For the first time in 77 years, festive Jewish prayers were held on Monday in one of modern Jerusalem's oldest synagogues: The long-hidden and inaccessible Hechal Shlomo of the Yemenite village.
Dozens of people took part in the joyous festivities, which marked the full circle of Jewish settlement in eastern Jerusalem. Minister of Agriculture Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) – amidst traditional Yemenite Jewish prayers, music and foods, and some Ashkenazim and Sepharadim as well – took part in the re-dedication of the synagogue. Affixing the mezuzah to the doorpost, he recited the traditional blessings, including "Blessed is He Who restores the borders of the widow."
It was back in 1885 that Yisrael Dov Frumkin founded the village, built the synagogue, and paved the way for some 65 Yemenite Jewish families to live on the slopes of the Mt. of Olives. Most of the land land had been contributed by a Zionist philanthropist known as Boaz HaBavli.
The settlement thrived, but in the 1930's, the Arab riots that engulfed the Land of Israel did not pass over the Yemenite Village. The British rulers told the Jews that they could not protect them and that they must leave, but promised to look after their property and that they could later return.
Daniel Luria of the Ateret Cohanim Association, which oversaw the modern return to the synagogue, explained what happened next: "A year later, Shlomo Ze'evi – father of the famous Rehavam (Gandi) Ze'evi – stood in this very synagogue, and was shocked and angered at the destruction that the Arabs had wrought here." There was also great bitterness at the British and their promises; the Jews were not allowed to return to their homes.
Now, years later, Ateret Cohanim and many happy Jews were able to return and celebrate another milestone in the national return of the Jewish People to their sacred homeland. This followed great efforts in re-purchasing the Jewish owned properties, resettling Jewish families in various buildings around the neighborhood, and carefully identifying each structure.
"Over the years, many Jewish families have returned here," Luria said, "to Beit Yehonatan, Beit HaDvash, Beit Ovadiah, Beit Frumkin; it's not that Zionism was dead here. But now, we have the synagogue back! A place for prayer and Torah study for the entire community."
The synagogue has been renamed Ohel Yehonatan, in honor of Jonathan Pollard, now in his 30th year of a life sentence in American prison. He was convicted on a charge of passing classified information to a friendly country – Israel – a charge whose average sentence in the United States is between two and four years in prison.
Luria emphasized very clearly: "People must understand that this neighborhood was built by Yemenite Jews 130 years ago – way before any Arabs ever lived here." He pointed to a photograph taken at the time: "This shows the Jewish houses, and the synagogue itself in which we are standing now – and nothing else around them." Now, of course, the houses are surrounded by dense Arab construction, much of it illegal.
Minister Ariel's wife Chagit, another participant in the festivities, recounted how she traveled to a small village near Netanya several years ago "to find one of the original residents of this village, and I brought her here – even before any Jews had returned here to Beit Yehonatan, etc. – to find the exact building in which she had lived. It was so exciting and moving – and now, it's like a miracle that we also have the synagogue back!"
"With G-d's help, the Yemenite Village will return to be what it once was," Minister Ariel said, "just like the rest of the Land of Israel. All we need is true peace between Jews, and then we can work things out with everyone else."