The Ancient Synagogue at Ein Keshatot
Of the 125 ancient synagogues discovered in Israel, 31 were in the Golan Heights. The reconstructed synagogue in Ein Keshatot is recognized as the largest and most impressive in the Golan, and this visitor-friendly site is deservedly popular.
VISITING THE SYNAGOGUE
Directions: Enter “Ein Keshatot” into Waze and click on “Ein Keshatot.
Admission details: The site is open from March to October: Sunday to Thursday: 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, Friday and holidays eves: 9:00 am to 4:00 pm, Saturday: 9:00 am to 6:00 pm. November to February: Sunday to Thursday: 9:00 am to 4:00 pm, Friday and holidays eves: 9:00 am to 3:00 pm, Saturday: 9:00 am to 4:00 pm. The last entry is one hour before closing. Admission is 25 nis for adults, and 15 nis for children older than 5 and pensioners. This is their website.
WHAT WAS THE POINT OF REBUILDING AN ANCIENT SYNAGOGUE?
A Jewish community lived at this location during the Byzantine period, but its name is unknown. The local Bedouin called the ruins “Um el-Kanatir,” meaning the Site of the Arches because of the arches by the pools, and the site is now called Ein Keshatot, Spring of the Arches.
In the late 1800’s, Laurence Oliphant, a Scottish Christian Zionist who explored the country, suspected that there was an ancient synagogue here. He wrote that this was “the best of the discoveries that I have ever made.” Oliphant’s discovery is all the more remarkable in that all he was looking at were piles of stones.
One hundred and twenty years later, in 2003, Yehoshua Dray, an expert in reconstruction technology, decided to rebuild the synagogue using the piles of stones. He and two archeologists set up a crane, made a 3D digital scan of each of the blocks, placed a microchip in each block, and used a newly devised computer program to assign all the blocks to their correct position rather than using intuition. It took them ten years.
Jews settled here in about 150 CE, about 14 years after the Bar Kochba Revolt, and the synagogue was built in the 6th century. An interesting question is why a small community like this of about 50 people, maximum 100 people, would go to the effort and considerable expense of building such a monumental synagogue. It would also have taken them years to build. The same question could be asked of other impressive community synagogues in the Galilee and Golan Heights. An answer may be that they were trying to recreate for themselves the magnificence of the Temple in Jerusalem. Jews were forbidden to enter Byzantine Jerusalem. At the site of the Temple was a Christian church. The Jews were close geographically to Jerusalem but very distant in terms of access. This synagogue could have been a way for the villagers to express their longing for the Temple. This would also explain much of the symbolism of the synagogue, particularly on the stone ark.
The synagogue and the villagers’ homes were destroyed by a severe earthquake in 749 CE and this village and others in the Golan were abandoned.
What was the point of reconstructing this synagogue from old building blocks? A ruin is a ruin. Just let it be.
A philosophical answer was given to me by a tour guide. Recreating the past is what Israel is all about. When the first Zionist pioneers came to Israel this entire country was a ruin. Jews have long memories and they are now recreating the history, beauty and fertility of the past. One might say, and the Torah does say this, that this whole country has been waiting centuries for reconstruction.
VISITING THE SITE:
You first view a movie about the reconstruction of the synagogue in the Visitor Center. Then make your way down the hill to the pools on the left. Two of the arches by the spring have been reconstructed. The one on the right needed to be dug out and uncovered. The purpose of the arches is unclear, but they were presumably for decoration. The two pools on the left were used for drinking for humans and animals, while the one on the right was for industrial use, and in particular for the whitening of flax for making clothing, which was an important industry here. This and the growing of olives and making olive oil were the main industries of this village.
Now make your way to the synagogue. The front entrance is on the southern wall, and this location seems to have been a local tradition. There is a covered patio supported by four pillars. The front of the building is not symmetrical in terms of the doorway and the position of the stone ark. The positions of the pillars are also not completely symmetrical. It would seem that symmetry was not as important to the architects of this building as symmetry is to us now. Notice the symbolism graven onto the pillars of the stone ark – a seven-branch menorah (candelabra), a lulav and esrog, which are two of the Four Species, and an incense shovel – all of which were used in the Temple. The stone ark would have contained a wooden ark for the Torah, but this has not survived. The pillars inside the building supported a second story.