The mosaic floor at Moshav Shavei Zion

Story by Cecily Hanson    Photos: Avron Moss

On a sunny day in May, ESRA travellers boarded our bus for a two-day overnight trip to the Western coast and Galilee. Our first stop was the Tunisian Synagogue ‘Or Torah’ in Akko, known as the “Djerba”.

It is the only one of its kind in the world, covered in mosaics – both inside and out, the outcome of 54 years of work and the dream of Akko resident Zion Badasche, depicting the history of the Jewish people and of the Land of Israel through Bible stories, flora and fauna, IDF corps and more.

The synagogue boasts seven Torah arks, with engraved silver doors, and houses millions of natural stones from all over Israel.

Next stop was the mosaic floor at Moshav Shavei Zion, situated near the lovely beach promenade. These remains from a Byzantine church were discovered in 1955 and dated to the 4th century AD.

The excavations include an Artesian aquifer which serviced both the fishing village located nearby and pilgrims who stopped on their way to and from Lebanon.

We then made our way from the blue sea to the green Galilee, to Moshav Betzet to visit Idan and Nadav. This young couple have combined their life experience and academic knowledge to develop a business producing 100% natural dried fruit with no preservatives, sugar or gluten. They call their business “Idan Hapri” (Fruit Age), also a pun on her name, focusing on healthy and tasty foods.

Sara tells the family story in the Plia Center for Bukharin Jews at Kfar Vradim

Idan gave us a tour of the banana plantation and explained about the various types and how they grow. In the product display area, she gave us another informative talk on dried fruit, with an opportunity to taste and to buy.

Our next stop was Mi’ilya, one of two villages in the Galilee which are solely Christian Melkite Greek Catholic. It enjoys a high socio-economic standard of living (compared to Moslem communities) and many of its residents are professionals.

Mi'ilya was built over the ruins of the 12th century fortress, by the Crusader King Baldwin III, and called the “King’s Fortress” (Chateau de Roi, Castellum Regis). The site was previously a large Bronze and Iron age city, identified as “Aloth”, one of the cities of King Solomon.

During the 17th century, a group of Greek Catholics migrated from Lebanon to the village, and its former Muslim residents moved out to a nearby village (Tarshiha) and their mosque was levelled. In 1845, they built the church on top of the hill on the ruins of the Crusader fortress, naming it after the Virgin Mary.

We slept overnight at “The Hacienda Forest View” just outside Ma’alot-Tarshiha, a lovely place in a pastoral setting of rich green woods.

After an excellent breakfast we drove to Kfar Vradim where our guide Adina explained the background of this lovely “village of roses” founded by Stef Wertheimer as part of the Tefen Industrial Park.

The house of Sara and Avraham “Hatzadik” Heil stands out because of its extraordinary structure. Built by Avraham himself, all rooms are round, and the ceilings are domed. 

Avraham, a convert of English descent, and Sara, a Jew of Bukharin descent, decided to dedicate the building to the people of Sara's community.

Now called the Plia Center for Bukharin Jews, visitors are greeted by Bukharan music and Sara introduces herself, in perfect English, and tells the family story in an amusing and entertaining way.

She recalls that when she came to Israel at the age of six, her parents clothed her in traditional clothes and she became a laughing stock in the eyes of the Israeli-born children and felt very embarrassed. She decided to disassociate herself from her Bukharan heritage.

Magnificent seven ... the Tunisian shul in Akko which boasts seven Torah arks

While Andrew was building the house, he discovered Judaism and decided to convert. He changed his name to Avraham, the couple became more religious and Sara also returned to her Bukharan roots.

The sudden death of her daughter Plia who died nine weeks after birth, drove her to name the center in memory of her daughter. From that time, the house has been open to visitors, displaying photos of Sara's family and many traditional artifacts of the Jews of Bukhara.

In the Druze town of Hurfeish,  we visited the Heritage Center in memory of Colonel Nabiya Mer’i (below left) who was the highest-ranking Druze officer killed in the course of his military service during the period that followed the Oslo Agreements.

The Heritage Center teaches not only about the image of a commander in the IDF, but also about the connection of the Druze community to the IDF and Israeli society.

Colonel Nabiya Mer’i

The final visit of the trip – the highlight of the two days – was at Kibbutz Ga’aton where we watched a rehearsal of the Kibbutz Contemporary Dance Company. KCDC is one of the leading dance companies in the world, founded in 1973 by the late Yehudit Arnon, who laid the foundation for a first-class dance center.

The International Dance Village comprises nearly 80 Israeli and international dancers with international study abroad programs called Dance Journey. There are also year-round and summer intensive courses for both international and Israeli dancers.

The founder Yehudit, was born in Kumarno, Czechoslovakia, and survived World War ll as a young girl in the Auschwitz death camp. After liberation she moved to Budapest and joined Hashomer Hatzair.

In 1948, together with her husband Yedidia, she arrived in Israel with the first group of pioneers from Hungary, who established Kibbutz Ga’aton in Western Galilee.

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