The Churva Synagogue in Jerusalem


Israel - The Churva, The story of an ancient synagogue in Jerusalem


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The Churva Synagogue

by Dovid Rossoff

Jerusalem is the sight of the Temple. For thousands of years it has been lying in ruins. There are other synagogues in Israel and Europe which have been "sentenced" to lie in ruin. However, among them all, there is only one whose very name is called the "destroyed place" (churvah). That one is located in the Old City of Jerusalem. It's history is unique and although it was blessed with several generations of glory, it again lies in ruin today.

Everyone who wanders foot-loose (or on a tour) through the Jewish Quarter eventually finds his way to the Churvah Synagogue. It stands in the center of the Jewish Quarter, next to the Ramban Synagogue. Let us take a few minutes to learn about the Churvah's history and understand how twice it was laid waste by heathen hands.

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The History of the Churvah

The spot where the Churvah stands today had been for generations a courtyard and synagogue for the small Ashkenazi community of the Holy City since the 14th century. Its first illustrious history began in 1700 and ended soon afterwards. At that time, the renowned sage of Russia, Rabbi Yehudah Hachassid, immigrated with over 500 followers to Jerusalem. Such a large scale aliyah had not been seen or heard of in thousands of years! Imagine doubling the population of the city overnight - that is what this major immigration of Ashkenazic Jews did to the existing Jewish community.

Within days of their arrival in October, 1700, they bought the site and got a permit from the Moslem authorities to expand the synagogue. In those days, nothing got done without bribery, and Rabbi Yehudah had to lay out nearly twice the amount of money needed to get all the necessary papers in order. If that was unexpected, then the sudden death of Rabbi Yehudah a few days later was a million times more shocking. When he was laid to rest in a cave on the Mount Olives, the leaderless immigrants, totally unfamiliar with the land, its people and language, quickly sank downward into more problems.

Major Problems in Building

The major problem they faced was economic. Within a few years their debts to the local Arabs had spiraled, and with the high interest rates, they were unable to keep up with the payments. Deals were made to stall the process, pleas were requested to extend the time limits of the loans, and promises offered. One of the leaders set off for Europe to collect funds. In those days such a trip took two years or more, and was full of dangers - pirates on the sea, marauders and highwaymen on the land, diseases and epidemics where they were least expected. The telegraph would only become a reality a hundred years later, and the mail - as unreliable as it was - took at least six months.

As the situation grew dimmer and more threatening, the poor Ashkenazi immigrants could only pray and wait for some far-flung hope that their representative would not befall one of the horrors of travel, and succeed to raise the necessary money.

From Bad to Worse

Every year that passed the situation turned from bad to worse. More and more of the immigrants returned to Europe or moved to other cities in Palestine. Meanwhile the Arabs lenders threatened to confiscate all their property and kill them if the money was not forth coming.

Finally, one Fall day in 1721, the Arabs razed the synagogue, burned the Torah scrolls in a huge bonfire using pages of prayerbooks as paper and benches as kindling wood. The Ashkenazim were run out of town and their houses and property confiscated and divided up among the winners.

It was a terrible blow to the community in particular and the Jewish people at large. To add more coals to the burning embers, the Arabs decreed that no Ashkenazic Jew could live in Jerusalem until all the debt was paid. If caught, he could receive the death penalty.

So it was. From 1721 until 1810, no Ashkenazim lived there. The courtyard was converted into Arab shops and the synagogue was left in ruins. Thus it became known as the Churvah, the Destroyed Synagogue.

Building Renewed

But this was not the end. A second rebuilding by Ashkenazim was in the distant offing. In the early 1800's another major aliyah of Ashkenazim came to Palestine. Called Perushim, they were disciples of the Vilna Gaon (who passed away in 1798). Though they yearned to live in Jerusalem in fulfillment of the wishes of their mentor, they were forced to settle in Safed. Slowly, however, a handful moved into Jerusalem dressed in the traditional garb of the Sephardic Jews. Every year a few more infiltrated into the Jewish Quarter. As their momentum grew and they could no longer hide their identity, a multilevel strategy plan was set in motion. First, an honored rabbi was sent to the imperial capital in Istanbul to plead for the annulment of the law forbidding Ashkenazim to homestead in the Holy City. Second, leaders of the Sephardim - who were on friendly terms with the Moslem civil authorities - began discussing the matter more openly and airing out certain issues. Before any direct meetings were established, handsome presents were given to the right Arabs, including the mayor, the judge, and the Arab shop keepers whose stores were in the courtyard. Finally, direct talks were convened between the Ashkenazim and the Moslems.

