Room at the inn

Founded by Finnish Christians, Yad Hashmona is now also home to Messianic Jews. For visitors there are a charming guest house and a biblical village.

Yad Hashmona’s watchtower (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Yad Hashmona’s watchtower
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
When a group of Christians from Finland asked the government of Israel for a plot of land on which to build a communal settlement, the response was slow to come. In the meantime, they waited in temporary quarters on the edge of Moshav Neveh Ilan just outside Jerusalem in the Judean Hills.
Finally, after months had passed, the Finns were told they could choose from several vacant elevated areas in the vicinity. They picked a hill right above Neveh Ilan, where they had often gone to pray. Devout believers in both the Old and New Testaments, they found the countryside on the slopes and the valleys below as biblical as you could get.
Contrary to what one might expect, the Finns did not move to Israel as a group. Indeed, the 15 singles, couples and families who came as volunteers in the 1960s worked in kibbutzim around the country and didn’t even know each other. But they all had one goal in mind: to show solidarity with Israel. In the early 1970s, they got together to build a settlement in the Land to commemorate the Jews that the Finnish government had sent to their deaths during the Holocaust.
The tiny new community was called Yad Hashmona (Monument to the Eight), named for eight Jewish refugees who had fled Austria in 1938 and reached safety in Finland.
Unfortunately for them, Finland collaborated with Germany during World War II. In 1942, the Jews – eight men, women and children – were turned over to the Germans and sent to the death camps. Only one of the group survived.
Wood and other materials for building Yad Hashmona were brought from Finland, including a sauna, something that no selfrespecting Finn would do without.
Yad Hashmona was run like a kibbutz, although there were no children’s houses. But property was communal as were the meals, and the settlement paid everyone’s bills. Not surprisingly, their first enterprise was a carpentry shop, where they produced beautiful wooden furniture.
Today a small but thriving community, Yad Hashmona runs a highly successful rustic guest house and offers sumptuous Friday brunches and features a fascinating Biblical Village. Like the kibbutzim, Yad Hashmona has had to make changes in its structure. These days, members have an income from work, are responsible for their own expenses and make their own decisions. The guest house pays for itself and, despite the settlement’s lack of a kashrut certificate, is packed with Israelis and tourists.
While similar in structure and enterprise to other communal settlements in Israel, Yad Hashmona’s population is unique. Not only have new Finnish Christians replaced those who have left or died, but all the other members are Israeli Jews – Messianic Israeli Jews, who celebrate bar and bat mitzvas, as well as all the Jewish holidays. They believe in the prophets and in miracles. They believe Moses brought the Hebrews out of Egypt and turned them into a nation under God with a framework of laws. And they accept Jesus of Nazareth as their messiah.
According to Zuriel Bar-David, who grew up in Yad Hashmona, there were only a few Messianic Jews in this country until the 20th century, when his paternal grandfather arrived. His name was Haim Haimov, and he was born to a wealthy secular family in Bulgaria. While studying at a Swiss university, he was introduced to the New Testament, and felt that it made a lot of sense.
He moved to Palestine in the 1920s.
On a return home to help with the family business, he met and married a Bulgarian Messianic Jew. When they came back to the Promised Land and settled in Ramat Gan, Haimov, his wife, and their eventual seven children became a nucleus for one of the country’s first Messianic Jewish communities.
Bar-David’s other grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, married a German Christian who had helped Room at the inn Yad Hashmona’s watchtower.
prisoners of war during World War II. She converted to Judaism, and the couple moved to Israel. Two of their children married two of Haimov’s sons. One of them is Bar-David’s father, and the other is his uncle Arie Bar-David.
Another Bar-David brother, Eli, served in the paratroopers (with my husband, as it happens). Some time later, he decided to volunteer at Yad Hashmona.
He liked the place so much that he became a member of the community; Bar-David’s family and other Messianic Jews followed.
A decade or so ago, Eli created the Biblical Village at Yad Hashmona. We toured the village with Bar-David , beginning with the spectacular view just below. Before I had time to wonder if we would be hearing a missionary message, something I wasn’t ready for, Bar-David assured us that while members of Yad Hashmona don’t hide who they are, they avoid any missionary activities.
“Anyone is welcome to come here and learn about us or they can discover who we are at work, school and the army – all the normal frameworks where you can discover someone as a person and hear what they believe in. I would never try to persuade anyone about my beliefs,” he stated.
OUR TOUR took place just before sundown, w h e n the view from Yad Hashmona is especially stunning. It had been very hot that day, but now the sun was gentle, there was a slight breeze, and the air was sweet.
The Biblical Village was created to let Israelis, and tourists, see with their own eyes how things worked in the days of the Bible.
“Someone who is here for his first or only time and has never seen the agricultural terraces of watchtowers mentioned in the Bible suddenly understands what they are,” remarked Bar-David, adding that Christians especially find a new spiritual significance to the passages in both Old and New Testaments.
Although we knew that there had been nothing on the site of the village before it was created, it was still hard for us to believe that the synagogue was new. Built with money received from Swiss and German organizations, the synagogue was designed and prepared by antique restoration expert Yeshua Dray. While the columns and curbstones are authentic, presented by the Israel Antiques Authority, everything else that looks antique is the product of artistic work.
Bar-David said that when he starts to talk about Yad Hashmona and the people who live there, tourists have a lot of questions. Christians, as well as Jews, find the subject of Messianic Judaism a bit strange. He said he expands on it only if asked. It is generally the Israelis who want to learn more about it, he noted.
Today there are between 12,000 and 15,000 Messianic Jews in Israel. Some, Bar-David said, are very close to Christianity in their beliefs; others are religious Jews. Most, however, stand somewhere in the middle.
After taking in the biblical view, we moved into the village synagogue for a description of the synagogue’s function before and after the fall of the Second Temple. The Beduin tent was the perfect place for us to listen to passages from Genesis, which included stories about family honor, a description of Abraham’s hospitality when three messengers came to see him, and the site where Sarah may have stood while listening to the three messengers.
We stopped at a little pool – manmade, of course – that gave rise to tales about biblical springs. Then we entered a cave that I could have sworn was several millennia old. But while the cave itself is new, the sarcophagi are authentic, dating back to the Roman era. They gave rise to a discussion about burial customs in the First and Second Temple periods: where bodies would have lain, where bones would have been collected, and where you would have stood if you were participating in some kind of ceremony.
Standing next to a cistern, our guide explained the difference between a well, from which water was collected from the aquifer, and cisterns, built to hold water from springs and rain. Indeed, the cistern was crucial to survival in ancient times.
“After an earthquake, when houses collapsed and people were hurt, survivors ran to the cistern to see they if it was still intact. If there was a crack, they knew the water would run out. They ran to the next one, and the next. Without water, there would be no grain, no wheat; they could die of thirst. . .” he explained.
From there we walked to a mikve, where we learned about the Jewish roots of baptism. According to Messianic belief, the earlier followers of Jesus gave the ritual bath a whole new meaning: Not only were you purified, but you emerged from the water into a new life.
Stopping at the watchtower (the biblical shomera), Bar-David remarked that the ancients depended almost entirely on nature. He mentioned the Israelite entrance into a country where seven nations already resided in the fertile valleys.
When they complained to Joshua, he told them to go into the mountains, cut down the trees and make do.
The Israelites built agricultural terraces, like those in Yad Hashmona’s Biblical Village, they carved out cisterns and plastered them to hold water. They also separated the chaff from the grain on threshing floors just like the one we saw on our tour, where we witnessed a demonstration of the tools used by our forefathers as they eked out a living.
At the reconstructed oil press, we learned that the ancients rarely ate olives, as their production required the use of salt – a very expensive commodity. But they used the oil liberally for light.
When we came to the last portion of the Biblical Village, a completely new ancient wine press, our guide spoke about manufacturing wine as a group activity, with children stomping on the grapes and laughing as they trod.
And he added an unusual insight into the behavior of the biblical Samson, a rather strange and violent figure. From birth, Samson was a Nazirite – forbidden to go anywhere near wine. Perhaps, said Bar-David, as a child he hid in a corner and watched as his playmates jollied it up at the wine press. Already a loner, this may have caused him to become the sad and vengeful character of the Bible.
Anyone can walk freely around the Biblical Village. But if there are 10 or more of you with your own guide, the fee is NIS 18 apiece (call first). If you take a tour with a guide from Yad Hashmona, you pay NIS 28 per person.
Brunch costs NIS 95. A double room in regular season and mid-week costs NIS 580 for bed and board; weekends NIS 800.
For more information, call (02) 594- 2000