| Jr. Feature |

From Galus to Geulah —The Churvah   

The story of the Churvah shows us this clearly: yes, galus can destroy — but never forever

IT'Sthat time of year again.

The time of year that we focus on the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, on the pain and desolation of our galus.

But it’s also a time to look forward.

The month of Tammuz is a backward acronym for zemanei teshuvah memashmishim u’baim — the days of teshuvah are coming close. And then, in the even sadder month of Av, we know that the letters of the month’s name remind us: Elul ba, Elul is coming.

Because even in the destruction, even in the desolation, a Yid looks forward.

The story of the Churvah shows us this clearly: yes, galus can destroy — but never forever.

Hopeful Hearts

Long ago and far away, a movement was quietly taking place. The year was 1700, and the great sage, Rabi Yehudah Hachassid, was collecting followers from across Poland, Germany, and Moravia to join him on a harrowing and dangerous journey, a journey with a very special destination: Eretz Yisrael. Over 300 years ago, travel didn’t look anything like it does today; it was fraught with risk and very difficult. (It wasn’t until 200 years later that the Wright brothers got the very first “flying machine” into the air, and commercial flight was more than 240 years away!)

Rabi Yehudah Hachassid gathered together an intrepid group of travelers to make their treacherous way from Poland to Eretz Yisrael. By the time they reached Italy, on the way to Eretz Yisrael, their group numbered about 1,500 people, including many families. Sadly, by the time the group made it to their destination, many of the travelers had perished. The difficulties of travel and sickness had taken their lives.

In the fall of 1700, the surviving travelers arrived in Yerushalayim. They were ready to settle into the holy city and begin preparing to welcome the Mashiach.

Tragedy and Terror

The group was devastated when, mere days after their arrival, their beloved leader, Rabi Yehudah Hachassid, passed away. They were shocked and bereft. Rabi Yehudah Hachassid was buried on Har Hazeisim, and the weary travelers tried to move forward through their pain. First, they decided, they must build a shul. A beautiful, special shul. But building is expensive, and the group was destitute. There were very few Yidden living in Yerushalayim then; just 1,000 Sephardi Jews and about 200 Ashkenazim. There was no way that the small community could support hundreds more people who arrived at once, so the members of the group turned to the local Arabs for loans with which to build the shul. Alas, the shul was built, but there was no money to repay the loans. In 1720, when the Arabs grew tried of waiting for their money, they destroyed the shul, setting it on fire. Leading members of the community were imprisoned. And then, Ashkenazim were banished from the city altogether because they were held accountable, collectively, for the unpaid debts. This remained the law for roughly a century. For about 100 years, Ashkenazi Jews were not allowed into the city of Yerushalayim!

Time passed, and the pile of rubble that used to be the shul known as “Rabi Yehudah Hachassid’s shul” was slowly surrounded by small shops and other buildings. The remains of the shul were untouched. Those remnants became known as the “Ruin of Rabi Yehuda Hachassid,” which was shortened to just the “Churvah — the Ruin.”

Additional Attempts

One hundred years after Rabi Yehuda Hachassid’s group arrived in Yerushalayim, another group of Yidden followed suit. These were the Perushim, students of the Vilna Gaon, who came from Lithuania. For many years, they tried to work out a way to rebuild the Churvah. They tried legal avenues and many other attempts. Eventually, in 1836, they settled for building a smaller shul near the ruins, called Menachem Tzion. Almost 20 years later, in 1854, another small shul was built on another corner of the Churvah. But the shul of Rav Yehudah Hachassid remained in ruins.

After unceasing attempts to gain permission to rebuild the Churvah, it seemed at last that things were looking up. On the last day of Chanukah of 1855, the Yidden of Yerushalayim celebrated a groundbreaking ceremony on the ruins of the Churvah, and around Pesach time, 1856, the cornerstone of the new shul was laid.

Construction began in earnest, but although funds had been collected, expenses skyrocketed and building slowed. After tireless collection efforts and generous donations from Jews all over the world (including Yemen, Aden, India, Australia, New Zealand, Ceylon, Baghdad, and Western Europe), construction moved ahead once again.

In 1862, the iconic domed ceiling of the Churvah shul was completed. And in 1864 the shul was finally ready. It was given the official name “Bais Yaakov” (many years before Sara Schenirer founded the Bais Yaakov system for girls) in honor of the Rothschild family, particularly Baron James (Yaakov) Rothschild, who had dedicated much of his life to supporting and assisting the Jews of Eretz Yisrael. But despite the shul’s official name, it continued to be known as “the Churvah.”

From that time on, the Churvah shul was considered the most beautiful, most important, and most special shul in all of Eretz Yisrael. Part of the largest yeshivah in the city, Etz Chaim, learned there; it was a central point of Yiddishkeit in Yerushalayim. It was a significant, magnificent place, and many important political as well as spiritual events took place in or around the Shul.

For many years, the shul held its valued and hallowed place in Eretz Yisrael. It seemed that the Churvah’s many years of galus were over. Those were the years of geulah, gadlus, and gevurah.

But as we know, for as long as we remain in galus, the Geulah cannot be complete.

In 1948, after 84 golden years, the Churvah’s glory was brought to a devastating end. The shul was bombed by Jordanian soldiers during the battle for the Old City during the War of Independence. All that remained of the beautiful shul, once again, was rubble.

Rebuilding — Again

For many more years, the Churvah lay in ruins. In 1967, after the Six-Day War in which the Old City reverted back to the Jews, plans were set in motion to rebuild the shul yet again. But no plan was satisfying. There were options and opinions and ideas, but nothing that all those involved felt was quite right.

After yet another ten years of neglect, in 1977, one of the four stone arches that had been part of the original structure was recreated. At 16 meters (52 feet), it was only half the height of the original building. Beneath it lay the remains of the original Churvah, and explanatory plaques were placed around the ruins.

For another 30 years, the beautiful arch against the brilliant blue Jerusalem sky was a stark reminder of what had once been. Again, many people tried to rebuild the shul, but arguments about a modern design versus old style kept plans stalling for years. At long last, in the year 2000, the plans for reconstruction were approved by the Israeli government. The plan was to build as accurate a replica as possible of the beautiful, renowned Churvah Shul.

After comprehensive historical research, the reconstruction work started in 2005. The project cost around 30 million shekels (over $8.5 million). About a third was funded by the government, while the remainder was financed by a Ukrainian Yid, businessman, and politician Vadim Rabinovitch. In 2010, the building was finally ready. On March 14, 2010, a moving hachnasas sefer Torah brought a sefer Torah to its brand-new home in the Churvah’s magnificent aron kodesh — one of the largest in the world. The next day, the reconstructed Churvah was officially reopened for prayer, for Torah learning, and with its rich history, for tourists, too.

New Building, Ancient Stones

There is more to discover underneath the splendor and beauty of the Churvah Shul. You can go down under the shul to view archeological finds that were discovered there from the days of the second Beis Hamikdash. There’s a mikvah there and part of an ancient street. And when you go up to the roof, prepare yourself for the breathtaking, magnificent panoramic view of Yerushalayim — 360 degrees of a stunning, enchanting, and holy city spread out before your eyes.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 919)

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