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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Beis Yisrael From Dangerous Swampland to a Makom Torah©

By Vardah Littmann           Photos by Rimonah Traub

The neighborhood of Beis Yisrael was founded in 1885 and was originally
supposed to be named Meah Shearim HaChadash (The New Meah Shearim).However, in commemoration of the Divine Protection the community merited in reclaiming the swamp and settling the area, Rav Yosef Rivlin proposed the name Beis Yisrael. 

The name is taken from Ezekiel 36:10, where the prophet addresses the hills and mountains of Eretz Yisrael: "I will make people numerous upon you - the entire House of Israel (Beis Yisrael), all of it; the cities will be inhabited and the ruins will be rebuilt."  This name was deemed most appropriate since its gematriya was equal to Bitzas HaMovess (death swamp).

The narrative behind this name is one of the most fascinating episodes in the creation of the "expanded" Jerusalem. In this story, it’s possible to clearly see the Hand of Hashem as He guided the wondrous development of Jerusalem beyond the Old City walls, and the fulfillment of the prophecy in Zechariah 2:8: "....Jerusalem will be settled beyond its walls....".

A Seemingly Insurmountable Problem  

Meah Shearim was established in 1874, and the first homesteaders moved in a year later. However at one piont, the colony seemed destined to collapse. The problem stemmed from a nearby valley known as Bitzas HaMovess in which a green, murky, and foul smelling pool lay stagnant. This pool was so deadly that even birds did not fly over it. It bred many malevolent disease-bearing insects, especially the deadly red mosquito which flew the short distance from the swamp to the forty newly-erected houses of Meah Shearim and attacked the residents. Women and children were most affected, and death struck many times.

People fled in panic to the comparative safety of the Old City as the situation deteriorated. Eventually the Vaad HaKlali (General Community Council of Prushim and Chassidim ) was forced to evacuate Meah Shearim.
In our technologically advanced day and age, short shrift would have been made of this swamp with state-of-the art industrial machinery. But 140 years ago, draining this marsh entailed great physical exertion and mortal danger since the only method then known involved working in close proximity to this malaria-infested pool. The fact that the swamp was enclosed and sheltered on three sides-- to the north , south, and west by hills-- compounded the hardship of approaching it. And the open east side had a low mound of earth in front of it which prevented the seepage of rainwater.
The swamp had to be drained if the surrounding areas were to be inhabited. The Vaad HaKlali  launched a local fundraising campaign  to cover the cost  of draining the pool. Their policy was to publicize only the positive aspects of the Old Yishuv, the “tuv Yerushalayim” in Chutz Laaretz. They tried to keep their problems to themselves, so as not to discourage their distant brothers. 
The day the Vaad took the desperate measure of moving the residents out of Meah Shearim to the overcrowded Old City, the Vaad director Rav Yosef Rivlin felt his heart was breaking. All his plans for the expansion of Jerusalem were dissolving before his very eyes. As reported by an eyewitness, he paced up and down his room all that long dark night. In great agitation he had kept on crying out "Ribono shel Olom, it cannot be, it cannot be!"

He continued to plead: "Please, Hashem, please give us an eitzah, give us an eitzah. Everything was done according to Da'as Torah, al pi goral HaGra. We did it all to sanctify Your Great Name and help your people."

Rav Rivlin’s “Pipe, Dog, and Rope Plan”

Before dawn broke, even before the first rays of sunlight slowly crept up above the horizon, he rushed out of his home and woke up all the members of the Vaad to summon them to a meeting at his home.

The members of the Vaad were enraptured as they listened to Rav Rivlin present the details of his plan which was conceived during the many previous sleepless hours. The idea was totally unrealistic and sheer madness. If anyone else had had proposed such an insane scheme, the Vaad would have rejected it outright. But since it was proposed by Rav Yoshe, they believed  it would succeed. They all consented to implement the “pipe, dog, and rope plan” unanimously.
In order to put Rav Rivlin's proposal into action, the Vaad approached the Arab owners of the marshland for permission to work on the swamp. The Arabs refused outright as they presumed the Vaad would pay them any price they demanded in order to accomplish the draining of the swamp.

