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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Sha'arei Chessed - Lifting the curtain of the years.©

Thank you Tamara

Humble Beginnings

Sha'arei Chessed is a small, enchanting neighborhood in Yerushalayim’s center. Sandwiched between genteel Rechavia and the winding alleys of Nachlaot, Sha’arei Chessed has flavors of both. With leafy foliage and fruit trees lining its small streets, historical structures sitting humbly alongside their newly remodeled counterparts, whispers of the previous generation’s Gedolim still lingering in its alleyways… Sha’arei Chessed is a mixture of the new and the old — of modern-day city life and Yerushalmi simplicity.
Sha'arei Chessed was founded in1908 (תר"ע), but the idea of building the colony had been conceived 20 years previously. In his book, Sh'losha Dorot, the founder, Rav Naftali Zvi Porush, asserts that his heart was troubled by the plight of the Jews of the Old City, who lived in crowded conditions with literally no place to move. There were at least five families living in each dilapidated hovel. The conditions at that time made building even one colony outside the Old City nearly impossible. Who could brave the landscape beyond the walls, with its dangerous wildlife, both human and animal?

Rav Porush felt driven to do something to lessen the burden of his brothers. From his early youth he prayed to be granted the merit to build one of the Churvot Yerushalayim. He was filled with thoughts and plans of how to build up the desolate countryside around the Old City.

The founding of Mishkenot Sha'ananim by Sir Moses Montefiore showed the dwellers of the Old City that there was hope. Still, the obvious question was: who of the indigent Yidden of the old Yishuv (settlement) had money to build?

In the year 1891 (תרנ"א), Rav Naftali Zvi approached his father, Rav Shlomo Zalman Porush, who was the founder and gabbai of Chevrat Sha'arei Chessed, the general free loan society. (It still exists today, near Zichron Moshe.) Rav Naftali Zvi suggested a plan by which a neighborhood could be built in an area a small distance away from the Old City. The society would fund the building and would give a loan to each family who went to live in the new neighborhood, which they would pay back in monthly installments. His idea was put forth before the Chevrat Sha'arei Chessed committee, and the plan was wholeheartedly accepted and approved. It was decided to build 200 one-floor units. Each apartment would consist of one room and a little plot of land in front of it. Only the b'nei Torah were allowed to buy in this area, and a vote of 200 members of the va'ad would be needed for the approval of each tenant. The protocol was signed by all the gabbaim of the Chevrah on 22 Tevet 1906 (תרס"ז).

A plot of land was chosen at the western end of the newly developed part of the city, in a parallel line to the Old City. The land was bought from an Arab from Kfar Lifta and divided into 200 sections. At first, this Arab was willing to sell the land cheaply, but when he realized that the Jews were eager to buy, he raised the price and the land was bought at a high price.

The laying of the cornerstone of Sha'arei Chessed took place on Lag BaOmer 1908. The appearance of Rav Shmuel Salant at the site was a big surprise to all present, for at that point the Gaon's age and fading health did not usually allow him to cross the threshold of his own door in the Old City. Yet Rav Salant held that the mitzvah of building up Jerusalem was paramount. He traveled by carriage, and when they got to the point where the road was unpaved and the bumping and swaying of the vehicle may have harmed his frail health, his students carried him in a chair. Two short months later Rav Shmuel Salant was taken up to his heavenly abode. 

Soon construction was underway. The four long, one-storied buildings that were being built aroused apprehension within the Turkish rulers of Palestine of the time. They feared an army barracks was being built to stage a rebellion against them, and they halted the building. Rav Naftali Zvi approached Avraham Alter Antebee, to help. As the head of Kyach (Kol Yisrael Chaveirim - a secular element that opened up “enlightened” schools in Yerushalyim. They were the cause of many of our Sephardic brethren  leaving the derech), Antebee had a lot of influence with the Turks. He convinced the Turkish Pasha that these were Jews of the Old Yishuv and not the new Zionists, who had started to arrive around that time and whom the Pasha feared because of their nationalistic ambitions. Permission to resume building was given. 

It then took nine years to complete the building of Sha'arei Chessed. The planning and the engineering of the colony took much energy and effort, but Rav Naftali Zvi Porush did not take any compensation for his work. At one point the inhabitants of the neighborhood wanted to name one of the gates of the suburb in his honor, but he refused to allow it. 

