When archeologists started digging less than a kilometer from my home on Kibbutz Hannaton where a new traffic intersection is being built, as is routine here in Israel before major construction, it did not occur to me they might find something that would impact me personally.
I live in Lower Galilee, in the Jezreel Valley, which is a location full of rich history for Jews, Christians and Muslims. It is also a place where people of all three Abrahamic religions reside together to this day – living out the consequences of the conflictual history that they share.
I run a mikveh, a ritual pool, on Kibbutz Hannaton, just 15 minutes from where the Mishnah was compiled in Zipori, twenty minutes from Nazareth and half an hour from where Jesus had his transformative mikveh experience when, according to Mathew 3:16: “heaven was opened, and [Jesus] saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.” Pilgrims flock to various baptismal sites on the Jordan River claimed to be the spot where this most famous immersion took place. They don white robes and are baptized, one by one, in the waters where Jesus immersed. It is a sight to behold.
Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body and Soul, is the only mikveh in Israel open to anyone who wants to immerse and in the manner in which they choose. People come to us, too, from all over the world – to study, look inward, and immerse – for group workshops and study sessions, couple and individual immersion ceremonies, or just to see what a mikveh looks like. We are open to people of all ages, faiths and genders. It is a unique place where magical things happen.
So I should not have been so surprised when the most impressive Second Temple mikveh yet to be found in Lower Galilee was uncovered just a two-minute bike ride from this special modern-day mikveh. When I heard, I went to the dig site to see the mikveh and speak to the archeologists involved. I was greeted by two Muslim Arab archeologists: Dr. Walid Atrash, who lives not far from Hannaton in the village of Daboriya, and Abed Al-Gani, who lives in nearby Nazareth. They – who know more about mikveh than most Jews in Israel do! – were both just as moved as I was about this find.
I told them about Shmaya, and they were fascinated. I invited them to visit our mikveh and even immerse. Their eyes opened wide and then gleamed with curiosity and excitement. I asked what the plans were for this ancient mikveh, assuming there would be a national park created to display it. They told me the plan was to destroy it, after proper photos and documentation took place, as the new traffic intersection is slated to be built right where it stands. Innocently, I asked if it could be moved. They said that was possible, given the right permits and funding could be obtained.
“Could it be moved next to our mikveh?” I asked, pointing towards my kibbutz.
“If you have a spot for it, sure,” they said.
A week later, they showed up to see our modern-day mikveh and discuss this plan. Was it just a pipe dream, or could it actually happen? By then, I had discovered that I was not the only one who was dreaming about moving this mikveh to Hannaton. A few tour guide friends of mine from the kibbutz – one who even sits on the mikveh committee! – had similar thoughts and had started looking into what permits and funding would be needed.
When Dr. Walid walked into the Shmaya building, standing before our working mikveh, his face lit up: “This is designed like a Roman period mikveh,” he explained. “Notice how the steps are more narrow than the pool, as opposed to the one we found from the 2nd Temple Period, where the steps are as wide as the pool.”
I invited him again to immerse in the mikveh, explaining that this was the only human-built mikveh in Israel today where someone not Jewish could immerse. And, synchronistic as it is, we just happen to be a kilometer away from the mikveh he uncovered, which may just be the discovery of his career.
He explained that he was in a hurry to get back to the site, as one of many groups coming to see the mikveh before it would be destroyed was scheduled to arrive soon. He said he wanted to come when he could be relaxed and spend quality time immersing. Before he left, we all agreed to do what we could to save the mikveh.
What other mikveh in the world could host an immersion ceremony by a Muslim archeologist, marking his discovery of a 2000-year old mikveh just minutes away?! Especially if you add to the story that the restoration artist who will do the job of transporting and restoring the mikveh is named Yeshu (Hebrew for Jesus, or literally “salvation”)! And if our plan succeeds, we will also be the only mikveh in the world with an ancient mikveh sitting alongside our modern one.
Our dream is to restore the mikveh so that visitors who prefer to immerse in an ancient mikveh rather than a modern one can do so. Apparently, this is possible. But first, most important is to save the mikveh from destruction. What a privilege it would be to be able to invite Dr. Walid to immerse in the very mikveh he uncovered and we helped bring back to life. But even if we cannot make this ancient mikveh usable again, the thought that people can see a mikveh that stood in this same place 2,000 years ago before immersing in a modern one that looks so similar, is moving enough.
Magical things do happen at Shmaya. Please help us add this one to the list. If we do not act quickly, this amazing find will be lost. As I write this piece, construction continues on the new intersection. While we have managed to obtain the proper permits and even the support of the proper authorities – the Antiquities Authority, the Highway Authority, The Jezreel Valley Regional Council – we do not have the funding to cut the mikveh out of the ground and transfer it to its newly awaiting home next to the Shmaya mikveh.
If we reach our fundraising goal, we will be able to provide visitors with a powerful experience that crosses boundaries of time and space. In fact, the Antiquities Authority has committed to lending us other area finds to help create an educational and experiential archeological park around the mikveh and another archeological find that already exists on Hannaton – a 3,500-year-old Canaanite wine press.
This will add a whole new dimension to the Water and Wine tours my life partner, Jacob, co-founder of the Jezreel Valley Winery on Hannaton, and I already offer, and will be a great stop for tour guides to bring groups in general who want to learn about life past and present in the Lower Galilee.
But first, we must save the mikveh before it’s too late! This is a unique opportunity that would be a shame to miss.
If you would like to contribute to this effort, we have set up a campaign to quickly raise the necessary funds. Contribute what you can now via the Jewcer crowdfunding mechanism right below this paragraph (just click on the gray box with the three lines and scroll down), and earn the satisfaction of helping to bridge history with present in a place that is on the cutting edge, with an eye towards the future.