by: Janet Aslin, Assistant Editor
Jerusalem is one of the oldest inhabited cities on earth and for most of its long history it has been contained within the walled Old City. However, in 1860 the first Jewish neighborhood, Mishkenot Sha’ananim—Hebrew for peaceful habitation—was built outside those ancient walls. In the ensuing 150 years, the city has continued to expand its borders as new neighborhoods have been built.
Although Jerusalem, with its population of roughly 900,000 is a relatively small city, it is home to a variety of historic and distinctively different neighborhoods. We’d like to invite you to visit one of them—the neighborhood of Rehavia.
In 1921, Keren Kayemet LeYisrael, often abbreviated as the Jewish National Fund (JNF), purchased a large plot of land from the Greek Orthodox Church. That plot, known locally as Ginzaria (a native Jerusalem plant), was primarily agricultural land situated on a hill overlooking the Old City. It was to become one of Jerusalem’s first modern neighborhoods.
Rehavia was planned as one of six garden neighborhoods, modeled after the ones being built in Europe with low buildings, narrow streets and a lot of greenery. Commercial business was initially limited to the two main roads on the edge of the neighborhood and some of its roads were designated as pedestrian-only. Although several of its streets have since been widened and opened to through traffic, much of Rehavia remains as quiet and peaceful as when it was first developed.
In many Jerusalem neighborhoods, the naming of streets follows a theme. Rehavia is no different. Here Jewish scholars and poets from the Golden Age of Jewish culture, such as Ramban, Radak, Abravenel and others, have streets named in their honor.
Several sites important to the history of the Jewish state are located in this neighborhood. The JNF, which was founded in 1901 to buy and develop land in what was later to become the State of Israel, and the Jewish Agency have long had offices in an imposing semi-circular building whose past occupants included the World Zionist Organization.
The nation’s second modern high school, Gymnasia Rehavia, was built here in 1928. For decades, it was Jerusalem’s only high school. In 1961 it was renamed Yitzach Ben-Zvi Municipal High School in honor of Israel’s second president who was a teacher there.
Rehavia was also home to the first Bridges for Peace office, located in the apartment of our founder, Dr. G. Douglas Young and his wife. Interestingly, their apartment on Arlozorov Street was very close to another landmark—the official residence of Israel’s Prime Minister. Bridges for Peace has since moved to another area of the city but the Prime Minister’s official home remains in Rehavia.
The land was not totally empty when it was purchased by the JNF. The Greek Orthodox Church built a windmill on what is now Ramban Street. Originally designed as a social project to provide the poor with flour and bread, it went out of use in 1873 when a more efficient, steam-powered, windmill was built in the German Colony. While not as well-known as Montefiore’s Windmill, the Jerusalem stone construction and “wings” of Mendelsohn’s Windmill are a surprising find, tucked-away in this quiet neighborhood.
Another interesting site is Jason’s Tomb which was discovered during construction on Alfasi Street. It is a rock-cut cave that dates to Maccabean times and contains the inscription, “A powerful lament make for Jason…son of P…(my brother) peace …. who hast built thyself a tomb, Elder rest in peace.” Based on the charcoal drawing of two warships, researchers believe Jason may have been a naval captain.
Although not part of the original land plot, the Ratisbonne Monastery with its unique “Turkish tower” is included in modern-day Rehavia. Construction on the building began in 1874 and continued into the 20th century. In May of 1948, the Ratisbonne Monastery provided refuge for the women and children who were evacuated from Gush Etzion.
Many of Israel’s political elite, among them David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Levi Eshkol, Yizhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon have called Rehavia home at one time or another.
Another well-known resident was Yitzhak Ben Zvi, Israel’s second president who served from 1952 until his death at the beginning of his third term in 1963. In 1947 he founded Yad Ben-Zvi, a research institute and academic publishing house that still operates from his Rehavia home.
Rehavia has also been home, at least on a temporary basis, to royalty. In 1935, Italy’s Benito Mussolini invaded Ethiopia. As the war began to go against the Ethiopians, Emperor Haile Selasse and his family went into exile. They chose to flee to Jerusalem and lived on Alharizi Street while preparing to present a case before the League of Nations in Geneva.
Walking tours of Rehavia are popular today. Visitors are drawn by its history, the architecture of the buildings, quiet tree-lined streets and garden courtyards tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the city. In many ways it is possible to take a step back in time and, in the words of one tour company visit “the neighborhood [that] represents a fascinating reflection of the spirit of the Zionist movement and the exciting period of ‘the State on the way’” (Gems in Israel).
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