On and Off the Beaten Track in … Gush Etzion

by | in Israel

imageThere is no area in Israel that more symbolizes the flow of Jewish history than the Gush Etzion region, situated just fifteen minutes south of Jerusalem. And as Israel prepares to celebrate its sixtieth anniversary in May 2008, Gush Etzion, the Etzion bloc, continues to develop into a major tourist attraction. Visitors can easily fill a day with fun activities, learning about both ancient and modern history. There is also a wide range of eateries to appeal to one’s taste buds and even a guest house in Efrat for those who would like to remain overnight.

Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day), two consecutive days in May, dramatize both the pain of sacrifice and the joy of having a Jewish state. These conflicting emotions are encapsulated in the Gush Etzion region.

The area in the heart of the Judean Hills where the Patriarchs walked, where Ruth met Boaz and where David shepherded his flocks, was initially resettled by Jews in the 1920s. By 1947, four kibbutzim flourished in the region. The first kibbutz was named Kfar Etzion) Etz-Zion) in honor of its founder, a German Jew named Holtzman. (“Holtz in German means “wood,” which in Hebrew is “etz.” Tragically, on the morning of May 14, 1948, the kibbutzim fell to the Jordanian army and 250 defenders were killed; every building was destroyed and every fruit tree was uprooted. The area was desolate—except for a single 800-year-old oak tree. That tree, the “Oak of Return” (Alon Shvut), which could be seen from the Israel/Jordan border, became the focus of the Jews’ yearning to return, a dream that was fulfilled nineteen years later when the area was liberated in the Six-Day War. Today, forty-one years since the liberation, Gush Etzion boasts fifteen communities (towns and kibbutzim) and two cities, Efrat and Beitar Illit, with a total population of over 50,000.

In the rebuilt Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, the dramatic story of the siege and eventual fall of Gush Etzion is relayed in a moving multi-media presentation that should not be missed. Visitors to the area can also follow the path of the “Lamed Hey,” the thirty-five Palmach soldiers who were murdered by local Arabs before Gush Etzion fell. On January 14, 1948, these soldiers went on a mission under cover of darkness to bring desperately needed supplies and arms to an isolated Gush Etzion. The mission ended with their discovery by Arabs and their eventual murder. One of the thirty-five was Moshe Avigdor Perlstein, a twenty-three-year-old Yeshiva University graduate from Jersey City, New Jersey, who became the second “foreign” casualty in Israel’s War of Independence.

Visitors are also attracted to “the Gush” because of its rich Biblical history; you can actually walk in the footsteps of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs along a stretch of “Derech Ha’Avot—the Path of the Forefathers.” A road on this ancient path connects Alon Shvut and Neve Daniel, two settlements in the region. One of the most astounding discoveries from the Second Temple period is also found on this road—a complete mikvah carved into the bedrock. It is believed that this mikvah was used by pilgrims 2,000 years ago on their way to Jerusalem.

Since ancient times, olive trees have flourished in the Gush Etzion area. In fact, the Talmud specifically mentions the high quality of oil produced in Tekoa, the birthplace of the prophet Amos. Modern Tekoa is a flourishing settlement in the eastern part of Gush Etzion. Today, visitors can experience the art of making olive oil at Tekoa’s Alfa Olive Press, where state-of-the-art equipment stands next to an exhibit of a 2,000-year-old olive press. Between Sukkot and Chanukah, visitors can make their own oil the way our ancestors did so many years ago (prior reservation required). During the rest of the year, the modern factory and exhibit area are open.

Tekoa is only a few minutes from Herodion National Park, one of the most impressive remains from the period of King Herod (37 BCE-4 BCE). The park consists of an imposing fortress built by Herod on top of a mountain, which includes Herod’s private castle, open rooms, courtyards and luxurious bathhouses. Archaeologists from Hebrew University recently discovered King Herod’s Tomb after thirty years of searching. Although no bones were found, several pieces of a limestone sarcophagus were discovered, indicating that the tomb belonged to Herod. One hundred years after the period of King Herod, in 70 CE, Jews stood on this mountain top, distraught, as they watched Jerusalem and the Holy Temple go up in flames. Sixty years later, Bar Kochba fighters occupied this site, and used it as their base. They built a synagogue there, remnants of which can still be seen today.

Nowadays, every Tisha B’Av, hundreds of residents of Gush Etzion assemble on Herodion to gaze upon modern Jerusalem in the distance as they read the Book of Eichah, Lamentations. One can also experience the Herodian period by stopping to look at the remains of the ancient water system near Efrat that brought water from the springs of Gush Etzion to the Temple in Jerusalem.

For those who are looking to complement their visit to the region with “fun” activities, there is horseback riding, the region boasts a petting zoo (Deerland) and one of the longest zip lines in the world! One of the newest attractions—a complete Teva Naot shoe factory outlet—is located on the grounds of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion.

Because of its proximity to Jerusalem, more and more visitors to Israel are discovering “the Gush” each year and are incorporating a visit there into their itineraries. You can visit www.gush-etzion.org.il to help plan your trip. Or, you can or use a tour organizer (like my company, Keshet). The renewal of life in Gush Etzion is one of the most exciting stories of the past forty years. Be a part of it on your next trip to Israel!

Mr. Abelow is a licensed tour guide and the associate director of Keshet: The Center for Educational Tourism in Israel. Keshet specializes in creating and running inspiring family and group tours that make Israel come alive “Jewishly.” He can be reached at 011-972-2-645-1865 or at peter@keshetisrael.co.il.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2008.

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