The spirit moved them

The Pilgrim Spirituality Center in the North was built around a rare first-century synagogue.

Father Juan Solana at the first-century Magdala Synagogue. (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Father Juan Solana at the first-century Magdala Synagogue.
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Who can tell what the future holds, or where our lives will lead us? Father Juan Solana has been running the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem for the Legionaries of Christ religious order for the past 10 years. But in 2004, when the Vatican informed him that he was being sent to Israel, the young, Mexican- born Catholic priest found the prospect daunting and even a bit frightening. Not only was Israel in the middle of a violent intifada, but Father Juan didn’t know the language.
Besides, there were problems at Notre Dame that he felt he didn’t have the experience to solve. Simply put, he was afraid he wasn’t quite up to the task.
Before setting out for the Middle East, he flew to Rome for a bit of extra spiritual reinforcement. Entering a small chapel in the Vatican, he found himself in front of an unfamiliar altar.
As he prayed, he raised his eyes and looked up at the mosaic on the wall – a scene at the Sea of Galilee in which Jesus was rebuking his disciple Peter.
Above it, there was a quote from the Gospels: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” From that moment on, Father Juan knew that he was on the right path.
Even so, in his wildest dreams, he couldn’t have imagined just how right it would be. For once in the Holy Land, chance led him to a marvelous discovery.
He spent one of his first nights in Israel on the shores of Lake Kinneret.
Walking near the water at dawn, he saw a fisherman working on his nets in front of him. And he began to dream about what he could accomplish in the Holy Land.
Soon Father Juan learned that Catholic pilgrims to Israel made two major stops: They explored Jerusalem’s holy sites, and they followed in the footsteps of Jesus around Lake Kinneret.
Obviously what was needed was another Notre Dame Center, or something similar, in the Galilee.
In 2006, after learning that a property called Hawaii Beach Hotel in the village of Migdal, north of Tiberias, was for sale, Father Juan began the long and complicated process of purchasing the property. Detailed plans for a spiritual center complete with guest house and restaurant were drawn up, and in 2009 construction began on the foundations.
Not surprisingly, the pre-construction archeological survey of the site – required by Israeli law – soon found antiquities buried under mounds of dirt. Experts from the Israel Antiquities Authority were informed, and the IAA began to carry out excavations.
In the end, Father Juan decided to temporarily halt further construction of his longed-for Pilgrim Spirituality Center.
What the shovels had uncovered was a rare first-century synagogue – one of only a handful in the entire country and boasting stone benches, mosaics and frescoes. Most importantly, in the synagogue’s debris, the archeologists found a uniquely engraved, 2,000-year-old stone altar/ prayer table.
As excavations continued, there were more discoveries. Soon archeologists had uncovered the houses and shops of Magdala, a Second Temple-era Jewish settlement on the shores of Lake Kinneret and home to Jesus’s friend/disciple Mary Magdalene.
Among the more exciting discoveries were ritual baths – the only ones known today whose water comes from the local aquifer (an underground layer of porous rock containing water).
Another find was a variety of fishing paraphernalia, buried in the ruins of the two-storied edifice that has been named the Fisherman’s House.
Until the founding of Tiberias, Magdala had been one of the principal towns of the Galilee, famous for its fish industry and boasting thousands of residents. We know exactly when it flourished, for two years ago Father Juan uncovered a coin buried in the synagogue floor from the year 29 CE.
HOWEVER, THE most amazing discovery to date is the altar stone from the synagogue wreckage, says archeologist Arfan Najjar. Born in the Galilee village of Daburiya, Najjar has been excavating Magdala for the past five years.
He and other experts believe the altar stone to be a model of the Jerusalem Temple – created by a contemporary artist who saw it firsthand.
Engraved on the table’s top and sides are carvings of the Temple’s parallel arcades, columns, beams and arches.
Clearly visible are vessels, tools and brushes that would have been used for sacrifices and for cleaning up afterward.
And – the jewel in the crown – carved on the face of the table is a menora, just like the one that stood in the Temple.
The synagogue and its table are of enormous significance for Jews, as this is the first time an ornately decorated altar stone from the first century has been found in Israel. At the same time, Magdala has become a holy site for Christians, as it is highly likely that Jesus stood in this synagogue while preaching in Jewish settlements around the Sea of Galilee.
The planned guest house and visitors’ center were moved a bit further north so that the synagogue could become a focal center for the site. Since then, although most of the funds slated for the Pilgrim Center have gone toward excavations, foundations have been dug for a beautiful guest house.
Also under way is a large restaurant expected to offer delicious Mexican dishes and other international fare.
Father Juan hopes the guest house and restaurant will be ready to open by December of next year.
What is already complete, meanwhile, is a beautiful spiritual center. It is called Duc in Altum, from the Gospel of Luke, and figuratively means “don’t be afraid [to take risks].” Fantastically impressive, it opened in May and features an area, facing the Sea of Galilee, that can hold up to 250 visitors.
