Jewish history in the Golan Heights dates back thousands of years. The Golan Heights is named after the biblical city of Golan, located in the region of Bashan, which appears in the bible. The area historically served as a buffer zone between the Land of Israel and other northern lands, and not much has changed. From the Roman period (1st century BCE) through the Byzantine period (mid 7th century CE) the Golan was home a vast Jewish population.
At its height, the Jewish population of the Golan Heights is estimated at over 100,000 people. Remnants of 25 synagogues have been discovered by archaeologists, though not all have been excavated.
Among the many synagogues found in the Golan Heights is that of Umm El Kanatir, or, “Mother of Arcs”. The synagogue found at the site is one of the most elaborate and impressive synagogues of its time. The building was two stories high and was characterized by ornate mosaics and detailed engravings into its many supporting pillars. Due to the ornate nature of the synagogue, it was believed that the Jewish residents of the town at Umm El Kanatir were extremely wealthy.
How did the Jews gain their wealth? At the time, Tiberius was a thriving Roman city and linen was in high demand. The residents made their living by producing and whitening linen and selling it to the region’s elite. In order to whiten the linen, pools using spring water and runoff from rainy seasons were built and arches were constructed to provide shade to the pools. These pools were surrounded by blossoming fig trees and also provided water to the community.
So, what became of the community? What caused the demise of the Jewish settlement of the Golan Heights? Those who survived the Persian invasion of 614 and the Arab invasion of 636 finally succumbed to the devastating earthquake of 638 CE, which leveled the synagogue at Umm El Kanatir and most of the other cities and towns in the Golan. No longer sustainable, the area was deserted for over 1,000 years.
Fortunately, the story doesn’t end here. In 2003, a restoration project was inaugurated. The synagogue is currently being reconstructed through high-tech methods not used anywhere else in Israel. Stones are being coded and digitally recorded, then blocks are labeled with computer chips and a special crane lifts the blocks and puts them back in place according to their sequence. Think of a deluxe jigsaw. Now multiply that by 1000, and you have some idea of the scale of this project.
Furthermore, the same pools that were used by the Jewish community survived the earthquake and are still standing. Over the past millennium, the pools have developed their own miniature ecosystems which includes tadpoles and frogs, all sorts of amphibians, as well as bird life and other fauna and flora which is indigenous to the Golan Heights.
The natural stream which feeds these pools created a perfect opportunity for SPNI’s “Stream Guardians” program to adopt the site. Within the framework of the “Stream Guardians” program, elementary school children learn about damage caused to water habitats and streams, how to rehabilitate the areas, and are mobilized and empowered to adopt positive action and create change in their surroundings. The program exposes elementary school students to subjects such as: biodiversity, recycling, global warming, and more. Children in the program learn about ecological challenges in three separate meetings, and then adopt a stream where they take an active part in SPNI’s efforts to raise awareness of the streams and their importance in Israel’s nature.
At the site of Umm El Kanatir, 25 children from the 5th grade learn through a very “hands-on” approach. After spending three sessions in the classroom learning about the history and Jewish heritage of the site, SPNI’s youth are connected with their very own “hands on” ecological laboratory. Upon arriving to the site, the children research the water levels in the pools, as well as record PH levels and test oxygen counts in the water. Children are able to experience the ecosystem first hand and will continue to care for and nurture the site of the pools. Two millennium later, in the close proximity of the ancient synagogue at Umm El Kanatir, Jewish children are experiencing the power of the living, thriving history, and creating connections to the Land that will last a lifetime.
Who we are:
The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) is Israel’s leading environmental non-profit organization. SPNI is dedicated to protecting and preserving Israel’s natural resources, environment, natural assets and unique landscape. The work carried out by SPNI now will directly determine what the land of Israel will look like in 50 years. Israel has reached a critical point in its development; its water resources had been overstretched and mismanaged, its energy policies are outdated and must be amended to meet present and future demands and new energy sources. A small country, the size of New Jersey, Israel’s open spaces are under increased pressure from land developers or already destroyed. These open spaces are vital for the safety of Israel’s biodiversity and wellbeing of its human population. For 60 years, SPNI has been educating for the love of the Land. SPNI is working tirelessly with policy makers and the public to create a sustainable future for Israel in the 21st Century, ensuring the protection of the Land for years to come.
To gain a share in the Land of Israel, join us by becoming a member today! Yearly memberships start at $54 and are tax deductible. For more information visit www.aspni.org and click “Donate” or contact Robin Gordon at [email protected]