away and without a leader the community began to dissipate. 

Of those who remained, they built about 40 homes/apartments and a small synagogue. Eventually, they were interested in building a much larger and attractive synagogue but this proved well beyond the means of this small community. To make it happen, they borrowed money from the local Arab population. The synagogue was built but the debt to the Arabs was never paid. Finally, in 1720 the Arabs lost patience waiting for the loan to be repaid and simply destroyed the synagogue. The synagogue was left in ruins and it became known as the Hurva shel Rabbi Yehuda HaChasid (The Ruin of Rabbi Judah the Pious).

It remained as such for about 100 years when finally in 1819, the Jewish community of Jerusalem received a firman (royal decree) from the ruling Ottoman Empire cancelling the debt. It was not though, until the 1850’s that the synagogue reconstruction began. The Baron Alphonse de Rothschild laid the cornerstone and finally in 1864 the building was complete and dedicated. The synagogue was name Beit Yaacov (House of Jacob) in memory of Jacob Meyer Rothschild who son Edmond was critical in the development of so many new settlements in what was then Palestine.

The synagogue was designed by Assad Effendi who was the architect to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The structure was enormous and contained a beautiful dome with 12 windows around the base of the dome. This landmark building could be seen for miles. From 1864-1948 it was considered the most beautiful and important synagogue in the land of Israel. It was the site where they installed the Chief Rabbis of both Palestine and Jerusalem. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of Palestine was appointed in the synagogue in 1921.

Despite its official name being the Beit Yaacov synagogue, it was referred to by all as The Hurva (the ruin). In 1948, during the War of Independence the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem fell to the Jordanians. The Hurva Synagogue, along with 57 other synagogues were systematically destroyed by the Jordanians. Jerusalem would remain a divided city for 19 years.

In 1967, during the Six Day War, Jerusalem was once again reunited as the eternal capital of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. There was much debate about what to do with the destroyed synagogue and finally in 1977 they erected a memorial arch to the grand building that once stood there.

In the year 2000, the government of Israel approved of a plan to rebuild the Hurva Synagogue. It took ten years to solve all the issues involved in reconstruction, but finally on March 15, 2010 the synagogue was completed and dedicated.

The story of the Hurva is in many ways a microcosm of the story of the Jewish people. It is about a longing to return to the land, it is about Messianic hopes and it is also about those hopes being dashed. It also represents the tenacity of the Jewish people to forge forward when destruction occurs. Throughout the centuries, the Jewish people held on to the hope that there will once again be an opportunity to rebuild our homeland. The Hurva was destroyed twice and rebuilt twice; the Jewish people were exiled from the land of Israel twice and we have returned twice. We are a people of great hope and we have learned that it is forbidden to ever give up. Hope is the fuel that drives the engine of Jewish history.