The Armon of Ezra Street
BY RUCHAMA ALTER
Standing prominently on Ezra Street in the Bukharim Quarter of Jerusalem, the Armon, the “Palace”, still retains some of its former glory. The house, constructed in the early 20th century, is the largest and most impressive home in the neighborhood built by Bukhari olim from Uzbekistan in the late 1800s. The Bukharim established a luxurious neighborhood, planned by the architect Conrad Schick, who also designed Meah Shearim. The stone homes, tree-lined streets and grid design created a beautiful atmosphere.
The Armon, built by the Yehudayoff and Hefetz families, was the largest home in the neighborhood, boasting 30 beautifully decorated rooms, a synagogue, a mikveh and a sukkah with an advanced retractable roof. It was intended to host the Mashiach when he would arrive in Jerusalem!
After the Bolshevik takeover of Russia, the Bukhari community became impoverished. As a result, some of the houses were abandoned and the Armon was turned into a Turkish headquarters. When the British conquered the area in 1917, the World Zionist Organization hosted an elaborate Seder for hundreds of Jewish British soldiers at the Armon. In 1921, the election of Rav Kook as the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of the Mandate also took place here.
In 1928, Chana Schpitzer established a religious girls’ school in the building. Chana was a member of the Rivlin clan, whose ancestors were students of the Vilna Gaon and who were active in establishing Jewish neighborhoods outside of the walls of the Old City. Chana was educated by private tutors and received an unusually well-rounded Jewish education, preparing her for a leadership and pedagogical role.
While raising her own small children, Chana began to teach reading and writing to girls in the neighborhood, ultimately developing a plan for a Jewish girls’ school. Because the school was planned for girls and because Chana intended to make Hebrew the school’s language of instruction, Agudat Yisrael denied her funding requests (this was before the establishment of the Bais Yaakov schools in Poland by Sarah Schenirer in 1917). Chana Schpitzer then turned to Mizrachi, which agreed to fund the school. In 1919, the school became an official institution of the Mizrachi Education Department.
Chana’s educational vision was broad and included commercial courses to aid the girls in productive employment after graduation. At the same time, in addition to standard classes in Hebrew and in Tanach, the school taught Talmud – a revolutionary step at the time. Beginning with 70 girls, the school flourished and eventually expanded to several branches, including elementary and high schools.
While serving as a girls’ school, the Armon was also used by Chana’s son-in-law, David Raziel, one of the founders of the Etzel underground fighters. Secret meetings were held in the basement of the school, and a secret slik, an arms cache, was maintained in the building.
Today the building is home to two Charedi girls’ schools. Unfortunately, the interior of the building has sadly deteriorated, and much of its original decor has been damaged. But while the Armon could certainly use a physical upgrade, it is comforting to know that young Jewish women continue to learn Torah inside its walls. The candle lit by Chana Schpitzer continues to shine!
Ruchama Alter is a tour guide and lercturer in Jerusalem and abroad. She completed her graduate studies in Bible and Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.