Coming Home to the Jewish Quarter

November 16, 2018

by: Ilse Strauss, Assistant Editor

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Dan Hadani /wikimedia

At the tender age of 18, Esther Weiss prayed a strange prayer. The year was 1968. Months earlier, Israel had liberated the Old City of Jerusalem from Jordanian rule. The divided city was newly reunited. The Jewish people had just regained access to their holy sites and could finally return to the decimated Jewish Quarter. Esther stood amid a deserted landscape of rubble in the bombed-out crater of the Tiferet Yisrael Synagogue—once the center of worship in the Jewish Quarter—when the longing of her heart overflowed. “God,” she whispered. “I want to live here.”

Her prayer seemed foolhardy. The Jewish Quarter lay in ruins, the legacy of the Jordanian Army invading and destroying generations of Jewish homes, synagogues and yeshivot (religious schools) during the War of Independence. While the quarter was finally back in the hands of its rightful owners, piles of rock and twisted metal hardly seemed the ideal environment to build a life. Yet Esther’s heart longed for a homecoming, and God answered her prayer. A year later, a newly married Esther and her husband, along with four other pioneering Jewish couples, returned to the Jewish Quarter to repopulate the area and infuse the decimated landscape with life.

 

Jewish Life Destroyed

The Jewish Quarter is one of the four quarters in the ancient walled city. The plot of land is tiny; home to no more than 2,000 people. Yet it’s the heartbeat of life in Jerusalem. A nearly uninterrupted flow of residents, worshipers and tourists stroll through the famous Hurva Square, past the synagogue that lends it its name and flock to the Western Wall for prayer, browse the shops bursting with Judaica or linger over a cup of coffee at one of the cafés.

Crammed with synagogues, homes and sites of biblical and historic significance, the cobbled alleyways of the Jewish Quarter echo with more than 1,200 years of uninterrupted Jewish life. Yet the War of Independence and the invading Jordanians signaled an end to the Jewish presence in the Old City. Although newly reborn Israel won the war for her existence, she lost half of Jerusalem to the Hashemites. Following a six-month battle and a crippling siege, the last Jewish inhabitants were forced from their homes in May 1948. As the ancient gates slammed shut and the last traces of a Jewish presence disappeared, the Jordanians implemented an operation of “calculated destruction.” The Hashemite commander proudly reported, “For the first time in 1,000 years, not a single Jew remains in the Jewish Quarter. Not a single building remains intact. This makes the Jews’ return here impossible.”

Twenty years later, as Israel emerged victorious from the Six Day War and the Jordanians fled Jerusalem, the Jews returned to a quarter where a third of the buildings were flattened, all but one synagogue demolished and houses of worship razed, pillaged and stripped for use as henhouses and stables.

 

Jewish Life Rebuilt

Esther Weiss (Photo by Hannah Taylor/bridgesforpeace.com)

Esther isn’t a native Jerusalemite. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, she grew up in a tent camp on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Her first visit to the City of Gold was a school trip for her bat mitzvah (religious coming of age ceremony for girls). “They took us to Mount Zion. We climbed onto a rooftop and they pointed into the distance. ‘There!’ they said. ‘That’s the Kotel!’”

Then, in her final year of school, Jerusalem was reunited. “We couldn’t believe it!” she remembers. “Jerusalem? Ours again? You cannot imagine the joy. The radio said we could come—for the first time in thousands of years—to the Western Wall. And we did.”

Buses from all over the country streamed to the newly freed city, bringing throngs of rejoicing Israelis. “But the Kotel was the only part of the Jewish Quarter still standing. Everywhere else was mud and rubble. No houses, roads or buildings,” Esther recalls.

Despite the destruction, the Old City made a lasting impression on her. Esther moved to Jerusalem as a student the following year and spent much of her time between classes exploring the ruins of the Jewish Quarter. During one of those visits, she shared her heart with the Almighty. “It was a short prayer; just a few words. I told Him I want to live here.”

Months later, she met and married her husband, David. The young couple knew of the government’s plans to rebuild the destroyed quarter—and of the call for Jewish families to move into temporary homes to repopulate the deserted area. Together, they decided to answer that call.

In 1969, Esther, David, their infant son and four other couples moved into temporary apartments in the Jewish Quarter, a stone’s throw from the Western Wall. Soldiers were deployed to guard the tiny new community. Yet even the prospect of danger and the sea of destruction around her didn’t dampen Esther’s joy. “It was a dream come true. Imagine! An apartment overlooking the Kotel. We opened our window and there it was!”

Esther’s second child—a girl—was born in the shadow of the holiest site in Judaism. The young mother took every advantage of the proximity. “Whenever she cried, I’d put her on the windowsill in full view of the wall and talked to the Almighty. ‘Hello God,’ I’d say. “Please comfort her. Please help me raise her well.’ And of course He did!”

As Esther’s family grew, so did the Jewish Quarter. The rubble and bombed-out craters made way for homes and roads—and the ruins revealed their buried treasures. “They uncovered the Herodian Quarter, Cardo, Burnt House and beautiful mosaics—we saw it all emerge from the rubble. Every day one of the archaeologists would call me over to show me the day’s find. We were part of the Jewish Quarter returning to life.”

As a young woman, Esther lost her heart to a piece of her history, a place cloaked in dust and echoes of a bygone era. Today, 50 years later, after a lifetime of memories, countless answered prayers and seeing the Jewish Quarter rebuilt, what stands out as her fondest recollection? “What a question you ask!” she exclaims. “There isn’t a specific one. Every day, living here is a gift. What happens in Israel first happens here. Everybody comes here first—excited and rejoicing. This is the center, the essence of our people. And it all happens outside my window.”

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