An article by Dvora Waysman in the March 18 issue of The Jewish Press referred to the home of the first chief rabbi of Israel, Rav Avraham Yitzchok Hakohen Kook, which has been converted into a museum.
There is much more to the story.
It is told in Forty Years of Struggle for a Principle, the biography of Harry Fischel, citing public records and periodicals, and was alluded to by Dr. Yitzchok Levine in the last of a series of articles on Fischel for The Jewish Press (June 2, 2006).
In the days when Eretz Yisrael was known as Palestine and ruled by the British, the consensus was that the British wanted the Jews to have a homeland but only as a continuing colony under British rule. Eventually, Menachem Begin and the Irgun led a revolt (for which the Haganah got much of the credit, but this is a story for another day), leading to the creation of the independent state of Israel.
Here’s the shocker: The idea to build a special house for the chief rabbi of Palestine came from none other than his excellency, the high commissioner of Palestine, representing the British government – Sir Herbert Samuel.
Here’s how it came about and was implemented, as recounted primarily by Harry Fischel through his son-in-law, Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein, in the biography referred to above. Fischel is the person who arranged for the house to be built, entirely at his own personal expense.
On Fischel’s second trip to Palestine, in 1921, a military officer of the British government presented him with an invitation to call upon the high commissioner. Fischel was warned by Herbert Samuel’s secretary that Samuel normally limited his meetings to 20 minutes, during which Fischel planned to discuss how he could help in the building of the Jewish homeland.
During the hour and three-quarters of their conference, covering many subjects, Samuels pointed out to Fischel, in the words of Fischel’s biographer, that “whereas the chief representatives of other religions in the city of Jerusalem each occupied a suitable residence, Rabbi Kook was compelled to live on the second floor of an old and dilapidated building where the proper reception to visitors was impossible. He stated that this residence ill-befitted the dignity of the high office of the chief rabbi of Palestine,” and advised Fischel to try to convince a few wealthy Americans to build a more suitable home for the chief rabbi.
Before the day was over, Fischel had decided not only to build a home for the chief rabbi, but a synagogue (to be used as a yeshiva) as well, entirely at his own expense. The chief rabbi at first declined the generous offer, but then was persuaded to accept the gift not as a personal tribute but as one made in recognition of his office.
Upon its completion the building was described in The New York Times as “a monument to Jerusalem, located on the [then] principal square at the intersection of three streets of Moorish design, built of stone . It is probably the only house in the city having every modern convenience, and besides living rooms, it also contains a large meeting room and a synagogue ” The latter was used as the yeshiva until the current yeshiva building was built for what has come to be known as Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav, with a wing dedicated by the Harry and Jane Fischel Foundation.
The day of the dedication of the building “was regarded as a national holiday . The whole City of Jerusalem was decorated for the occasion . In practically every window appeared the Zionist flag, that was merged in the decorations with the American colors.”
Participants at the dedication itself included both chief rabbis, the high commissioner, consular officials, the acting governor of Jerusalem, the mayor of Jerusalem, Dr. Judah Magnes, and many rabbis, including Fischel’s son-in-law, Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein, then president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. Thousands of people stood outside in the streets, kept in order by military officers.
An official government reporter recounted: “The ceremony was a most brilliant event and will remain a red letter day in the annals of Jerusalem . There were present the elite of the Jewish and non-Jewish communities . On the wall facing the gathering there were hung two pictures, one of King George V, and the other of the High Commissioner.”