This Former Leprosy Hospital Is Now a Hot Brunch Spot
Nearly all the tables are full on a Wednesday morning at the Ofaimme Farm Cafe in Jerusalem. The open kitchen prepares platters of fresh goat cheeses, salads, and buttery pastries filled with poached eggs. Since opening last year, this has become one of the most popular brunch places in Jerusalem, a city with no shortage of options for hearty and fresh Israeli breakfasts. But some small details here, like a glass-topped table with a base made from a clawfoot bathtub, and an old-fashioned medical tool sterilizer sitting amid jars of homemade sun-dried tomato spread give away the cafe’s former purpose. For more than 100 years this place was part of a hospital for people with leprosy.
A recent restoration project has turned the two-acre campus in Jerusalem’s prestigious Talbieh neighborhood into the Hansen House Center for Design, Media, and Technology, which includes exhibition space, a movie theater, and art and technology studios. (Leprosy is also known as Hansen’s disease after the Norwegian scientist Gerhard Armauer Hansen, who discovered in 1873 that it was caused by bacteria.)
"From a closed area, it has become a destination for many,” said Hedai Offaim, who opened the Ofaimme Farm Cafe. The cafe is in the original space of the Jesus Hilfe (in English, “Jesus Heals”) leprosy hospital, built in 1887 by Jerusalem’s Anglican and German Protestant community with help from the German government. People with leprosy were often shunned out of fear they would spread the disease, which infects nerves in the arms and legs, as well as the nasal and respiratory tracts, and can result in skin disfigurement and blindness if left untreated. “There was also a big stigma attached to the disease,” said Ruth Wexler, a former nurse at the hospital who put together a historical exhibition about life there. In addition to providing medical treatment, the hospital also provided the patients with a home. There were gardens, vineyards, chickens that provided eggs, and cows and goats that provided milk. And there was a bakery, where the current cafe stands.
“Every patient who cares to have it has received a piece of ground, and there they sow what they like,” the hospital’s 1912 annual report noted. As the neighborhood around the hospital developed, attracting consulates and foreign residents, there were worries that the asylum may be forced out because the patients would be considered “unwelcome neighbors,” according to documents in the archives.
Eventually, the government of the newly-established state of Israel bought the hospital from the Protestants, re-named it the Hansen Government Hospital, and continued to treat leprosy here until 2009.
“Even in modern times some people were still afraid to come in,” said Wexler, who was a nurse here from 1988 to 2009. “Of course that was all ignorance.”
Leprosy is only mildly contagious, with about 95 percent of the human population unable to catch it because their immune systems resist it, according to the Centers for Disease Control. The hospital was also always open to visitors, and patients could come and go, Wexler said. And after the advent of antibiotics to treat the disease in the 1940s, there was often no medical reason for leprosy patients to be hospitalized at all, but they simply stayed here because their families didn’t want them.
By the time the hospital closed in 2009, many of its buildings were in disrepair. Still known locally as the “leper house,” the city eventually designated it as a historical landmark, and provided incentives to develop it as a place open to the public.
“This place was in ruins,” said Offaim, who spent more than a year overseeing a restoration project that has now resulted in three bright and airy rooms with exposed stone walls and windows looking out to the gardens. “There was a lot of thought and care put into it.”
Offaim, who is a contributing food writer for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, also puts a lot of thought and care into the food. The ingredients come from two organic and sustainable farms that he runs with three business partners, or from other similar farmers.
The menu contains creative items like homemade pumpkin jam, lima bean hummus, and traditional Middle Eastern burekas pastries made from croissant dough. “I like to serve it as a workers’ meal,” he said. “This is not a treat, and it shouldn’t be seen as a treat, it’s just good food.”
He says the values of his food and agriculture also honor the legacy of the hospital. “We are sitting on what was a sustaining farm for the lepers,” Offaim said. “And we are fortunate enough nearly 150 years later to be once again serving food on this beautiful community compound.” Occasionally, people arrive to the restored compound looking for treatment for leprosy, which infects about ten people here each year. The management refers them to an outpatient clinic run by Hadassah Medical Center in downtown Jerusalem that now handles all cases of Hansen’s disease.