Devoted to the land

Mikve Israel Agricultural School was also dedicated to playing a part in national missions in the pre-state years

the synagogue is meant for all521 (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
the synagogue is meant for all521
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Israel’s flagship agricultural school had its beginnings in a cave.
And Charles “Karl” Netter – the school’s founder – recruited the first student off a Jerusalem street.
Netter was looking for suitable candidates for his project when he spotted a youth lounging on the street eating a watermelon. The boy’s widowed mother, who was barely eking out a living, readily agreed to let him go; not only would it help with the family’s financial difficulties, but it assured her son of an education. And that’s how Mikve Israel Agricultural School sprang into action – with one teacher, and one student, in a cave.
Mikve Israel Agricultural School was established by Alliance Israélite Universelle, a French organization founded in 1860 to improve the lot of the Jews in communities all over the world.
Soon afterwards, the organization began opening Jewish schools in North Africa.
Ten years after its foundation, “Alliance” decided to set up a network of schools in Palestine. It began by purchasing a tract of empty land from the Turkish sultan slightly southeast of Jaffa, and sent Netter to establish a school.
When Netter and his student from Jerusalem moved to their future premises, there was nothing at all on the property. So, joined by a few other pupils, they lived and studied in a cave located in the center of today’s agricultural school.
From these humble beginnings Mikve Israel went on to become a pioneer in the fields of both agriculture and education, growing into a thriving enterprise known as the Mikve Israel Youth Village. Inside the village are a boarding school, three junior/senior high schools supervised by the Education Ministry’s Administration for Rural Education and Youth Aliya, and a very large farm.
Both boarders and day students participate in hands-on agricultural studies on the farm. These serve them well when they take their matriculation exams, since all of the village’s 1,200 pupils are required to pass a matriculation exam in agriculture.
My better half and I got our first taste of Mikve’s special atmosphere at the Bikkurim (First Fruits) Festival right before Shavuot. Hundreds of children sang, danced or recited. Colorful and humorous carts passed by, featuring chickens, cows, agricultural tools, grains, fruits and vegetables. Excitement filled the air and the beautiful grounds.
We returned a week later for a tour of the village. Our guide was Yair Madar, who entered Mikve as a pupil at the age of 14 and today is the village’s deputy director. On our path through the oldest part of the village, Madar pointed out historic buildings and noted that all of them were named for the function they fulfill. In his role, Madar works in a large edifice called Beit Hahanhala (Administration Building) topped with red rafters and facing an enormous lawn. While today it holds only offices and larger meeting rooms, when constructed the upper floor served as living quarters for the school’s principal.
Another very old edifice, the village’s center, is called Bayit L’habonim V’osim Melacha. Home to the people who built the original school, its name translates loosely as “House of the Builders and Craftsmen.”
IN 1873, construction began on the school’s winery. Its architect was Theodor Zandel, a German from the nearby settlement of Sarona. Zandel, who designed Sarona’s winery as well, was the architect in charge of the building site at Jerusalem’s massive Augusta Victoria complex.
Workers dug into the local limestone rock at Mikve to create four archsupported underground chambers.
Once completed, a little metal “elevator” made of an iron tray and a pulley transported the grapes downstairs so that the wine could be prepared and then carried up to the large rooms on the ground floor for storage.
Madar told us that every generation of pupils at Mikve has a story of the pranks they liked to pull. When he was a teenager studying there, he said, he and his friends would sometimes enter the upper rooms of the winery through the rafters, come down on the “elevator” and grab a few bottles of wine! Along with a slik (hiding place for weapons that were illegal during the British Mandate), bullets and exploding bricks were discovered in the largest underground chamber during restoration. It was here that young men and women were sworn into the Hagana, and their Bible, a gun and a copy of the oath are on display. The room, where all kinds of ceremonies are held today, also features a secret exit that would allow Hagana soldiers to escape during a British raid.
Not far from the pier connecting the upper and lower floors, another of the four underground chambers still holds some of the old wine barrels. A number of tools, including implements for closing the wine bottles, are also exhibited.
Not far from the winery stands Mikve’s oldest building: Beit Netter. Two stories high and very simple, it featured a school, a kitchen, bedrooms, a dining room, a synagogue – and chickens! Netter had planned for Mikve to become much more than simply a school, and envisioned it eventually developing into something like a French farm. But he became ill and in 1882 he died. It was agronomist Yosef Niego, who directed Mikve from 1891 through 1909, who put up the rest of the historic buildings.
