After the Churvah shul was built by Rav Yehudah haChassid (“the Second”), in 5560/1700, Arabs rampaged and tore down the shul twenty-one years later, ostensibly due to their infuriation at the inability of the Ashkenazi community to repay its debts to the Arabs. Most of the Ashkenazi Jews fled from Yerushalayim.
The surviving remnant of the Ashkenazi community never despaired of rebuilding their beloved shul. In an attempt to raise building funds, they sent a meshulach, Rav Shneur Feibush Ashkenazi, in 5517/1756, to Europe, stopping in Amsterdam, Metz, and London. However, the outcome was a dismal failure and the Churvah lay in ruins for 140 years until it was eventually rebuilt.
THE TALMIDIM OF THE GAON
Fresh hope was kindled after a second huge influx of Ashkenazim (the first was Rav Yehudah haChassid’s group in 5560/1700) arrived in Eretz Yisroel. This group was comprised of talmidim of the Vilna Gaon who began arriving in Eretz Yisroel in 5665/1805. Those few who settled in Yerushalayim considered the Chur- vah ruins a prime location to build a new shul. After all, does the Gemara (Brachos 6b) not say that whoever gladdens a bridegroom is considered as if he rebuilt one of the ruins of Yerushalayim and, if so, surely it would be an even greater mitzvah to rebuild these ruins!
As Yisrael Frumkin records in his memoirs: “About twenty-five years after a few Ashkenazim began resettling in Yerushalayim, they reclaimed the ruin of Rav Yehudah haChassid, thanks to the testimony of elderly Moslems who testified before the rulers that, in earlier years, the Ashkenazim had owned this ruin, after buying it for a full
price. However, [the Ashkenazim] were refused a building and repair permit since this required permission from the main government in Constantinople and a special document (firman), signed by the royal Sultan … Rav Shlomoh Pach volunteered to do this mitzvah. He accepted on himself this difficult journey to get a permit, and he got it!”
This permission was granted in 5583/1823. However, other sources record that the building permit was granted by Mohammed Ali, the Pasha of Egypt, in 5696/1836. How can one reconcile these two reports?
What happened was that even after the Jews received the firman from the Sultan in Constantinople, the Turkish judge in Yerushalayim conveniently turned a blind eye to the refusal of Arab shopkeepers on the Churvah property to obey the firman and vacate their businesses so, in practice, it was impossible for the Jews to build. The Jews had to wait until the Pasha of Egypt rebelled against the Turks, in 5590/1830, conquering Palestine and Syria. Mohammed Ali then issued a permit to not only build the shul, but also to evict the Arab squatters. Thus, in 5594/1834, the Jews could finally begin clearing the broken stones and garbage from the site and begin rebuilding.
However, it took over twenty years before the famous Churvah shul was completed. This was partially due to the reticence of some Ashkenazim who were terrified of stirring up Arab resentment by building a grandiose structure, and also due to insufficient funds. As a compromise, in 5597/1837, the Ashkenazim completed a small shul in the courtyard, which they named Menachem Tzion.
Then Turkey seized Eretz Yisroel back from Mohammed Ali and, in 5616/1856, the Turkish Sultan, Abdulmejid I, not only reconfirmed the original building permit but
even charged his official architect, Asad Effendi, to draw up plans for a magnificent new building.
That same year, the Jews began construction with their own hands, working without pay in order to save expenses. A large part of the funding was donated by the wealthy Ezekiel Sasson from Baghdad while Sir Moshe Montefiore also contributed towards the expenses of the magnificent edifice with a floor of marble, walls of hewn stone, and twelve windows corresponding to the twelve tribes, placed in the walls just beneath the towering dome.
Construction continued for almost a decade – it took eight-and-a- half years from when the Rothschild family representative, Meir Alfonse, laid the cornerstone until the rav of the Ashkenazi community, Rav Yeshayahu Bardaki, (son-in-law of Rav Yisrael of Shklov, a talmid of the Gaon,) finally inserted the last stone in the shul’s dome in 5624/1864. From that day on, the Churvah shul dominated the city’s skyline for over a hundred years.
