One of the most interesting projects of the Center today is taking place right here in Jerusalem, and called Lev Ha-'Ir, appropriately, or, "heart of the city". In down town Jerusalem, between Agrippas and Bezalel streets, lies one of the New City's oldest neighborhoods. This quarter, popularly known as Nachlaot, contains one hundred synagogues of the various Jewish communities which populated the new city after leaving the walled city of Jerusalem in the late 19th century.
As in other "new" neighborhoods such as Mishkenot Sha'ananim, and Yemin Moshe, each Jewish community in Nachlaot founded its own synagogue and used ritual objects which were characteristic of its country of origin. Among the founding communities of Nachlaot were Yeminite, Amedia Kurdish, Zacho Kurdish, Jerusalem Sephardi, Greek, and Galician Jews.
The neighborhood was planned to accommodate each community as a separate unit housed in its own walled complex, built around a common courtyard with a water cistern in the center. The synagogue of each community was contained within this compound.
The Center's researchers began working in Lev Ha-'Ir in 1989 when they documented ritual objects and interiors of thirty of the existing one hundred synagogues in the area. To mark the "Jerusalem 3000" celebrations this year, a decision was made by the municipality to restore the area and turn it into a tourist site. This prompted our researchers to return to survey the remaining synagogues and to work quickly, because renewal generally brings about a shift in population. An essential part of the project involves tracking down and interviewing of older residents who still remember the synagogues in their original state. In the current Lev Ha-'Ir project, the Center is working in conjunction with the Lev Ha-'Ir Community Center, and Yad Ben Tzvi, each institute having its own specific agenda. The Center is documenting the ritual objects and the synagogues themselves, recreating the story of the neighborhood by means of its Jewish material culture. The Lev Ha-'Ir Community Center is interested in creating community projects for the residents of the area including developing the area for tourism and as a learning center. Yad Ben Tzvi is investigating the history of the quarter, including gathering personal testimonies, and examining how the neighborhood's history ties into the history of Eretz Yisrael.
The Center for Jewish Art plans to undertake an architectural survey of all one hundred synagogues in Nachlaot, this time including an architect as part of the team. Those synagogues that are found to be the most interesting will also be documented, and from among those, ten synagogues will be chosen for restoration. Each of these synagogues will be representative of a different community, thereby capturing its character and giving a general picture of Jerusalem of the period. The selection of the synagogues will be governed by the need to preserve the most impressive interiors and most interesting and representative ritual objects Together these buildings will capture most accurately the character of the New Jerusalem in the late 19th century.
One of the most intriguing features of the ceremonial objects found in Nachlaot are their dedication inscriptions which connect the residents to the historical events of the country. For example, the dedication on the Parochet (Torah curtain) of the Neve Shalom Synagogue reads:
"[In memory of...who] was killed when he went to rescue the Jews in Gush Etzion [the Hebron mountains] in 1948."
Sometimes the inscriptions reflect the connection between the communities in Israel and communities in the Diaspora, such as the dedication on a Torah pointer:
"A present to Jerusalem from your friend the Rabbi Ezra Danguri, Hacham Bashi [Chief Rabbi] of Iraq."
Our goal, which is to preserve the old synagogues, unfortunately, does not always coincide with that of the present day community, which may perhaps choose to renovate their synagogue as a reflection of modern taste or new found affluence. This is a very delicate situation which requires patience and education, along with an appreciation of the need for sympathetic restoration. In the meantime, it is vital to record buildings and objects as quickly as possible before they disappear.
The three participating institutes plan to publish a book on the history of Nachlaot, including descriptions of the synagogues and ritual objects, and a map with walking tours of the area. A learning center is also planned, where visitors and students may come for educational materials, slides and video presentations on the history of this unique neighborhood.