But these Arabs had miscalculated. The Vaad had used its ties with the Deputy Governor, and within a few short hours, the Arabs received an official order to clean up all their swampland within thirty days. They ran to the offices of the Vaad HaKlali and literally begged the Vaad  to purchase their land. Rav Rivlin drove a hard bargain with them. He got them to include other swamplands in their possession in the sale. One of these plots later became the Kerem neighborhood.
Now Rav Yoshe’s  “pipe, dog, and rope plan” could be attempted. A pipe of some seventy yards long was brought to the west side of the swamp. A very strong thick rope of fifty meters was attached to one end of the pipe. The other end of the rope was fastened to a dog. A long leash was tied around the dog's neck, and the dog was sent to the swamp's edge. From a safe distance a man guided the animal around the pool to its open eastern side. 

The rope was untied from the dog, and a number of settlers pulled on the rope, thereby dragging one end of the pipe into the center of the swamp. The other end of the pipe remained on the western hill. Hundreds of water-skins of fresh water, transported from far away, were poured into the pipe.

At the same time as the pure water poured into the pool, a few courageous men, among them HaRav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld who was a young avreich at the time, dug trenches in the mound at a number of places in order to allow the water, both good and bad, to escape and flow away into the valley. The digging of the trenches required coming very close to the swamp.

Before he and the others began this part of the operation, Rav Rivlin declared that special nissim were needed from Heaven so that they would all emerge healthy from this holy endeavor. He requested that friends and acquaintances stand off at a distance and recite pasukim of Heavenly protection. These included a verse that was particularly appropriate: "Gam ki eileich b'gey tzalmovess, lo irah rah ki Atah imadi-- Even though I walk in the valley overshadowed by death, I will not fear evil for You are with me" (Tehillim 23:4).  

As Rav Rivlin and the team worked, they also recited these verses. At one point Rav Rivlin called out "LaHashem hayeshuah--- Hashem has the salvation, and no evil will befall us." And none did. All the members of the digging team emerged in perfect health.

Miraculous Transformation of the “Valley Overshadowed by Death”
In Av, a month and a half after the drainage of Bitzas HaMovess which had taken place in Sivan 5638 (1877), birds were flown over the area. Some of them even alighted on the now completely dried ground. This was a sure sign that the valley was totally free of disease. The residents of Meah Shearim were able to move back to their homes.
About eight years later, some prominent community activists of the Old Yishov were looking for a solution to the ever skyrocketing costs of living quarters in Meah Shearim. So in 1885, at a Vaad HaKlali meeting, a proposal was accepted to start developing the area of former swampland. The name Beis Yisrael  was adopted by the committee  

A "book of regulations" with 40 clauses was drawn up, among which was stated that every individual was obliged to keep his home clean and to make sure that communal property was also kept clean. In order to reduce strife among the residents, one clause declared that if anyone donated money or built a shul, he should do so altruistically without any feeling of ownership over the object of his generosity. The constitution describes in poetic terms some of the difficulties that faced the people of Jerusalem in those years:
 "Poverty and scarcity spread their wings over the Holy City of Jerusalem, may it be rebuilt soon. Her sons are dying on a daily basis, and the majority of the people are impoverished and destitute. Even the paltry stipend that used to give a bit of relief to the poor of Jerusalem to help them pay their bills has for various reasons, been reduced to a pittance. The sons of Zion will soon have to seek out another place to live. Lest it be too late and they find themselves, G-d forbid, forced to sleep outside in the fields, on the stony ground and in caves... with the help of Hashem, we have succeeded in gathering about a hundred members...who will build houses on this field and vineyard..."
Founders Who Guided the New Neighborhood

Rav Aryeh Leib Hirshler, affectionately known as Rav Leib Dayan, was a member of Rav Shmuel Salant's beis din. He helped in the founding of various colonies in the expanded Jerusalem-- Shaar HaPina, Givat Shaul, Nachalass Tzvi, and Beis Yisrael. The neighborhood of Beis Yisrael, which was now being built, was very close to Rav Leib Dayan’s heart.
He was the architect, the building supervisor, and the head of the settlement committee. He was also the Rav of the neighborhood (together with Rav Shimshon Aharon Polansky).

