Travel Blog

Nathan Shapira’s Favorite Place in Israel

Nathan is the 10th generation of his family to live in Jerusalem. His favorite place to visit is the Old City of Jerusalem, where the stones tell the story of his family history.

 

Not many families in Israel can trace their roots back to a specific neighborhood over a century ago. Nathan’s ancestor – Rabbi Abraham Mordechai Weingarten – lived in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1916. He was the Rabbi of small Ashkenazic synagogue that was known as Yeshivat Torat Chayim.  Rediscovered in 1967, today it is known as Bet Knesset Igud Lochamey Yerushalayim – the synagogue of the fighters for Jerusalem.

Nathan Shapira
Nathan Shapira guiding in the Old City of Jerusalem

“I love visiting the ancient alleyways of the Old City and walking on the same cobbled streets that many generations of my family once walked. It is my greatest pleasure to bring people from all over the world to this holy city and to show them that Jewish life is thriving here once again. The history of the synagogue is a microcosm of the history of the Jews in Israel, and I feel the emotional responsibility to share my family’s history with visiting families.”

 

In 1916 Rabbi Weingarten was one of a small number of European Jews who lived in the Old City, praying daily for the redemption of the Jewish people and the return to Zion. At this time the area was ruled by Ottoman Turks, who made it difficult for Jews to practice their faith. They lived in constant fear of violence from local people and interrogation by the Ottoman police. In 1921 the synagogue was attacked by rioters, but the Jews refused to be intimidated. They appealed to Jews around the world to send money to help them repair the synagogue.

 

The rioting continued and the small Jewish population asked for reinforcements to protect the Jewish community in the Old City. In 1948 the city was captured by the Jordanians and Rabbi Weingarten was imprisoned in Amman as a prisoner of war. After thousands of years of continuous Jewish presence in Jerusalem, not even one Jew was allowed to live in the Old City under the Jordanians for the next 20 years. One of their Arab neighbors, understanding that the synagogue was holy and important to his Jewish friends, took it upon himself to lock the doors to the building, keeping it safe from further vandalism. The location of the hidden synagogue was known only to a few families who had once prayed there.

 

In June 1967, Israeli paratroopers entered the Old City to liberate it. An old Arab who was living there invited one of the Jewish officers to accompany him into a building in the Muslim Quarter, but he was scared to do so in case it was a trap. But when they opened the doors, they found the historic synagogue with its books and Torah scrolls dusty but intact after 30 years in hiding.

Igud Lochamey Yerushalayim
Photo credit: מאת בן נחום – בן נחום, ייחוס

Nathan and his father were both soldiers in 1967. Aged 19, Nathan was serving in the Golan and came home to Jerusalem on leave ten days after the Old City was liberated. He and his father went looking for the synagogue that their great-grandfather had abandoned in 1936. It was a very emotional reunion, and they set about cleaning it up. When Jews returned to live in the area, they renovated the hidden synagogue and established Bet Knesset Igud Lochamey Yerushalayim.  For many years, the Shapira family went to pray there every Shabbat.

 

The final verse of Naomi Shemer’s song “Jerusalem of Gold” describes how the Jewish people have returned to the courtyards and markets of the Old City. They have returned to pray where Nathan Shapira’s ancestors once prayed, and he loves to go back and touch its ancient stone walls.

 

“We are like the stones of Jerusalem”, explains Nathan. “We have stood the test of time and we are still here to tell the tale. Ten generations of my family have lived in this special city, and it is my pleasure to bring tour groups to visit its holy sites and to appreciate its importance to the Jewish people.”

 

Book your tour of Jerusalem with Nathan Shapira – a genuine Yerushalmi (Jerusalemite) – and experience a genuine taste of Jewish history on your next trip to Israel with Shatour Israel Experience.