Demystifying Meah Shearim
I have fond memories from almost thirty years ago learning in yeshiva and trekking around different parts of Jerusalem. I would occasionally spend time in Meah Shearim, buying olive wood souvenirs, having a schnitzel in Ma’adan Hamuchan, or picking up a tallis or some other religious article in the many Judaica stores lining the main road.
I always enjoyed watching the tourists gaze at the community with bewilderment, as if they stepped out of a time machine and were transported to Europe circa 1800. Understandably, the neighborhood is somewhat daunting as the people look, act and dress differently. Although Meah Shearim is located just a few blocks away from the center of Jerusalem, in many ways it feels like a different universe.
Meah Shearim was established in 1874 by pioneers who wanted to leave the cramped and unhygienic living conditions of the Old City where almost all of the Jews in the country had lived. The Jewish Quarter had become too small to handle the expanding Jewish population, and Meah Shearim was one of the first communities built outside of the Old City.
Meah Shearim held significant value to the religious settlers: in addition to being in close proximity to the Old City, it was believed to be located where the kohanim (priests) would discard the terumat hadeshen (ashes from the sacrifices) during the Temple period.
The pioneers named the community Meah Shearim based on a sentence in the weekly Torah portion which coincided with the founding of the settlement. The term “meah shearim” was used to symbolize divine favor bestowed upon Isaac when he reaped a “one hundred fold” bumper crop (Genesis 26:12).
By 1880 the first one hundred homes were built in Meah Shearim, and by 1900 the community expanded to 300 apartments housing over 1,500 people. The community was updated and expanded when the British came into power in 1920, only to have many of its homes and communal facilities bombed and destroyed during Israel’s War of Independence. After the 1967 Six Day War, the community experienced a renaissance and a period of intensive growth.
Initially the rabbinic leadership in Meah Shearim, led by Rabbi Yoseph Gershon Horowitz, the rosh yeshiva (dean) of the Yeshiva Gedolah of Meah Shearim, encouraged the residents to cooperate with the forerunner to the Israeli government and to become farmers and help settle the land. However, starting in the 1920s the community took a sharp turn to the right, partially as a result of a large influx of immigrants who were followers of the chief rabbi and co-founder of the Edah HaChareidis Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld.
Today, Meah Shearim is home to many groups within the Chareidi community. There are Kaminetzers, Briskers, Yekkim and Sephardim, but mostly one encounters many sects of Chassidim, the largest being Gur and Belz. The Belz Chassidim built a gigantic and magnificent synagogue on the outskirts of Romema, which is a huge replica of the original Belz shul in Galicia. The building was completed in 2000, and is worth visiting.
Ever since its inception, Meah Shearim has created a remarkable infrastructure of social programs and charitable organizations to address the needs of its population. These programs include soup kitchens, societies for aiding the sick, non-interest loan societies and an assortment of other services for the needy.
After years of neglect, the neighborhood has recently undergone extensive renovations, and numerous facilities are slowly being rebuilt. Though the buildings have been upgraded, the essence of the community remains intact, steeped in its strong foundations of chessed activity and Torah study.
Much of the information is taken from Leah Abramowitz’ 2005 excellent article “The Roots of Meah Shearim.”
Gedaliah Borvick is the founder of My Israel Home, a real estate agency focused on helping people from abroad buy and sell homes in Israel. To sign up for his monthly market updates, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.