Due to Rav Leib Dayan's efforts, two shuls were erected in the area—one was the Beis Yaakov Shul which included rooms for the use of the Talmud Torah. Rav Leib Dayan was the first one to donate money for the Talmud Torah, and he donated ten gold napoleons for the cause, an enormous sum at the time. Rav Leib Dayan also raised money to build single rooms throughout the neighborhood, to be used free of charge by the destitute.

HaRav Chaim Zonnenfeld and Rav Zalman Baharan guided the neighborhood spiritually, while Rav Shmuel Zukerman and Rav Yechezkiah Mandelbaum were its communal leaders.       

Originally, Beis Yisrael consisted of one central road bearing the same name. At a later stage this street was renamed Zonnenfeld Street. Small alleyways on which houses were erected branched off to the sides of this road. Double story houses, all with spacious courtyards behind them, lined these alleyways. There was a shared water-well for every two buildings. At first the rainwater was collected in a huge outdoor pool but eventually public buildings were built over it, and underground cisterns replaced the pool. Later on, another main street, which connected the neighborhood to Mea Shearim, was added and named for Rav Leib Dayan.  

History of Beis Yisrael from its Founding until Today

The original inhabitants of Beis Yisrael were those who could not afford housing elsewhere. Eventually, many olim from all over the world settled there. By 1900 there were already 60 houses and two shuls. During the years of the British Mandate (1917-1947), the neighborhood grew and expanded northwards. The Israeli War of Inderpendence turned Beis Yisrael into a prime combat zone.  The 1948 Armistice Line placed the neighborhood near the border with Jordan.

In more recent times, the Beis Yisrael neighborhood was in the news as the location of a terrible terrorist attack. On March 2, 2002, 11 people were killed and over 50 were injured in a suicide bombing outside a yeshiva building where people had gathered to celebrate a bar mitzvah.
Today, the Beis Yaakov Shul has a number of smaller siderooms, known as shteiblach, that were donated and dedicated for sacred purposes by the owners of the private houses that were once located under the shul. In these shteiblach, mimyanim and Torah classes can be found at almost any hour of the day or night. The shul's gabayim claim that more people daven there on a daily basis than in any other shul in Jerusalem, (including the famed Zichron Moshe shteiblach). A few years ago the entire complex was modernized and renovated.
Since the local population includes Jews of various ethnic backgrounds and each group prefers to pray according to its customs, many types of synagogues can be found in Beis Yisrael-- Dagestan, Kurdistan, Afganistan and others. The various chassidic groups, including Pinsk-Karlin, Lelov,Lubavith and Zvhill, also each have their own shuls. Plus, Yeshivas Machane Yisrael for baalei tshuva stands to the west of the Beis Yaakov Shul.
According to tradition, the neighborhood is built on the location where the sacrificial remnants of the  Second Temple were disposed.
The Mirrer Yeshiva, one of the largest yeshivas in the world with over 5000 students, is located in Beis Yisrael. If you should ever find yourself in the vicinity of Beis Yisrael at the end of a learning day, it’s worth walking over to observe a sea of literally thousands of Torah learners flowing though its alley ways. You will witness the fulfillment of the promise given to Klal Yisrael that Torah will never be forgotten among our people.
After the Holocaust severely decimated our numbers only 65 years ago,  who could have dreamed  of so many lomdei Torah in one place? As you stand there in utter amazement, watching wave upon wave upon wave of the Torah scholars of our nation stream past, you may find yourself with this spontaneous tefillah on your lips: “Just as we were zocheh to behold that Hashem kept His promise regarding the learning of Torah, and just as we  are  zocheh to behold the prophecy  ".....prozot  teisheiv Yerushalayim" in its fulfillment, so may we speedily be zocheh to behold with our very  eyes the return of the Shechinah to Zion berachamim.”

And now that you know the story of “The Pipe, Rope, and Dog Plan,” you will be even more aware of the significance of this miraculous sight. 

Published in 'The English Update' 7th April 2011

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