The complex included two shuls, with surrounding houses for use as batei medrash and a talmid Torah, another four or five houses to provide housing for talmidei chachamim, and a large house for hachnosas orchim. In addition, there was a mikveh and a large paved courtyard. The Churvah served as the major spiritual center of the Ashkenazic community, which had 2,000 members at the time, and eventually became the most important shul in Eretz Yisrael, housing the famous Eitz Chaim yeshiva and the Ashkenazi beis din of Yerushalayim.
Nine months after the shul’s completion, a steamboat dropped anchor outside the port of Yaffo. On board was a magnificent, 25-foot high aron kodesh of the shul of Niloliav, Russia. The aron was rowed ashore and hauled up to Yerushalayim by fifteen camels.
An enthusiastic article in the HaMaggid newspaper exulted that this was a fulfillment of Chazal‘s statement that, at the end of days, the shuls of the Diaspora will be established in Eretz Yisroel, and “this Ark was the beginning of this!”
AN END AND A BEGINNING
After just over one hundred years, the Churvah regained its name, having been turned, once again, into a ruin. This was in 5708/1948, after the defenders of the Old City used the massive building as their last refuge against the Jordanian army, led by Major Abdullah Tell, with crowds of refugee Jews cowering in its cellars. To pierce the shul’s thick walls, Arab commander Fawzi Al- Kutub ran to the shul with four men, carrying 200 liters of explosives tied to a ladder. He then lit the explosive’s fuse with a cigarette, fled for cover, and the charge went off with a mighty roar, blowing a gaping hole
in the ramparts. A legionnaire raced up to the dome and unfurled a Jordanian flag.
Two day later, the Jordanians blew the shul to rubble with dynamite. This was only one of the fifty-seven Old City shuls that the Jordanians desecrated and ravaged, and one of the twelve that they razed to the ground. As the Jordanian commander reportedly declared, “For the first time in 1,000 years, there’s not a single Jew left in the Jewish Quarter, and not a single building that hasn’t been damaged. This will make the return of Jews here impossible.”
Why has the Churvah remained a churvah?
After the Jews recaptured the Old City, in 5727/1967, various plans were made to restore its glory. For example, the world-renowned architect, Louis Kahn, submitted three different designs to rebuild the Churvah as a gigantic, modernistic building that would have competed in scale and prominence with the Dome of the Rock. Part of his plan was to incorporate a footpath from his space-age Churvah to the Kosel, in order to symbolize the fusion of the old and the new. However, municipal authorities were not as futuristically minded as Kahn, and his ideas only produced dispute and delay.
Meanwhile, in 5738/1978, two architects designed the shul’s famous arch, which represents one of the four arches that supported the original dome. For almost three decades, this arch, which soared up to only half the original 150-foot height of the original Churvah, stood as a silent symbol of the Old City’s yearning for redemption.
In 5763/2003, archaeologists digging two meters below the Churvah’s floor discovered ruins and artifacts dating back to the time of the first Beis HaMikdash.
Now it seems that the Churvah will be a ruin no more. In 5765/2005, the Israeli government rejected the earlier plans to completely, or partially modernize the Churvah, and gave the architect, Nachum Meltzer, a go-ahead to proceed with his plan to reconstruct it exactly as it was built in the past.
Meltzer explained that, because the Churvah was the first domed shul built in Eretz Yisrael and had served as the classical inspiration for such synagogues ever since, it was fitting to restore this historical building to its former glory, using its original design.
This attempt to salvage the past is projected to take four years at the cost of about 28 million shekels. After its completion, Jews will still be able to daven at the Kosel (or, hopefully, in the Beis HaMikdash), then take the new elevator (another city plan still on the drawing boards) up to the Old City, and continue their prayers in the old-new Churvah shul.