Visitors in the Hurva Synagogue can admire the special beauty of its interior, see the world’s tallest Holy Ark (which contains the synagogue’s Torah scrolls) and hear the fascinating story of the Hurva Synagogue. They can also view history with their own eyes, and enjoy the breathtaking 360 degree view of Jerusalem from the veranda surrounding the synagogue’s dome.
The story of the Hurva Synagogue (in Hebrew: Beit Knesset HaHurva) began in the year 1700, when a group of Eastern European Jews led by Rabbi Yehuda HaHasid immigrated to Jerusalem. Rabbi Yehuda HaHasid, the charismatic and highly influential leader, immediately purchased the land on which the synagogue would be built, but he unfortunately died a mere five days after arriving in Jerusalem. His bereft followers began to build the synagogue, using money lent at exorbitant rates of interest by local Muslims, but it was not completed. At the time, it was the only Ashkenazi synagogue in Jerusalem. After two decades in which the impoverished community was unable to keep up with the mounting payments, in 1720 the Muslims destroyed the synagogue (whose name and exact location are unknown), demolished the homes of the Ashkenazi community which held the debt, and expelled the Ashkenazi Jews from Jerusalem.
The second part of the story took place about a century later, when the Vilna Gaon (the foremost leader of Ashkenazi Jews opposed the Hasidic movement, known as mitnagdim) instructed his disciples to return to the Land of Israel in order to set the process of Redemption in motion. The Vilna Gaon’s disciples who left Lithuania arrived in the beginning of the 19th century, and spent many years in the effort to redeem the “Ashkenazi Courtyard” in which Rabbi Yehuda HaHasid’s community’s half-built synagogue had stood. Finally, after meetings with the Ottoman sultan and repaying the debt with the help of Jewish donors from around the world, in 1864 the Vilna Gaon’s disciples built a synagogue in the Ashkenazi Courtyard. They named it “Beit Ya’akov (House of Jacob, after Baron James Jacob de Rothschild whose family supported the Jewish community in the Land of Israel) in the Courtyard of the Ruin of Rabbi Yehuda HaHasid”. The synagogue was a tall and prominent building, and it became a symbol of the Jewish Quarter.
Over the years, rulers, rabbis and other important visitors came to the synagogue and important historical events took place under its roof. This went on until 1948. During Israel’s War of Independence, two weeks after the State of Israel was born and following day after day of bloody battle, the Jordanian soldiers of the Arab Legion blew up the entire synagogue. For the second time in its history, the Hurva Synagogue was reduced to a pile of rubble. The Jordanian’s were fully aware of the synagogue’s symbolic importance and its destruction was intended as a demonstration of victory, meant to show that the Jewish presence in the Old City had reached a permanent end. In fact, the Jewish presence in the Jewish Quarter was interrupted for 19 years.
Following the Six-Day War of 1967, in which eastern Jerusalem was retaken by Israel and the city was reunited, the Jews returned and rebuilt the Jewish Quarter. It was also decided to rebuild the Hurva Synagogue, and in the interim one of the four arches that had supported its famous dome was recreated. This commemorative arch became a symbol of the Hurva Synagogue, of the renewed Jewish presence in the Jewish Quarter, and of the Old City in general. Three decades later, in the early 2000s, the Government of Israel announced the decision to rebuild the Hurva in its original 19th century style. With the assistance of funds given by generous donors, in addition to funds allocated by Israel’s government, work on the reconstruction was completed in 2010.
The reconstructed Hurva Synagogue was officially rededicated in March 2010 as an active synagogue and center of study in a gala ceremony attended by Israeli politicians and the chief rabbis.