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The Hurva Rises Again

June 4, 2008
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Though plans to rebuild started soon after the Six Day War in 1967, many of them called for a more modern structure. Since officials could not agree, the plans were set aside and a memorial arch was built in 1978 over the ruins. However, construction for the new US $7 million Hurva began in 2005. While approximately US $2.8 million was provided by the government, the remainder came from a Ukrainian Jewish philanthropist, who also donated the golden menorah for the Third Temple. Though the basic structure is nearing completion, the goal for its first use has been set for the High Holy Days (Sept.–Oct.) of 2009.

It is small, able to seat 200 men on the main floor and only 50 to 60 women in the balcony. However, it will be one of Israel’s largest synagogues, rivaling the Great Synagogue in downtown Jerusalem, and will boast of a history that perhaps surpasses all other synagogues in Israel.

A Glorious History

The history of the Hurva may be termed “glorious” because of its associations with so many “well-knowns” and its successful completion in the face of numerous obstacles. The land was purchased in 1700 by a group of Polish, Ashkenazi Jews, who then began to build a synagogue. Because their group dwindled in size and they could not finance its completion, angry Arab creditors burned it down. For the following 140 years, it was referred to as “The Ruin of Rabbi Judah the Pious,” which was abbreviated to “The Ruin” or, in Hebrew, Hurva.

In 1816, a new effort began in order to clear the unpaid debt and obtain permission to rebuild. But, this was during the Ottoman Empire, which decreed that no synagogues could be built. With the help of the Rothschild name, permission was granted and by 1837, Jerusalem had a new synagogue. It wasn’t long, however, before there was a need for expansion. By 1864, the new edifice was completed with the help of such notables as the British Jewish philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore, the Rothschild family, and even King Frederick William IV of Prussia. Its single largest contributor, however, was a Sephardic Jew from Baghdad. Until the 1930s, most events important to the Jewish community took place in the Hurva, plus some special occasions, such as a memorial service for Queen Victoria and prayers for the coronation of King George V.

A Glorious Interior

Just as in the days of Ezra when the Temple was being rebuilt, today, some who remember the Hurva wonder if the architect will be able to restore it to its former glory.

The original structure was designed by the Sultan’s official architect, Assad Effendi. The prayer hall was almost square: 51 x 46 feet (15.5 x 14 meters). Each wall contained a 42-foot-high (12.8 meter-) arch with a domed ceiling that rose 82 feet (25 meters) above the ground. Twelve windows were set in the base of the dome, and all but the eastern wall had two rows of windows. Thus, all the light was focused on the eastern wall, where a two-leveled ark (closet) held 50 scrolls. It was “adorned with dazzling woodcuts of flowers and birds,” according to a visitor’s description. “In the four corners were drawings of four animals in accordance with the statement in Pirkei Avot [part of the Mishnah, rabbinic commentary of the Scripture]: ‘Be strong as the leopard and swift as the eagle, fleet as the deer and brave as the lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven.’” Other Jewish symbols decorated the walls as well.

A Glorious Future

Many hope that the new Hurva will become a center for world Jewry, just as the former Hurva was. Architect Nahum Meltzer’s plans that the bimah (raised platform from which the Torah is read), the ark, windows, doors, and even chairs will resemble the originals.

May the hopes of the Jewish people be realized. Although this isn’t a temple, the words that the Lord spoke to Ezra’s generation seem somewhat fitting: “The latter glory of this house will be greater than the former…and in this place I shall give peace” (Haggai 2:9).

By Charleeda Sprinkle, Assistant Editor

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Photo Credit: Photoby David Howell

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