Rabbi Itzhak Marmorstein – a former spiritual leader of Vancouver’s Congregation Or Shalom – stands beside the ark in Beit HaRav Kook, where he is the gabbai (sexton). (photo by Gil Zohar)
Scores of congregants packed Beit HaRav in downtown Jerusalem June 2-3 to celebrate the centenary of the historic synagogue, yeshiva and home of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935), a seminal Zionist religious leader during the British Mandate who founded the Chief Rabbinate of Israel.
Born in Griva – then part of the Czarist Empire but today Daugavpils, Latvia – Kook arrived in Jaffa, Ottoman Palestine, on Iyar 28, 5665 (1904), where he became the city’s leading Jewish spiritual figure. The family’s private celebration became a national holiday during the 1967 Six Day War when Israel conquered the Old City of Jerusalem on the same date.
Exiled in Switzerland and then in Britain during the First World War, Kook – also known by the Hebrew acronym HaRaAYaH – played a key role in London in securing the 1917 Balfour Declaration by which Britain announced its support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine.
Returning to the country then under British military occupation following the war, Kook served as the Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Jerusalem. Both the city’s Jewish religious leaders and Whitehall were anxious to replace the Ottoman office of hakham bashi, chief rabbi of the former Turkish empire. Thus, in 1921, Kook was appointed to the newly created position of Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the Land of Israel.
But where was a scholar of such stature to live, especially since the representatives of other religions in the holy city all had an appropriate residence?
The issue was brought up in a July 24, 1921, meeting at Government House on the Mount of Olives – today the Augusta Victoria Hospital – between Britain’s newly arrived high commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel (1870-1963), and New York businessman Harry Fischel (1865-1948). Asked by Samuel to raise money for the project among his American peers, the philanthropist and his wife Shayna volunteered to fund the building themselves.
They identified Beit David, a one-storey kollel almshouse erected in 1873 by philanthropist David Reis. Owned by the Ashkenazi community’s Central Committee of Knesset Israel, the site was eminently suitable. The courtyard – opposite Rothschild Hospital (today Hadassah College) and near the residence of pioneering ophthalmologist Dr. Alfred Ticho and his wife, artist Anna – was located on Hadassah Street, which was renamed after Rabbi Kook following his death.
A cornerstone for the second-floor addition was laid on Aug. 15 before the Fischels departed. Work began immediately. Fischel, an architect and real estate developer in Manhattan, ensured the structure included all the latest modern conveniences. The double-height ceilings were decorated with colourful stencil patterns. Built surrounding a central courtyard, one wing included a reception area, kitchen, bathroom and three bedrooms for the Kook family. The other side included the Central Universal Yeshiva, a synagogue and the scholar’s bureau – now restored to its appearance a century ago. At Kook’s insistence, the synagogue incorporated a moveable roof to permit a sizeable sukkah.
The Kooks moved in at Hanukkah 1922, though the synagogue and yeshiva were still under construction. That spring, the Fischels again crossed the Atlantic. Docking in Alexandria, they caught the train from Egypt across the Sinai Desert to Palestine. Arriving at Lydda (Lod) on May 9, they were greeted by a delegation of rabbis. The couple insisted on being immediately escorted to Beit HaRav.
The dedication began at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, Sivan 12, 5683 (May 27, 1923). The program – which included 33 events and speakers with a tea break – augured well for cooperation between the country’s growing Jewish community and the new imperial regime.
The many dignitaries in attendance included leading rabbis and Zionist figures. The event was a quasi-national holiday. Jerusalem was decorated with bunting in the Zionist, British and American colours. Flags flew everywhere across the city.
The orchestra of the nearby Institute for the Blind played the Star-Spangled Banner, God Save the King and Hatikvah, while the Etz Chaim Talmud Torah’s choir performed for the guests.
Among the dozens of speakers was Fischel, who addressed the assembly in Hebrew and then English: “Words fail me at this moment to express my gratitude to the Almighty for granting me this privilege of building this Beth HaRav and synagogue…. While my heart always beats for Palestine, yet my home is in America. I have, therefore, had to travel nearly 6,000 miles to participate in this holy celebration….
“The building committee has just presented me with the key of this house certifying thereby that the building is now completed. In view of the fact that this residence and synagogue are to be used for the benefit of the people of Palestine, and that Your Excellency [Samuel], is the chief executive of the land, I therefore deem it fitting and proper to present you with the key, and designate you as custodian of this combined edifice. May I ask you, please, to accept this golden key and keep it as a souvenir and memento of this occasion? I want to take this means also of publicly thanking you for the honour you have bestowed upon us. May God grant you, your administration and the people of Palestine continued security and peace.”
Turning to Kook, sitting next to him on the dais, resplendent in his Sabbath and festival fur spodek (tall, black hat), Samuel declared:
“I congratulate the Chief Rabbinate, Mr. and Mrs. Fischel and the Jewish community at large on this auspicious day. Among the many problems with which the civil administration had to deal on its establishment was the adoption of measures to place the Jewish community both on its secular and on its ecclesiastical side, upon a permanent and regular basis. The question of the organization of the secular side was not yet fully settled. But the government has been able to establish, on an electoral basis, the Chief Rabbinate and, for the first time after an interval of many centuries, a Jewish ecclesiastical authority has been founded on a permanent footing, based upon the decisions of the community itself.”
The ornately carved chair that Samuel presented to Kook on behalf of King George V remains in its place of honour on the synagogue’s eastern wall next to the aron kodesh (Torah ark).
Asked about the importance of Beit HaRav, the institution’s gabbai (sexton) Rabbi Itzhak Marmorstein – also known by his nom de plume rabbanique Evan-Shayish – cited Kook’s dedication address a century ago:
“We are engaged here in declaring an elevated ideal that must proceed higher and higher. This ideal must develop and grow its activity through the gathering together of our scattered powers so that together we can proceed in the rebuilding of the ruins of Jerusalem together. This involves strengthening the physical building of the land and the nation in the material realm as the basis for the higher, holy and spiritual building of the Torah and holiness. This will illuminate the living light for the entire national renewal in all its branches.”
Kook’s funeral in 1935 was attended by an estimated 20,000 mourners. Beit HaRav continued to function as the flagship for the dati leumi (national religious) community, but a larger yeshiva was erected in Kiryat Moshe in 1964, and the old building fell into disuse.
Since 2008, Marmorstein – a Canadian-Israeli who formerly served at Congregation Or Shalom in Vancouver – has been engaged in reviving the original building. The building today operates as a neighbourhood synagogue with Sabbath services, as well as a museum.
The centre offers a class every Thursday at 9 p.m. taught by noted kabbalist Rabbi Yohai Yemini on Kook’s commentary on Rabbi Isaac Luria’s teachings. Those insights, recorded and edited in Safed between 1570 and 1572 by his disciple Haim Vital, form the basis for Lurianic kabbalah (mysticism), a system of thought Kook helped spread under which the arrival the Messiah and the ingathering of the Jews to Israel is imminent.
Gil Zohar is a writer and tour guide in Jerusalem.