The Story of a Place

The Ohel Yitzchak Synagogue is located on Hagai Street, only fifty meters from the Western Wall, on the southern border of the Muslim Quarter. The building is an exact replica of the original synagogue which was first built in 1904 by the community of Shomrei HaChomot (Guardians of the Walls) that originated in Hungary. The building suffered many hardships, was abandoned during the 1936-1939 pogroms, and was destroyed during the War of Independence in 1948 as part of the methodic destruction of most synagogues in the Old City by the Jordanian army. It was rebuilt in 2008 by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation and is currently used for prayers both on weekdays and holy days.

Historical Background

The wave of Jewish settlement in the 19th century brought about an expansion of population enclaves outside the walls of the Jewish Quarter, when early settlers purchased lands, mainly in the Muslim Quarter of today, and set up courtyards for their communities. One of the areas in highest demand was the Hebron Quarter, a section close to the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, which in its heyday housed 5,000 Jews from various communities.

With this happening, the Shomrei HaChomot community purchased a large courtyard at the edge of the Quarter in 1867. The Hungarian community and its founders, Rabbi Natan Yosef Goldberger and Rabbi Yitzhak Prague, students of the Chatam Sofer, organized themselves like other Ashkenazi communities who were set up as a Kollel – an economic cooperative of community members who convened to purchase courtyards and apartments and build public institutions, such as synagogues, ritual baths [mikvehs] and places for Torah study [Batei Midrash].

“We were granted the right to purchase a large, expansive courtyard that was owned by the Kollel and located close to the Temple site, between the two gates to the Temple Mount, Sha’ar Hachanuyot (Cotton Merchant’s Gate) and Sha’ar Hashalshelet (Chain Gate), which was less than eighty meters from the Temple Mount walls …” (Aharon Bir, the Old Yishuv between the Walls, 1993).

The idea to build a synagogue in the courtyard was first raised in 1891, following the visit of Rabbi Yitzchak Ratsdorfer, a fellow head of the Belz Hassidim in Eretz Yisrael. During his tour of Jerusalem, he visited the courtyard and expressed his wish that a synagogue be built there. The Kollel Shomrei HaChomot takes up this challenge and decides that the synagogue will be named Ohel Yitzhak after Rabbi Ratsdorfer. They begin construction but, due to prohibitions of the Ottoman laws and financial difficulties, the work lasts many years.

The construction of the Ohel Yitzhak synagogue is finally completed in 1904. It is one of the most magnificent synagogues in the Old City, reaching a height of two floors, with the lower floor used for apartments for the Torah students, a ritual bath [mikveh] for residents of the Old City, and the Or Hameir Beit Midrash that was open 24 hours a day, in order to protect the walls of the Temple Mount by learning Torah. It has been told that no roof and dome were constructed on the synagogue, as was common in that period, for fear that the Muslims would feel that the synagogue’s roof was higher than the Dome of the Rock and destroy it. So, they built a simple tiled roof on the Ohel Yitzhak building.

During the 1921 pogroms the students at the Or Hameir Beit Midrash were forced to vacate the premises and move to Batei Ungarin in the nearby Meah She’arim neighborhood, outside the Old City walls. They returned several years later, but had to leave once again during the 1936-1939 pogroms, this time forever. The apartments were rented out to Arabs who lived in the building until 1948, when the synagogue was destroyed during the War of Independence by the Jordanian army, together with all the other magnificent synagogues in the Old City.

Renovating and Renewing the Ohel Yitzhak Synagogue

With the liberation of the Old City during the Six Day War, ownership of the Ohel Yitzhak Synagogue was once again given to the Hungarian community. The building was in total ruins but the community did not have sufficient funds to conduct renovation work. A book store, Rishon L’Zion HaAtika, the first Jewish-owned store in the Old City since the War of Independence, was opened on the ground floor.

In 2008, ownership of the building is given to the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, which begins archeological excavations and reconstruction of the synagogue.

In 2008 restoration of the synagogue was completed, precisely reflecting the synagogue that was destroyed in 1948, and one can even see the north-eastern corner of the original building. Only the roof of the building is different and has been constructed according to the original plan, with a dome on its roof. The synagogue is open for prayers and visitors to all sites of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation. Don’t miss the photographs of the synagogue from the 1930's, located in the entrance hall.

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation thanks the Falik family from Miami and Panama, who donated an elaborate Torah scroll to the Ohel Yitzchak Synagogue, in merit of their parents Reb Haim (Fima) and Nili Falik, wishing them many years of health and happiness.