A group of rabbis, politicians, philanthropists and right-wing activists gathered Sunday in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City to celebrate the reopening of a synagogue located about 100 meters from the Temple Mount.
“We are here today to mark the return of a Jewish presence to this house of prayer,” said Rabbi Shmuel Rabbinovitz, rabbi of the Western Wall and the holy sites.
“Any claims leveled at us by Muslim leaders that we are trying to take control of the Temple Mount are downright lies. According to Jewish law, it is forbidden to go up on the Temple Mount because we are all ritually impure,” he went on. “We must not allow the incidents in Acre to influence this joyous occasion. This synagogue is place of prayer and peace.”
Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski also rejected claims that reopening the synagogue was a belligerent act.
“I am astounded when I hear people who attempt to turn a simple act of restoration into a battle for control. This synagogue was deserted because of Arab violence. But that does not mean what we are doing now is violent just because some people say it is,” he said.
Laurie Moskowitz Hirsch, daughter of Irving and Cherna Moskowitz, the philanthropists who bought the property rights to the synagogue and funded the refurbishing, told The Jerusalem Post that strengthening Jewish presence was the best remedy for Arab violence.
“The best answer for all this [the violence in Acre] is to bring in a large Jewish presence,” said Moskowitz Hirsch. “And that means buying properties. I see the Ohel Yitzhak project as part of our ongoing effort to strengthen a Jewish presence. If the Arabs want to stay, they should behave.”
The Ohel Yitzhak Synagogue – which was abandoned in 1938 by a group of haredi Jews calling themselves Shomrei Hachomot (Guardians of the Walls), in the wake of waves of Arab violence – is closer than any other Jewish house of prayer to the Temple Mount, according to Rabbinovitz.
The Temple Mount has long been a flashpoint for Jewish-Arab tensions. In 1990, rumors that Jews planned to start rebuilding the Temple sparked Arab riots that resulted in casualties. In 1996, Israel opened an archeological tunnel just outside the compound, leading to violent Arab demonstrations. In September 2000, a visit to the Temple Mount by Ariel Sharon triggered more violent demonstrations that led to what later became known as al-Aksa Intifada.
The celebration of the opening of Ohel Yitzhak came amid severely strained relations between Arabs and Jews after five days of sporadic violence in Acre, one of the few cities nationwide where Arabs and Jews live side by side.
However, participants in the Ohel Yitzhak ceremony, while aware of the disturbances and the potentially volatile atmosphere, focused on the joyous occasion of the refurbishing of one of Jerusalem’s most important synagogues.
Known also as the Ungarin Shul after its Hungarian Jewish founders, Ohel Yitzhak, built in 1904, also housed a yeshiva in which students studied Torah 24 hours a day. The founders of the synagogue, who were disciples of the 18th-century scholar Rabbi Moshe Sofer – known as the “Hatam Sofer” – felt that their proximity to the Temple Mount obligated them to engage in perpetual study.
According to Ateret Kohanim, an organization that facilitates the purchasing of land in the Jerusalem area, the courtyard was purchased by the Hungarian Jewish community from the Muslim Khaladi family. Rabbi Yitzhak Ratsdorfer, a Belz Hassid and diamond merchant, financed the building of the synagogue.
In its heyday, about 5,000 Jews lived in the neighborhood, which is part of the Muslim Quarter today. Arab violence that began in 1921 and reached a peak in 1938 resulted in the abandonment of Ohel Yitzhak. Members relocated to Mea She’arim, and the building was rented to Arabs until the 1948 War of Independence.
During the 19 years of Jordanian rule that ended in 1967 with the Six Day War, the synagogue was almost totally destroyed. After Israel took control over the Old City, a book store was opened up on the ground floor of the synagogue, the only part of the building left intact.
Eventually Mati Dan, director of Ateret Kohanim, encouraged American Friends of Everest, a nonprofit organization directed by the Moskowitz family, to purchase the building rights from Shomrei Hachomot.
In addition to funding the building of the synagogue, the Moskowitz family also funded an extensive archeological dig that uncovered, among other things, a huge Second Temple-era staircase that led to the Holy of Holies.