One of these was a beautiful synagogue which, although planned by Netter, was completed only in 1895. When built, the synagogue served a double purpose: the first floor was used for worship and held the main library, while the second story contained classrooms. In 1970, the lovely wooden ceiling, marble floors and colorful windows were restored.
Because the synagogue is meant for all, there are two pulpits: one, Sephardi style, is in the middle of the room, while the Ashkenazi pulpit is located at the head of the prayer hall.
Netter brought the ark, which is dedicated to his father, from Strasbourg and donated it to the school. At first it sat in Beit Netter, but was moved to the “new” synagogue upon its completion.
A triangular marble plaque above the synagogue’s main entrance is engraved with a dark brown plow and a cluster of green grapes. The entrance, which faces north, is located directly across from a beautiful garden and a boulevard of palm trees. The trees lead to what was, for many years, the school’s gate. Netter had planted mulberry trees here – but Niego thought they weren’t impressive enough and replaced them with palms.
IN 1898, Theodor Herzl passed through the gate when he visited Mikve prior to what he hoped would be a fruitful meeting with powerful German Kaiser Wilhelm II. As headmaster, Niego hosted Herzl in Beit Netter before the founder of modern Zionism tried, unsuccessfully, to sell the Kaiser on the idea of a Jewish homeland in Israel.
A stunning Bengali ficus tree, surrounded by a multitude of offshoots, stands in a little garden located in front of the synagogue. Brought from India by Niego in 1888, it was planted in the garden and thrived, creating a sight that is worth a special trip to Mikve. It is said that just as the tree scatters its roots, so does Mikve disperse – through its pupils – agricultural and Zionist ideals. In the early days, after backbreaking labor in the fields, students are said to have shared a first kiss under in the shade of this glorious ficus tree.
While leading us to the blacksmith shop, Madar stressed that Mikve has been a willing partner to many a national mission: Not only did the Hagana have a base at Mikve, but the school took in wave after wave of children both before and after the Holocaust, and continues to do so.
It also turns out that one of the teachers played a crucial part in the War of Independence. Indeed, it was inside Mikve’s blacksmith shop that the famous Davidka was created. During the war, Jewish forces desperately lacked sophisticated weapons. Teacher David Leibowitch, an engineer who was a member of the Hagana defense forces, was already spending his evenings upgrading the weapons that the Hagana had somehow managed to acquire.
Eventually, Leibowitch’s experience enabled him to produce a new weapon: a large mortar to replace the human mortars.
Later to be called the Davidka, the mortar was manufactured out of an iron pipe and was anything but reliable.
But what made it such a momentous addition to the weapon stock was its noise: whenever it landed and actually exploded, the shriek it emitted was horrendous. Such was its effect that many Arab attackers believed that the Jews were setting off atomic bombs, and simply fled! One of Leibowitch’s earliest models – made from a watering hose and a shell – still stands in the wonderfully restored blacksmith shop. As he demonstrated how the different tools were utilized way back when, Madar modestly suggested that Israel’s booming military industry had its origins in Mikve.
Preservation is held in high esteem at Mikve, where a large room in the blacksmith shop features items from the early days. The collection, which is constantly expanding, includes old work clothes hanging on the walls, farming instruments, all kinds of utensils and muddy boots. Madar proudly showed us a vintage stove, and how a hand bellows was used to fan its coals.
Although there are lovely trees along the path, most of Mikve’s unusual plants and trees are located in the botanical gardens. The first of its kind in the country, it was founded with two main goals: as a testing ground for trees from all over the world, in an effort to learn which could be adapted in Israel, and as a learning experience for the students.
By far the most famous tree to spring out of Mikve’s soil is the ubiquitous eucalyptus, introduced into Israel by Netter. One of the two species planted in the country’s first eucalyptus forest didn’t fare so well. But the second – the Red River Gum – became so widespread that in a survey on Tu Bishvat, the eucalyptus was chosen as “the most Israeli tree.”
A minimum number of visitors is required for a tour of the Village. And although I rarely suggest this kind of trip to my readers, today I am making an exception. Do get a few families or friends together and set up a visit.
For Mikve Israel, a pioneer in so many fields and an example of incredible development, offers a window into what made this unique country just what it is today.
Tours take up to three hours, fee is NIS 30 a head, and there must be at least 15 people in the group. Info: (03) 503-0489.