The name Sha'arei Chessed suited this unique neighborhood perfectly, for despite the fact that it was surrounded on all sides by rich, irreligious suburbs, it remained a bastion with gates guarding a life of Torah and  of chessed.
Sha’arei Chessed has evolved greatly with time, and few remember the neighborhood back when it was characterized by an authentic blend of material simplicity and spiritual grandeur. Mrs.C. Meletsky, the daughter of Rav Sholom Shwadron, zt"l, and a former childhood resident of the neighborhood, lifts the curtain of the years for us, taking us seven decades back into the alleys, homes and lifestyle of old Sha’arei Chessed.  

The Pavements

The daily social activities centered around the pavements in front of the homes. During the long summer days, chairs would be brought out of the houses and the ladies would sit and knit, crochet or embroider, enjoying each others’ camaraderie. Cups of tea were handed around and each housewife would present her baked goods for all to sample. On the cold winter days, when the sun made an appearance, the women would warm themselves in its rays, sharing oranges they had unpeeled in one long, snake-like peel.
On Shabbosos and Chagim the women would meet on the pavement to learn and recite Tehillim. The curious little girls would flutter around their mothers as Tzenah u'Re’enah was explored.

Washday took place once every two or three weeks, when the washerwoman would make her rounds. In preparation for her arrival, all the clothing to be washed was mended. When she arrived, she would sit most of the day by a large low iron pieller (washbasin) which stood on brick legs to make it higher. Under the basin a primus stove burned to keep the water warm.

Credit to"The Isaac Kaplan Old Yishuv Court Museum" which
 is found in the Jewish Quarter of the old City of Jerusalem on, 6 Or
Hachaim Street
The meticulous way the clothing was washed was a wonder to behold. First the whites were dipped in the warm water, then groups of different light colors, then darker shades, and finally the blacks. The clothing groups were transferred from the first pieller to a second one of clean water where they were rinsed, blued (for whites), re-rinsed, and re-rinsed again. Then they were starched.

The pavement area was divided equally for each home’s wash lines to be strung, and there was a competition between the neighbors over who could hang up the wash more skillfully. In addition, this was done in such a way that private garments were hung on inner lines in between larger outer garments and sheets, so as not to be seen. Such was the modesty of this generation of not so long ago.

The Fields

Where the Wolfson Buildings are today was an open field where the children frolicked and played for hours. The Ponovitcher Rav, Rav Kahaneman, wanted to build 18 yeshivos all over Eretz Yisrael in addition to Ponovitch, which he had established in Bnei Brak. When he first saw the magnificent fields opposite Sha'arei Chessed, where the Knesset stands today, he decided this was the perfect place for one of his yeshivos. He started negotiations with the owner of the field, but before he could buy the land it was appropriated by the new state.

Lag BaOmer festivities were held in the part of the field opposite Sha’arei Chessed’s Chassidic Shul, next to the mikvah. The younger boys collected wood and kerosene in the weeks leading up to Lag BaOmer. The Tchebiner  Rav, Rav Dov Berish Weidenfeld, lit the bonfire, which was crowned with caricatures of Haman and his ten sons, created by the older boys of the neighborhood. Everyone took part in the exulted dancing and singing — Chassidim, Litvaks, Ashkenazim, Sephardim and Teimanim. The joy and happiness drew people from the nearby neighborhoods of Knesset and Batei Rand, who first came to celebrate in Sha'arei Chessed and then continued on to the fires in their own suburbs.

While the English ruled, the field of Sha’arei Chessed serviced the underground Haganah. During the War of Independence this field was used as an army airport base. After the war, army exercises took place here. That was when the children of Sha'arei Chessed lost their playground forever.

The Water Holes

The building charter of Sha'arei Chessed required that a well be built on every street of the neighborhood. Water sources in Jerusalem were very scarce, and the wells collected rainwater needed for washing, cooking, drinking and so on. These water-holes were dug to a depth of fifteen meters. The drawing of water was a most difficult task, for once the bucket was filled with water it was very heavy. Many times the bucket fell into the well, and had to be retrieved by a special tool called a sanjah that had three metal hooks. 

Next to the main Gra Shul was a large courtyard with water holes. Here weddings were held. Just as a king is crowned near a river, so too a groom, who is like a king, marries by a water source, as it is considered a good omen. The weddings were held on Fridays, and everyone in the neighborhood attended. The mechatonim made pekalach for all the children.

