During the last half of the 19th century and during the early 20th century, the Torah-committed men and women of Old Jerusalem established new Jewish neighborhoods outside the Old City walls. This pioneering work was done with great sacrifice and dedication. A major challenge that they faced was the lack of security, for the area outside the Old City walls was considered dangerous due to plundering Arab marauders; thus, these pious pioneers established defense patrols. By dint of their sheer courage and their intense love for Jerusalem, they succeeded, with the help of Hashem, in founding fifty new neighborhoods outside the walls of the Old City by the outbreak of World War I.
In this letter, we will discuss their establishment of a “radical” new neighborhood in the early 20th century: Shaarei Chesed (Gates of Loving-kindness). The planner and designer of this neighborhood was Rav Naftali Zvi Porush; moreover, Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld, who greatly encouraged Rav Porush, had a major role in the development of this neighborhood. The neighborhood was unique in that its aim was to allow families of limited means to eventually own their own homes with virtually no down-payment. The rent that they paid went towards buying their homes! As Rav Naftali Zvi Porush, the architect of the plan, explained: “The Shaarei Chesed General Aid Fund will fund new housing construction to be occupied by these renters, and the rent that they now pay their landlords will be used instead to build their equity in these homes. Within fourteen years, they will own them completely.”
The following are two excerpts from the resolution adopted by the Shaarei Chesed Fund:
1. “The neighborhood will contain two hundred units which will be distributed [by lottery] to two hundred families who will pay rent for fourteen years. Upon the satisfactory payment of these rents and adherence to all the by-laws of this organization, the managers of the Fund are obligated to turn over to these families the titles to their homes.”
2. “An additional benefit of the plan is: To provide employment for Jewish workers who will be used to construct this development. Thereby hundreds of Jerusalem’s builders, stonecutters, masons, carpenters, blacksmiths, and painters will be able to provide for their families without having to seek a livelihood abroad.”
It was also stipulated that only families who did not yet own a home would be eligible for a unit.
Unlike previous developments, which were designed as long rows of buildings with a common courtyard and central bathroom facilities, Shaarei Chesed was designed as single family units, each with its yard and bathroom facilities. (The common courtyards of the previous developments, however, contributed to a communal feeling.)
The cornerstone ceremony for the building of Shaarei Chesed took place in 5669 (1909) on Lag B’Omer. Thousands of Jews were present, and Rav Shmuel Salant, the Ashkenazic Rav of Jerusalem who was ninety-two years old, was given the honor of laying the first stone.
In later years, when Rav Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld would come to Shaarei Chesed to perform a bris (the covenant of circumcision) or to visit his grandson who lived there, he would remark, “It is a special pleasure to visit this neighborhood which was built in accordance with Torah principles.”
In general, Rav Yosef Chaim rejoiced in seeing the construction and expansion of Jerusalem. As he passed through the new sections of the city, his face would radiate joy and his lips would murmur the words, “Hashem is the builder of Jerusalem” (Psalm 147:2).
Today, many people like to visit the chareidi neighborhood of Shaarei Chesed, as it has both a physical and spiritual beauty which expresses the sacred spirit of Jerusalem. Shaarei Chesed is at the north edge of the neighborhood of Rechavia, and other adjacent neighborhoods are Nachalat Tzadok and Nachlaot. One of the main attractions in the small neighborhood of Shaarei Chesed are the numerous synagogues, and the most famous is the “Gra Shul” which follows the customs of the followers of the Vilna Gaon, a leading 18th century sage who is also known as the Gra.
The neighborhood has also served as the home of leading sages of the 20th century. In the next letter, with the help of Hashem, I will share with you a few stories about one of these sages, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, whose yahrtzeit is on this Shabbos, the 20th of Adar.
I will conclude this letter with
the following teaching of Rav
Nachman, a sage of the Talmud:
It is written, “The Builder of Jerusalem is Hashem; He gathers in the dispersed of Israel” (Psalm 147:2). This verse is teaching us that Hashem builds Jerusalem through gathering the dispersed of Israel. (Brochos 49a)
Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen