Milk, honey and massage

Former German-Christian Templar settlements of Beit Lehem Haglilit and Alonei Abba offer a variety of sights and tastes, but also history.

templer church 298 (photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
templer church 298
(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
One is spoiled for choice when visiting the former Templar settlement of Beit Lehem Haglilit. This German-built gem is tucked away neatly in a nook of the Jezreel Valley between the Beduin village of Bosmat Tivon and Ramat Yishai, a short distance from the bustling and ever-expanding shopping area of Alonim on the Migdal Ha'emek-Nazareth road. In the folds of undulating hills covered by oak trees and small fields brimming with crops of many colors and flavors, sit two villages founded by the Templars, a German-Christian sect who settled Beit Lehem Haglilit in 1906 and neighboring Alonei Abba a year later. The villages lie nestled between several hundred acres of nature reserve rich in Tavor oaks, and the impressive majestic and solid trees line both sides of the approach road. In times of yore, such natural forests would have been the norm from Caesarea to the western Galilee. Most of the German Templars were ousted from Palestine by the British, and the remnants were sent packing in l947 when the Hagana captured Beit Lehem Haglilit. Jewish immigrants moved into the elegant two-story houses (at first with a number of families in each building), formed a moshav and began a new life as farmers. Some residents of the upscale two-street Beit Lehem Haglilit and single-street Alonei Abba still make their living from agriculture. Cow barns and hothouses sit pretty behind beautifully renovated former Templar abodes and some lovely tended gardens. In Beit Lehem Haglilit, former farm buildings surrounding attractive courtyards have been converted into chic galleries, studios, coffee bars and eateries. There's even an extremely inviting spa in what were once stables and cowsheds behind one pleasant residence. One can learn a great deal about the German founders and former residents of Beit Lehem Haglilit and Alonei Abba (then known as Waldheim) at a home-museum documenting in photographs and memorabilia the previous residents, who formed the first Nazi party youth movement outside Germany in the l930s. A leisurely stroll is enough to take in the marvelous Templar architecture - not only the individual houses but also the large and impressive community center (Beit Ha'Am) and huge stone water tower at its side. A few houses down from Beit Ha'Am live Kobi and Nurit Fleischman. The Fleischman abode is both the family nest and a museum chronicling the history of the Templars and the Jewish settlers who moved in after their expulsion. Nurit's parents were among the first Jewish settlers living in the house that she today shares with tour guide and Templar expert Kobi. A little further down the road, the Brandes family have opened their successful dairy farm to the public, offering a chance to relish a freshly-made glass of milk chocolate, pet various farm animals and learn the ins and outs of manufacturing milk and dairy products. Youthful guides kitted out in farm logo black T-shirts and wide-brimmed straw cowboy hats turn a twirl around the barns into an entertaining and educational experience. Squeals of delight emanate from young children as they master milking a cow by hand, figure out how the mechanical milking equipment works and try their hand at bottle-feeding a newly-born calf. More energetic visitors can rent bicycles from Ofek B'Shetach and pedal through the surrounding forests and fields. The bike shop also offers guided two-wheeled tours of the area, and professional advice to the increasing number of weekend riders. After a stressful week at work - or same-day strenuous bike ride - a visit to the Magic Touch Spa run by Yoram and Nehama Medan may help relieve aches, pains and overworked brains. The former horse stables and cow barns in the Medan rear courtyard are now a rather special, homely and welcoming health spa with a host of treatments on offer. Framed black-and-white photographs hang on the walls between the small but pleasant treatment rooms: images of old-time farmers tending their cows and horses stalled in the very buildings where nowadays the only things with four legs are massage tables. The photos help the visitor appreciate the creativity of Nehama, a social worker and couples' therapist and Yoram, who runs professional massage and specialized therapy workshops. The Medans have combined their professional skills and experiences to develop a unique format of couples coaching in their backyard spa. Several restaurants have come and gone in the village since Yossi Gillerman established Provence BaGalil 11 years ago. Gillerman, a history teacher and researcher during the week, is also a trained chef specializing in French cuisine. The restaurant, which is open only at weekends, draws discerning customers who can afford the gastronomic experience and rural European ambience of this charming century-old building and lush courtyard. For a cup of coffee and to sit and enjoy the architecture and general atmosphere, a small hole-in-the-wall cafe with a clothing and knick-knack shop in the cellar can be found adjacent to the water tower. Paintings, ceramics, candles, oils and soaps are just some of the other items in galleries and small businesses dotted around the moshav. Either on the way in or out of Beit Lehem Haglilit, take the long, winding and somewhat dusty road that begins just before the entrance to the village to an aromatic and culinary delight: a herb farm offering an unbelievable choice of herbs and tasty preparations, from halva to dried fruits. A blaze of bright colors and nostril-pleasing scents almost floor folk as they enter the spacious visitors' center and lecture area - the spectacular view of the seemingly endless crop fields of the Jezreel Valley, above and beyond the tops of long rows of organically cultivated colorful and aromatic herbs behind the shopping facility. Expert advice is on hand regarding the medicinal qualities of some of the over 500 herbs, herbal and dried fruit mixes from Israel and abroad on offer at this spicy corner of the valley. Just a short distance down the road at Alonei Abba (Waldheim), a small new neighborhood greets visitors at the entrance to the smaller of the two Templar villages. The original houses and a few modern-built ones in between form a cozy and pleasant-to-the-eye little Jewish village with a picturesque church at its center. The Evangelical church at Alonei Abba, built in 1916, was the only house of worship constructed by the Templar sect in Israel and, like the community center in Beit Lehem Haglilit, a blue heritage sign affixed to the outer wall contains a short explanation about the structure. Next door to the church, a local artist - who grew up in Alonei Abba - has her home, studio and gallery. A friendly sign outside the Gallery of Hanna reads: "Please, do come in," for those who would like to hear about pre-tourist times in Alonei Abba. So much to see, smell, taste and touch in Beth Lehem Haglilit and Alonei Abba - villages with a rather dark past but a bright, aromatic and very relaxing present and future.