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Touring Israeli Historical Places with ESRA

Michal and I recently enjoyed a day trip organized by ESRA, the English Speaking Residents Association. ESRA provides numerous social activities for Israelis who are comfortable speaking English while funding diverse charitable projects for all Israelis. While not my usual hike with ESRA, this tour, nicely coordinated by Ruthie, was an enjoyable and educational trip with decidedly less exertion than a hike.

Our first stop was Rishon LeZion, population about 250,000 people, the fourth largest city in Israel, located about five miles south of Tel Aviv. Adina, our excellent guide, told us that Rishon was founded on July 31, 1882 by just 10 Jewish immigrants who came from Russia. It is the second Jewish farm settlement established in Ottoman-controlled Palestine during a period of national awakening throughout the West. 

Rishon LeZion’s name is taken from a Hebrew biblical verse that means, “First to Zion are they, and I shall give herald to Jerusalem.” So how is it that Israel’s second city is called the first (rishon) in Zion? The reason is that it was the first project with new immigrants to Palestine as part of the First Aliyah (1881-1903). Aliyah/Going up, which is a Zionist concept, is the ongoing nationalistic “ingathering” project which followed the middle 19th century immigration of religious Jews to Israel.  

The flag of Israel was created and then raised for the first time in Rishon LeZion as a part of a celebration of the village’s 3rd anniversary in 1885. A year later, the Haviv Elementary School was established as the first modern school in the land, with Hebrew as the language of instruction. (At the time, this was controversial; German or French was customary.) The school is adjacent to the town’s oldest synagogue, built despite opposition from the Ottoman government and financial distress.

Located just across the street from the school and synagogue is the Rishon LeZion Museum. Its mission is to present and pass on the town’s local history as well as its contribution to creating Israel’s national symbols and new Israeli cultural values: flag and anthem, Hebrew language and native Israeli culture. We like these small museums which have an educational film, a limited number of exhibits, are usually located in an historic site, and give one a sense of the place. There was extra emphasis on funder Baron Edmond de Rothschild and on Naftali Herz Imber, who created the national anthem HaTikva (the hope), as well as the homestead on which the museum is located. 

After leaving the center of town, we went to the very interesting Leaders Park within the city’s limits. This park is best known for the striking statues of some of Israel’s most important leaders, such as David Ben-Gurion, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Chaim Weizmann, Golda Meir, and Theodor Herzl, whose “dream” of a Jewish State predated Israel’s independence by half a century. The statues are giant busts of the leaders, circling a pool with a striking sculpture in the middle representing the Menorah – the symbol of Israel. Nearby there are large plaques with details of each of the leaders and a separate area dedicated to the countries which voted for the 1947 UN Partition Plan for Palestine. This vote led directly to Israel’s Declaration of Independence five and a half months later in May 1948.

To learn a lot more about this pioneering town, see http://sightseeinginisrael.com/rishon-le-zion/

For me, the most interesting part of the day was in Rehovot to tour the Ayalon Institute, which Michal and I have visited a few times before, the first time on a synagogue sponsored trip in the early1980s. Located just south of Rishon LeZion, the 140,000 strong city was founded in 1890 by a group of pioneers from Warsaw. Like nearly all of the Jewish developments in Palestine, it was built on land that was purchased from its owners – often absentee landlords in Beirut, Damascus, or Cairo. 

This city of science and technology is the home of the Weizmann Institute, one of the world’s leading multidisciplinary, basic research institutions of the natural and exact sciences. On its beautiful campus is the beautiful International Style home of first President, Chaim Weizmann, complete with the Lincoln limousine donated to President Weizmann by Henry Ford II. (There’s a great cafe/restaurant on campus as well.) Located nearby is the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment, which offers various tracks for visiting students and scientists from around the world, most from developing countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe. This institution has helped propel Israel to a leading role globally in these fields.

The fascinating and amazing story: Located on a kibbutz which was a kibbutz in name only, the Ayalon Institute (its name was taken from a former tenant of the building) housed a very secret underground ammunition factory. It was built underneath a bakery and nearby laundry which were part of the supposed kibbutz designed to fool the British back in the 1940s, when Britain ruled over the Jews and Arabs in Palestine while fighting the Axis powers. The laundry’s loud equipment camouflaged the machines secreted below. The Jewish Palestinians – that’s what they were called in contrast to the Arab Palestinians before Israel’s independence – of the Haganah used the secret ammunition factory in the fight for the independent state of Israel. The Haganah was the Zionist military organization representing the majority of the Jews in Palestine from 1920 to 1948.

The Haganah went to extreme measures to build and sustain this secret factory within the “kibbutz,” often using British trucks to transport the disassembled parts of the required machinery for the factory, parts which were imported to Palestine under the noses of the British. Between 1945 and 1948, the Ayalon Institute produced more than 2 million 9mm bullets. See Note below.

The whole operation was top secret, employing only a portion of the workers on the “kibbutz.” There were many schemes that were implemented to conceal the factory, which was never discovered despite the British army soldiers nearby. Of course, the accompanying film was interesting and informative. For more information, see https://www.touristisrael.com/ayalon-institute/16168/  Also, the film “Exodus” shows the Haganah utilizing British army vehicles and uniforms for the Jewish cause.

Our last stop before the bus trip home was to the center of Rehovot, where we saw some of the beautiful “millionaires” homes built by successful early settlers and walked through the small but beautiful Rina Smilansky biblical garden. So ended an enjoyable day touring a few towns in central Israel. Ruthie and Adina did a fine job and Michal and I will no doubt join other such tours in the future. Visitors planning a trip to Israel can find out about tours like this from the ESRA.org.il website.

Note: “The Sten’s simplistic design allowed it to be produced in shops around the world as well, just as it had during WWII. Among the most prolific examples were those produced in the Palestine Mandate in the late 1940s. These were produced on various kibbutzim—the Jewish collective communities that supplied weapons and material to the Haganah and other Jewish paramilitary groups. According to some accounts, the Jewish-made copies were of superior quality to the actual British-made versions.” 

https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/meet-sten-gun

The Haganah’s homemade Sten guns which used the Ayalon bullets were inscribed with the letters, USA, a stratagem to confuse the British about their origin. The letters actually stood for “Unser shtikel arbeit,” our piece of work in Yiddish.

About the Author
Steve Kramer grew up in Atlantic City, graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1967, adopted the hippie lifestyle until 1973, then joined the family business for 15 years. Steve moved to Israel from Margate, NJ in 1991 with his family. He has written more than 1100 articles about Israel and Jews since making Aliyah. Steve and his wife Michal live in Kfar Saba.
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