Tashlich was also done by the water holes near the Gra Shul. (This is still the case today.) The men, dressed in white kittelach (robes), used one of the wells. The women used the second well, and would walk to it from a bottom street so as not to mix with the men. The crying as Tashlich was recited was heart-wrenching and aroused even the children. The holiness in the air was palpable.

In the early years of the state, every Tisha B’Av between Minchah and Maariv,  the tzaddik Rav Benzion Yadler would stand on the wall of a water hole to address the residents. He would cry and rebuke. The children would sit opposite him on the pavement, and he was such a dynamic speaker that even though they did not understand exactly what he said, they accepted upon themselves to do all he instructed.

The water holes eventually became contaminated and were sealed up by the municipality. After that, trucks arrived periodically to distribute water. People stood in line for hours in all sorts of weather to receive their water portion. After the War of Independence, water pumps were installed, and whoever could afford it acquired taps with running water. Today, the wells of Sha’arei Chessed remain in their places, sealed, a relic of the past.

The Oven

In those days, people did their baking in a public oven. (The cooking was usually done at home on a primus stove, some even baked at home in a ‘wonder-pot’ on the primus.) The public oven was as large a cave, with an iron door. Mothers would send their daughters, mainly on Wednesdays and Thursdays, with trays of food to be baked. Each girl took great pride in her mothers' handiwork and handled her load with the greatest of care. On Fridays people would try to arrive first at the oven so that their cholent pot would get a good spot in the belly of the oven and thereby be well done. 

An Array of Great Residents

From the time of its founding, a gallery of great men resided in Sha'arei Chessed. Even the plain working men were known for their great piety and Torah learning. Books could be written about the greatness of each one of them. A book has in fact been written about the chalban (milkman), Rav Bezalel Goldstein, who was such a tzaddik that when he started talking in learning, he forgot where he was. 

Among the Gedolim who lived in Sha'arei Chessed were Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, zt”l, and his brother-in-law Rav Sholom Shwadron, zt”l. Rav Moshe Aron Stern, zt"l, was an American, and one of the warmest, most caring people I have ever met. I merited hearing many shiurim from him.

Sha'arei Chessed Today

The simplicity and unadorned way of life that was Sha'arei Chessed has mostly disappeared, as many of the older residents passed on and their properties were sold to people from chutz laAretz. Yet many of its alleys and streets are still pulsing quietly with the vibrancy of Torah-true living. Sha’arei Chessed is home to many shuls, and to several yeshivos and kollelim and their communities. Yeshivas Ma'alos HaTorah and its yeshivah ketanah are headed by HaRav Shmuel Auerbach, shlita. Midrash Shmuel, a yeshivah and kollel for English speakers, was established in Sha’arei Chessed under the directive of R’ Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt”l and is headed by HaRav Binyomin Moskovits, shlita.

The sight of bnei Torah heading to shul or a beis medrash, the sounds of children’s play in the streets on Shabbos, the scent of a vibrant, leafy esrog or pomegranate tree… these depict the realization of R’ Porush’s long-ago hopes and dreams. And at the same time, the neighborhood’s silent relics — sealed wells still sitting on the pavements, the sun dial on the Gra shul’s outer wall, old hovels that once housed whole families — all remind us of the pioneers who struggled, lived and learned in these very streets. 
Published in the "Binah"


  1. Among the great luminaries of Shaarei Hesed was Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop. He was very close to Rav Kook, one of only three individuals about whom Rav Kook wrote, 'they penetrate to the depth of my thought'. When Rav Kook died, Rav Charlop became the head Mercaz Harav yeshiva. I heard that in his beit midrash in Shaarei Hesed there was a small cistern under the floorboards. On the last night of Pesah, for the recital of the Song at the Sea, they would open the cistern and jump over it as a symbolic act of crossing the sea at Yam Suf.

    You referenced the 'wonder pot' that some people used for baking. As late as the 70s and early 80s I remember people using a סיר פלא for baking on the stovetop. It could be no one bothers anymore, since ovens are so much more common.

    For some reason, I think Rav Yehuda Gershuni lived in Shaarei Hesed at some point not so long ago. He was the son in law of Rav Eliezer Silver, and an editor of Rav Zevin's Encyclopedia Talmudit. Known as a great ilui, he learned at Mercaz Harav and was the last living student of Rav Kook before he died almost twelve years ago. He had been rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Eretz Yisrael in Brooklyn, before returning to Yerushalayim.

  2. I myself used to use a "wonder pot" for Pesach till about 18 or 19 years ago, when we bought a little oven just for the chag.