The Aish HaTorah World Center is one of Architect Jeffrey Cooper’s most complex and historically significant works. Aish HaTorah College of Jewish Studies (known simply as “Aish”) was founded in 1974. The World Center is a 40,000 square foot, 6-story new building, built from Jerusalem stone. It is situated on an ancient building site, located directly across from the Western Wall, the holiest site in the Old City of Jerusalem. Millions of visitors come to the Western Wall (“Har HaBayit”) each year. The World Center is strategically located only 100 yards from the Western Wall itself, the heart and center of the Jewish world. The building was donated by Leslie Dan, the well-known Toronto philanthropist. Aish HaTorah hosts a variety of educational programs for those visitors who wish to learn more about their Jewish culture and heritage.
The Building’s Symbolism
The building has two entries; an Upper Entry from the Jewish Quarter and a Lower Entry from the Western Wall Plaza. Upon entering the Upper Entry, Jeffrey Cooper says the first striking feature one sees is a stunning glass “Chihuly” sculptural chandelier, hanging boldly below the building’s large dome. This two-story colored glass sculpture is made from dramatic curves of navy blue, flaming red, orange, and yellow glass, through which the sun reflects from the skylight dome above. The blue and navy reflections symbolize the “drops of water” that the famous Talmudic Rabbi Akiva observed had made an indentation in the rock, as they dripped steadily over time. He reasoned that if water, one of the softest mediums on earth, could change the shape of rock, one of the hardest, then the fire of Torah (Jewish Wisdom), represented by the flaming red, orange, and yellow, part of the sculpture, could soften a man’s heart.
How the Project Began
“I’m extremely honored to have my name associated with the Aish World Center in Jerusalem. The sole purpose of this project is to energize and educate the Jewish people in the very place that housed the Ancient Temple of King Solomon, the wisest of all men,” Jeffrey Cooper says. Before designing the complex structure, Mr. Cooper met with the late actor and Hollywood icon, Kirk Douglas in L.A. Mr. Douglas had donated funds for the Theater located in the project. He was impressed with Jeff Cooper’s theater designs for George Lucas and for the Director’s Guild of America. He recommended Cooper to Rabbi Noah Weinberg, the founder of Aish. Mr. Cooper traveled to Jerusalem to meet with Rabbi Weinberg. Cooper presented his unique design proposal to the Rabbi and to the Aish Board of Directors. As part of the design concept, Jeffrey Cooper proposed creating a unique lower entrance to the new building, through an ancient rock tunnel formation, a geological feature dating from the time of King David.
Jeffrey Cooper envisioned this natural “tunnel” would serve to connect the theater level of the Aish HaTorah World Center directly to the Western Wall plaza below, where millions of visitors per year come from around the world to see the remnants of the ancient Temple. The idea was revolutionary because it would allow visitors direct pedestrian access to the Aish HaTorah World Center, through a very unique and unforgettable historical feature. Once inside, they could experience special presentations in the Kirk Douglas Theater. The tunnel entry would also draw visitors into the building and arouse their curiosity. Then they could participate in outreach classes given by the College of Jewish studies, at the upper levels of the building accessible by elevator and stairs.
Impressed with the idea and with Jeffrey Cooper’s resume, Rabbi Weinberg immediately hired him as the Architect. However, Rabbi Weinberg had one condition. Cooper must move to Israel during the design phase, to coordinate with the local engineering team and to personally supervise the complex historical restoration challenges of the site. Jeffrey Cooper agreed and moved his entire staff to Israel to complete the drawings.
“Unique” Features of the Project
In addition to the Kirk Douglas Theater and the lecture halls, the project was designed to have a beautiful Banquet Facility whose arched windows overlook the Western Wall Plaza below. Mr. Cooper worked hard with the Israeli government’s Antiquities Committee (“Rishut Hatikot”) to preserve and incorporate many pre-existing historical elements of the site into the design. These include underground water cisterns, which date back to the time of the Second Temple. Running through one portion of the stone foundation is an ancient aqueduct, used to bring water to the First Holy Temple. Architect Jeffrey Cooper included historical elements from other periods, such as a beautiful re-created stone archway from the Crusader period. The upper levels of the building contain many lecture halls and classrooms outfitted with the most up-to-date presentation technology. Jeffrey Cooper’s Firm prepared its drawings with a high level of detail, both in English and in Hebrew for the local contractors.
“Rooftop of the World”
The building’s famous rooftop observatory features an unparalleled outlook of the ancient city. Jeffrey Cooper says the observation deck was awarded “One of the Top Ten Panoramic Views in the World.” It features 360-degree views of the most important sites in the Holy Land -The Western Wall Plaza, the Temple Mount with its Golden Dome, the Mount of Olives, the City of David. The Jordanian Hills serve as a backdrop, and visitors can see the Judean Desert in the distance. Since its completion, the crowning rooftop feature has been visited by both political leaders and celebrities from around the world, including Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and, most recently, U.S. Vice President, Mike Pence who announced President Trump’s Mideast Peace Plan.
During the 13 year construction period, other local architects and interior designers joined the team and contributed their talents to the beautiful and historic building. Aish now operates 35 branches on five continents, teaching young Jews and people of all faith about the richness of Jewish history and culture.
Ironically, just 8 months before the final completion of the project in 2009, Rabbi Weinberg passed away. He was fondly remembered at the opening ceremony conducted by the Chief Rabbi of Israel. Jeffrey Cooper was awarded a beautiful brass sculpture of the building, during this moving ceremony in Jerusalem. Over 2,000 people attended in a night to remember.