Nothing happened overnight. Actually, the first major breakthrough came with an imperial decree (firman) annulling the law once and for all. This should have been enough to end the battle of the recovery of the Churvah if we were dealing with modern governments and law abiding citizens. But alas, the archaic Ottoman Empire was way behind the times. First the Turkish judge refused to accept the firman until he made a separate investigation of all legal papers, some dating back hundreds of years. Only in the mid-1820's did he publicize his findings. It was to his credit that he declared the synagogue and all the adjoining courtyards as Jewish property. But when the shopkeepers refused to vacate, the judge looked the other way.

The Turning Point

The turning point came when the Egyptians revolted against the Turks in 1830 under the leadership of Mohammed Ali. His stunning success in capturing Palestine and Syria inaugurated a new era in Palestine. Toll booths along the highways - which "guaranteed" protection against Bedouin attacks until the next toll booth - were forcefully disbanded, replaced by an upgraded form of law and order. A new sense of freedom of religion also flourished. The Perushim took the initiative and sent a delegation to Cairo to receive a new building permit and the power to evict the Arab tenants. After several months, the Ashkenazim were overjoyed with their successful mission. To help ease the lot of the Arab shopkeepers, a monetary gift was offered to them. Even so, Arab residents threatened their lives. In 1834, the Ashkenazim began clearing the rubble. It was a holy task, one which everyone - from young to old, from wise to ignorant - wanted a share.

Now the Perushim were faced with the time-old problem of raising funds to rebuild the Churvah from scratch. When the first chunk of money arrived they voted to build a smaller synagogue in the courtyard, called Menachem Zion. It was dedicated in January, 1837.
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The Fate of History

As the wheel of fate would have it, the Turks recaptured Palestine from Mohammed Ali in 1840. The Sultan promised to modernize the country and revamp the governmental structure of the local bureaucratic system. Furthermore, he allowed the Jewish claims to remain intact as the Egyptians had sanctioned them.

Still, it would take years to build the synagogue. Half the money came from a Syrian Jew by the name of Ezekiel Sasson, and the groundbreaking ceremony took place on the spring of 1856. Eight and a half years later, in August, 1865, the synagogue stood its full height of 45 meters (150 feet), the monumental pride of the Jewish community. It was officially named the Beis Yaakov Synagogue after James (Yaakov) Rothschild, but of course, everyone called it the Churvah.

The magnificant Churvah synagogue became the hub of the Ashkenazic community. Here men prayed and studied Torah round the clock. Here sermons were delivered by famous rabbis to packed audiences. And here one could find the circumcision ceremony of an infant child who, after seventy years, would be eulogized for his good deeds. It became so much the center of activity that people sought to live as close to the Churvah as possible, even if they could have better housing further away.

In Jewish Hands Again

Eighty-four years later, in 1948, the Jews lost control of the Old City. One of the first things the Arab victors did to show their antisemitic strength was to blow up the Churvah Synagogue. So once again its name became its reality.

Nineteen years later, in the Six-Day War of 1967, the Old City suddenly fell into Jewish hands. The Western Wall was cleared and opened to the public for the first time in a generation. Slowly, the Jewish Quarter was built up and became a glory to the world. The Churvah had been left by the Arabs as a huge heap of rubble. An interesting twist of fate also took place. The Israeli government chose to leave the Churvah in ruins rather than rebuild it. So today we are once again waiting. Just as the Temple was destroyed twice, so was the Churvah. And just and the third Temple will stand forever, so let it be that the Churvah's rebuilding will likewise stand forever.

by Dovid Rossoff The author, Dovid Rossoff, resides in Jerusalem over twenty-five years. He has written Land of Our Heritage, Safed: The Mystical City, and The Tefillin Handbook, among others. He is currently writing a Jewish history of Jerusalem from the Crusader period until the present.


from the December 1997 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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