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Changing Landscapes

Yair Weinstock and Aryeh Erlich

For over a century, the famous Yeshivas Etz Chaim loomed like a fortress over Jaffa Road, a symbol of Old Jerusalem’s cheder children and Torah scholars. But as the Etz Chaim building closed its doors for the last time, Rav Nissan Aharon Tukachinsky, the yeshivah’s veteran director, didn’t hide his pain over the transfer he wished didn’t have to take place.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Two years ago, it looked like the historic Etz Chaim yeshiva building would get a reprieve. The yeshiva compound would not be destroyed after all to make way for the new infrastructure plans in downtown Jerusalem, including office buildings and a pedestrian mall. It would be included in a list of historic sites to be preserved. This Elul zman, however, the halls are quiet, the moving cartons are being stacked, and the last mementos of over a hundred years are being removed. Hemmed in and sliced through by the Jerusalem light rail tracks and cordoned off by new building developments around the Machane Yehudah shuk, Etz Chaim – symbol of the traditional Torah of Jerusalem for over a century -- had no choice but to pack up and leave.

“I believe that many will be sorry to walk down Jaffa Road and discover that the age-old complex has moved. All its walls are saturated with Torah. I concluded the sale with tears. But what could we do? Everything changes. Jaffa Road doesn’t look like it did forty, or even twenty, years ago. After the light rail project is set in motion, it will look even more different. We asked Rav Elyashiv what to do, and he told us to relocate,” says veteran director Rav Nissan Aharon Tukachinsky. Rav Nissan’s father, Rav Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky – one of the great Torah scholars of the last century – was rosh yeshivah of Etz Chaim when it acquired the building in 1908.

“This is a sad, sad day for us,” continues Rav Tukachinsky, already in his eighties, who has been trying to avoid the forced sale for the past decade, when municipal infrastructure developments targeted Etz Chaim’s piece of prime property. “Make no mistake, we were forced out. By the government, the municipality, the secularism of the street, the night life, the light rail. This part of the city is turning into a place where it is becoming impossible to educate the pure young souls of Jerusalem. ”

Realistically, there is no way the cheder and yeshivah could continue there. Soon there will be no access to the area by any transportation except the light rail. Until this year, the cheder tenaciously held on, although many parents had already stopped stending their children because of the neighborhood. Rav Tukachinsky said he received a phone call from a mother whose sons were still learning in the cheder, asking if it was possible to put curtains on the school buses so the children shouldn’t view the surrounding street scenes. When a letter was sent out explaining the move to a new location – Etz Chaim has branches in several chareidi neighborhoods around the city – there wasn’t a single objection. Some parents wrote back, “You should have done this years ago.”

But how do you let go of a building complex that literally housed the history of Jerusalem’s venerated scholars and gedolim, from Rav Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky to Rav Isser Zalman Meltzer to Rav Aryeh Levin, to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, to dozens of others in the who’s who of the Torah world?


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