While a cornerstone laying ceremony was held recently for the rebuilding of the Old City of Jerusalem’s Tiferet Israel Synagogue – dedicated in 1872 and dynamited by Jordan’s Arab Legion in 1948, don’t expect to see the 20-meter-high new / old Chassidic landmark reappear to its former glory anytime soon.
Speaking at the event in May, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said, “Today we lay the cornerstone of one of the important symbols of the Jewish community in Jerusalem. The Municipality attaches great importance to the preservation and restoration of heritage sites in Jerusalem, and we will continue to maintain the heritage of Israel in this city.”
Citing Lamentations 5:21, Housing Minister Uri Ariel added, “We have triumphed in the laying of yet another building block in the development of Jerusalem, a symbolic point in the vision that continues to come true before our eyes: ‘Renew our days as of old.'”
While the two politicians symbolically placed a stone salvaged from the ruined building, construction will take three years, according to the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem Ltd. (JQDC) – a public company under the auspices of the Ministry of Construction and Housing. The project, budgeted at NIS 50-million, is being mainly funded by anonymous donors.
Fundraising to purchase the land for the Tiferet Israel, also known as the Nisan Bak shul, was initiated in 1839 by Rabbi Israel Friedman of Ruzhyn, Ukraine (1797-1851) and his student Rabbi Nisan Bak (1815-1889). While the Holy Rizhiner, as his Hassidim called him, finally bought the land in 1843, he didn’t live to see construction begin.
The two were motivated by a desire to foil Czar Nicholas I’s plans to build a church and monastery on the hilltop site which overlooks the Temple Mount. Outmaneuvered by the Hassidim, the Czar instead purchased land northwest of the Jaffa Gate outside the Old City where the Russian Compound was ultimately built.
Rabbi Bak, who designed the massive project and served as its contractor, spent more than a decade fundraising and six years building the synagogue. Finally inaugurated on August 19, 1872, he named the three-storey building with its iconic dome in honor of his rebbe.
The quick-witted Rabbi Bak was able to complete the ornate synagogue thanks to a donation from Kaiser Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary. In 1869, while visiting Jerusalem en route to dedicate the Suez Canal, the emperor asked his subjects who came from Sadhora in the remote Austrian province of Bukovina why their synagogue had no roof. (In 1840, having spent two years in Russian prisons on charges of complicity in the murder of two Jewish informers, Rabbi Friedman fled to Sadigora as it was known in Yiddish to escape persecution from Czar Nicholas I.)
Seizing the moment, Rabbi Bak replied, “Your majesty, the synagogue has doffed its hat to you.” The Kaiser, understanding the royal fundraising pitch, responded, “How much will it cost me to have the synagogue replace its hat?,” and donated the needed money to complete Tiferet Israel’s dome which was thereafter referred to by locals as “Franz Joseph’s cap”.
In the winter and spring of 1948, that soaring dome served as a key Haganah military position and lookout point for the Jewish Quarters’ outgunned defenders. Badly damaged by heavy shelling, the house of worship was demolished by Jordanian sappers on May 21, 1948. A few days later, following the neighborhood’s surrender on May 25, the nearby Hurva Synagogue – the main sanctuary of Jerusalem’s mitnagdim (anti-Hassidic Ashkenazi followers of the Vilna Gaon) – met the identical fate.
Tiferet Israel’s collapsed walls and smashed dome covered the building’s foundations, which were revealed as part of the rebuilding of the Jewish Quarter after the 1967 Six-Day War. With the rebuilding of the Hurva completed by the JQDC in 2010, Tiferet Israel became the last major Old City synagogue destroyed in 1948 not rebuilt.
Both buildings are stone-clad, concrete and steel facsimiles of their original structures updated to today’s building code and equipped with an elevator
Gil Zohar is a tour guide and journalist and contributes regularly to Travelujah-Holy Land tours. Originally from Canada, he resides in Jerusalem.