Russia was not a friendly place for Jews at the start of the 20th century. Motivated by pogroms, a number of Jews decided it was time to leave and head to the Land of Israel. In 1907, a group of these immigrants founded an organization called Bar Giora with a twofold intention: to settle the land and to guard Jewish communities that were being terrorized by neighboring Arabs.
After successfully preventing a massacre at Mes'ha, Bar Giora found itself with an influx of applicants. The new recruits spent a year in training, and in 1909, Bar Giora became an organized unit called Hashomer. These guardians eventually wanted to put down some roots, and they established Kibbutz Kfar Giladi (named for a Hashomer founder, Israel Giladi) on a hilltop in Galilee, about five kilometers south of Metulla. They even brought the wives and orphans of fallen comrades with them to make sure they would be cared for.
The first permanent structure the Shomrim erected in Kfar Giladi was called Beit Rishonim. That stone building still stands, and on a recent press trip to the area, I had the privilege of imbibing Shabbat eve cocktails on its lawn.
Even though Hashomer eventually merged with the Hagana in 1920, its legacy still casts a spell over Kfar Giladi. At the entrance to the settlement is the Beit Hashomer Museum. It overlooks the Hula Valley, the Kfar Giladi cemetery and Tel Hai - symbols of the area's agricultural and military past. The cornerstone of Beit Hashomer was laid in March 1966, though the museum didn't actually open until May 1969. It was revamped in time for Hashomer's centenary, and the famous words of David Ben-Gurion - "The IDF has many fathers, but only one grandfather: Hashomer" - hang prominently near the entrance.
The Defense Ministry-supported museum boasts Hashomer's original flag, made of a tallit, along with many other "artifacts" from the organization's history. In addition, there are short films shown on screens throughout the museum and letters from Hashomer members they had sent back home. A well-made introductory film in the auditorium gives visitors a general understanding of Hashomer's activities, placing the group in its historical and contemporary contexts.
The military pride associated with Kfar Giladi comes from more than Hashomer: Near the gate to the kibbutz is the famous Kfar Giladi cemetery, with its Roaring Lion statue and the communal grave of Yosef Trumpeldor and his seven comrades, who fell at the battle of Tel Hai in 1920. As he lay dying, Trumpeldor reportedly uttered words that became a symbol of Zionism: "It is no matter. It is good to die for our homeland."
Sculptor Avraham Melnikov unveiled the statue in 1934 and it has since become a symbol of Zionist heroism.
Right outside the cemetery housing the lion is a small memorial to 12 reservists who were called up during the Second Lebanon War and were killed by a Katyusha rocket while waiting to be shuttled to the front.
WHILE ALL of the aforementioned military heroism associated with Kfar Giladi is well-known and celebrated, within the community a military secret was kept hidden for about 50 years. It was only made public in 1996: Kfar Giladi was home to about 20 underground weapons caches. Once Hashomer was disbanded, its members continued to collect arms and to aid illegal immigrants in reaching the Land of Israel. Three of those caches survived the years, and visitors can enter one of them when accompanied by a guide.
The tour is accompanied by tales and explanations that were passed down quietly through the years about the weapons accumulations. The cache is hidden below a building and is revealed when a piece of machinery is moved aside - but I won't say which! The room is accessible by ladder only, but it's worth it if you can make the climb down.
Although military history plays an important part in Kfar Giladi tourism, there's more to the kibbutz than its fallen fighters. Aside from the full-facility hotel (see box, page 7), there is also a developing lane of art galleries. A renovated pedestrian street fittingly called Rehov Halulim (Chicken Coop Street - because all the buildings on it once housed kibbutz fowl) is home to a few galleries, with more set to open soon. Visitors can browse and purchase ceramics, jewelry, paintings and decorative objects created by local artists. One of the galleries is a cooperative effort of 12 Upper Galilean women who felt they needed an outlet for their creativity.
Parallel to Rehov Halulim is another pedestrian walkway, this one lined with a man-made stream and trees. It's a pleasant place to sit or stroll. Plus, the kibbutz itself is fun to explore - see if you can find your way to a parked plane and a petting zoo.
Not far from Kfar Giladi are other attractions, both natural and man-made. For a bit of outdoor fun - or even a full day of it - visitors can head to the Manara Cliff, located near the southern entrance to Kiryat Shmona, about 7 km. from Kfar Giladi. Manara offers Israel's longest cable-car ride (1,940 meters) at an altitude of 750 meters. It allows for some spectacular views, but the ride is not the smoothest - so the faint of heart should probably sit this one out.
The cliff was hit during the Second Lebanon War and had to be closed down to rebuild what was destroyed, so everything is in top condition.
In addition to the cable car, Manara has alpine slides that traverse 1,200 meters. The ride starts at the bottom of the hill, where a two-person cart is connected to a cable that brings it 250 meters up the mountain. Once disconnected from the cable, the cart runs down the track. While riders have a brake, my slide partner and I saw no need to use it on our visit (supposedly, you can reach up to 40 kph). Full speed ahead!
Spread at different altitudes along the cliff are other attractions, including a trampoline with a bungee feature, rappelling, a zip line, a climbing wall and a restaurant.
IN CASE it wasn't obvious by now, the North has a strange mix of beautiful scenery, outdoor fun and tragic history. A perfect example of this is the Benaya Overlook. Named for Capt. Benaya Rein, the memorial at the entrance to Kibbutz Misgav Am takes in a view of Galilee, the Golan, Hula Valley and Lebanese border. Rein was killed in action during the Second Lebanon War while running crucial rescue missions and supply lines to troops over the Lebanese border. His tank was hit by an anti-tank missile on August 12, 2006; Rein was 27 when he and his comrades were killed.
The overlook named for him features a lavender-lined ramp and stairs up to a shady pergola where visitors get a breathtaking vista. At 740 meters above sea level, the site is located in the middle of a forest that was decimated by rocket fire during the war three years ago. Depending on the season, tourists might spot thousands of migrating birds or the snowcapped peaks of the Syrian Hermon (even as late as June there is still a bit of white). There are benches for relaxing up there, and new trees planted by the Jewish National Fund are giving the area an air of rejuvenation. A pair of binoculars would make the experience even more interesting.
People interested in a yet-more-spectacular view can go into the kibbutz, about another 100 meters up, and visit its lookout for a small fee. A walking trail leads out from that site into a cedar grove. Also nearby is a cafe (Cafe Basof Haderech) with a similarly stunning panorama.
For a different kind of memorial, visitors to the area may want to stop at the Helicopter Disaster monument. For those who don't recall, on February 4, 1997 two helicopters took off from Mahanayim and were meant to head into Lebanon to drop off and pick up soldiers. It was a stormy night, and the two choppers ended up colliding in midair, near She'ar Yashuv. All 73 men on board died. The cause of the crash remains unclear, but it devastated the entire country.
After years of planning, an 11-dunam memorial was unveiled in late 2007 on the site of the crash. It is composed of several parts, including 73 large Galilee stones - one stone per soldier - arranged as individual monuments that make up a whole. A fountain in the center features the names of the soldiers. A water channel flows from the fountain and leads toward the spot where one of the helicopters hit the ground, near a branch of the Dan River. It passes another memorial that tells the story of the disaster. The canal leads to a small bridge and the site of the crash, near a fig tree. Hanging all around in the little cove are stones with the soldiers' names and candles. It is a truly moving sight.
Once you've had your fill of military heroics and tragedies, you can grab a kayak and go for a ride, hop into a 4x4 for some on-land adventures, kick back at a local restaurant or head to your hotel for some spa relaxation or swimming.
That's the beauty of the North - you can have it all! n