In addition, four side chapels suitable for 50 people are decorated with stunning mosaics. Designed like a Byzantine church with mosaics, icons and pillars, the center also features a large, round atrium with inscriptions dedicated to women.
While digging the foundations of the spirituality center, workers discovered a first-century stone plaza that probably led to the harbor. This remains in situ, giving a thoroughly ancient atmosphere to the ecumenical chapel. Devoid of Christian symbols, it is meant as a place of worship for all faiths.
Visitors will find excellent explanatory signs in English and Hebrew next to the excavations. One can view the spiritual center as well, and explore the synagogue, whose mosaics bear a resemblance to those in Masada, at the City of David, and on some ossuaries in Jerusalem. And visitors should enjoy the constantly growing New Testament Farm, whose residents include chickens, goats, sheep, lambs, donkeys and camels.
The entire site is open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. For the time being, entrance is free.
To reach Magdala, turn at Migdal Junction and pass through the Galileo Project, a new commercial center that belongs to modern Migdal and that includes a tall, four-legged yellow clock.
The clock stands inside Sylvia Rafael Schjødt Square, named for an unusual Israeli spy. You can learn all about her from the audio information station, known as a masbiran, nearby. And if you press the second button, you can hear the stories of ancient Magdala and modern Migdal.
Sylvia Rafael was a little-known Mossad agent born in South Africa in 1937. Her father was Jewish, and her mother was not. Having decided early on that she wanted to connect to her Jewish heritage, she moved to Israel at the age of 26. She was teaching English in Tel Aviv when the Mossad approached her, and she was soon transformed into a capable and dedicated agent. As an active member of an elite operational unit, she participated in missions all over the world – most of them still secret.
In 1973, after 11 Israeli athletes were massacred in Munich, she joined other agents in an effort to assassinate Ali Hassan Salameh, head of the Black September terrorist organization responsible for the murders. But the wrong man was shot, and five of the agents were imprisoned – including Rafael, who was traveling on a Canadian passport. They were released in 1975 (and the Mossad killed Salameh in 1979).
While in prison, she and her defense attorney, Anneus Schjødt, fell in love. They married after her release and moved to Ramat Hakovesh, a kibbutz whose members had been in constant contact with her during her imprisonment.
Eventually the couple moved to Norway, but ended up in Rafael Schjødt’s native South Africa. She died of leukemia in 2005, and, in accordance with her wishes, was buried in Ramat Hakovesh.
MIGDAL SITS on the foothills below Mount Arbel, on the western side of Highway 90. The community’s nearly 2,000 residents make a living from agriculture, tourism and freelance endeavors like the Galileo Project. Plans are afoot to add hotels and public gardens, as well as sports and recreation facilities, to this center, along with a two-kilometer promenade on the seashore.
Migdal is one of several names for ancient Magdala, which was also known as Migdal Nunia and Migdala from the word for “tower” in Hebrew and Aramaic. The Greeks called it Tarichaeae, which means “the place of pickling fish,” because the town’s fish-salting industry was crucial to its economy. Located on the shores of Lake Kinneret, it was also known for its expertise in building boats.
During the Great Revolt against the Romans in 66 CE, tens of thousands of people joined the resident population of Magdala. Roman commander Vespasian besieged the city and succeeded in conquering it; Jewish-Roman historian Josephus Flavius wrote that the “streets ran with blood.” Rebels who fled to the sea were attacked by Roman forces, resulting in an unimaginable slaughter – as Josephus notes, “the entire lake was stained with blood and crammed with corpses” – while thousands of survivors were taken prisoner and sold into slavery.
After the Arab conquest of the country, peasants inhabited the area and named it Majdal. In the 19th century, Egyptian farmers settled there, calling their village Migdal, so that, like the earlier peasants, they were preserving the historical origin of the site.
Jewish settlement was renewed there in 1910 with the arrival of Russian immigrants from the Lovers of Zion movement. They created a private agricultural farm called Moscow Ranch, and settlers worked in the fields, bred cattle for dairy production, and grew plants and flowers in their nurseries.
The first modern-day vegetable exports from Israel, which went to Damascus, were the work of laborers from the Moscow Ranch. The farm dissolved in the 1920s, and eventually Migdal became a village.
A diverting visit
Readers who like to visit sites off the beaten track should head for Hurvat Minya (Hirbet Minim) near Migdal. The site boasts remains from an eighth-century Arab palace built during the Umayyad rule of Israel. Minya Palace was 73 meters long and 67 m.
wide, with serrated walls and round towers. Semicircular towers were located inside three walls, while the fourth had an enormous dome-covered gateway.
Inside, a courtyard paved with basalt stones featured arch-topped pillars.
Minya was destroyed in an earthquake, but the Arab village of Minya appeared on its ruins. Later, the Mamelukes established a way-station for traders near Minya.
To reach the site, leave Migdal Junction and turn right, then turn toward Lake Kinneret at the sign for the Sapir Pumping Station and Karei Deshe. You can’t miss the ruins, since tall palm trees grow inside and outside the palace walls.