December 4, 2023
December 4, 2023

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The Story of Batei Mechsah

By Hava Preil

(Most information for this article is based on material and on-site signs provided by the Society for the Development of the Jewish Quarter.)

Let’s go back in time now to the middle of the 19th century. The Jewish community of Yerushalayim lived within the Old City walls in dire conditions. There was crowding, poverty and lack of proper hygienic conditions. Most Jews did not own their own property, and rented apartments from Muslim landlords. The Jewish community was also not financially independent; most of their income came from kollelim from their country of origin in the Diaspora. The Diaspora Jews sent money to support their brethren in the Holy Land. This was the way of the Yishuv Hayashan, the Old Yishuv of Jews in Jerusalem, prior to the modern Zionist era.

In 1857, the members of Kollel Hod (Holland-Deutschland) came up with a new, entrepreneurial initiative and decided to purchase some land at the edge of the Jewish quarter of the old city to resolve the “living crisis” within the Old City. This was the first time that the Jewish community decided to take matters into their own hands and build a neighborhood of their own. They used the money they received from the chaluka (donations from Europe) to purchase this uninhabited land and attempt to ease the crowding that was so prevalent in Jerusalem at the time. The apartments built here were considered quite modern for that era. Many of them had two rooms and even a kitchenette. In the courtyard was a common water cistern.

Since many Jews wanted to be the fortunate residents of these new apartments, a system was devised to apportion them fairly. One third of the apartments were given to Hungarian Jews, another third was given to the Jews of Kollel Hod, and a third was given to the poor Jews of Yerushalayim. The project was officially called בתי מחסה לעניים והכנסת אורחים על הר ציון וירושלים עיר הקודש תבנה ותכונן במהרה בימינו אמן, or for short, Batei Mechsah. Take a look at the original gateway to the neighborhood, which we can still see today as we walk into the courtyard.

A short while later, in 1871, Baron Rothschild contributed to the building here. It is possible to see the shield of the Rothschild family on one of the buildings, which is named in honor of Baron Wilhelm Karl de Rothschild.

This area also holds historical significance from the time of Israel’s War of Independence. It was here that the Jewish residents of the old city of Yerushalyim congregated and took shelter in 1948 during the Arab siege. It was from Batei Mechsah that the Jews of the Old City ultimately surrendered to the Jordanian legion, which took 260 civilians and 30 Jewish soldiers into captivity. Jewish homes and synagogues were destroyed and burned. The remainder of the Jewish community of the Old City was relocated to the new city. This was the historic end to hundreds of years of Jewish settlement in the Old City of Yerushalayim.

Nineteen years later, in 1967, when Israel once again unified Jerusalem, this area was renovated and returned to become a vibrant part of the Jewish community of the Old City. The Rothschild building was put to new use and currently houses the Zilberman Cheder, which is well-known for its unique educational method. Students of Zilberman Cheder go to learn every day of the year, except for Tisha B’Av.

Upon visiting the courtyard, one can see the remains of some large Greek columns on display. These pillars, dated to the first century BCE, must have stood at the entrance to a public building. Having been excavated nearby, their display here further testifies to the many layers of history we can find in every area of Jerusalem’s old city!

Perhaps one of the most moving aspects of Batei Mechseh are the verses from the Prophet Zechariah 8:4-5 which are engraved on one of the walls. These verses discuss the end of days, where the elderly will sit in the streets of Jerusalem and the children will play in its streets. Visit Batei Mechsah square during Zilberman’s recess and you’ll see just that. Precious Jewish children once again engaged in lively play in this Jerusalem courtyard!

Hava Preil is an enthusiastic licensed Israeli Tour Guide. She grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and holds an MA in Judaic studies. Hava has developed and taught accredited courses in Tanach and Jewish ethics for Naaleh/Woodmont College and Cybersem. She currently lives in Givat Ze’ev, Israel with her family. She can be reached at IL: 054-844-1579, USA: 845-391-0438 or at
[email protected]

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By Hava Preil

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