• View of the Sea of Galilee from the Mount of the Beatitudes | Photo: Wikimedia Commons by Obendorf

Galilee – Coming Full Circle

Tal Hartuv - 2 May 2023

The Galilee is both a region in northern Israel and the English name of the freshwater lake known in Hebrew as the “Kinneret.” Both are famous for Jewish miracle makers who have impacted the Jewish people and the wider world throughout history: from Elijah –  considered the greatest of all the Hebrew prophets – through to Hanina ben Dosa, Jesus of Nazareth, Shimon Bar Yochai and the 16th century Rabbi Joseph Caro of Safed. The Galilee has been the desired home for Jewish mystics, miracle-makers and men of prayer and has been a witness to many a supernatural deed.

“It is the Jewish people living in the Galilee who have taught us how to pray”

It are the Jewish sages of the 5th century Galilee who the Western world owes a debt to. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, fearful that the dispersion of the Jewish people would lead to forgetting the pronunciation of the sacred text, these sages added vowels to the Hebrew Bible, making it possible for the Bible to still be read today. One version of the Talmud was also written in the Galilee, enabling the Jewish diaspora to practice Jewish Law, no matter where they may be.

It is the Jewish people living in the Galilee who have taught us how to pray. Jesus, who in what is known in Christianity as the “Lord’s Prayer,” is in effect summarising the prayers said in synagogues for two thousand years. Another sage barely known outside Jewish history, also taught people to pray. It was in the middle of a terrible drought that Honi the Circle Maker (who lived around 1st century BC) was approached by the people who asked him to ask the Creator to make it rain. Hearing their desperate plea, Honi drew a circle around the place he stood and told the Master of the Universe that he was not moving from the spot until the Almighty sent the rains for His people. At first it began to drizzle, but for Honi that was not enough. Drizzle would not alleviate the suffering of the people! He pleaded again, and sure enough the rains came. Thus the people learned through Honi, that it is a duty and joy to request blessings on behalf of others, and if we also do our part, then God is waiting and ready to answer.

The scenery of the Galilee remains largely unchanged. The hills are the same hills and the lake is the same lake. The tranquility of the area remains, and it is this very peaceful setting which still attracts tens of thousands of visitors each year, whether it be pilgrims from abroad, or Israelis making the most of Passover and pitching their tents in their thousands by the Kinneret every year – and blaring radios as loud as they can just because the tranquility may be boring.

Modern towns, kibbutzim and villages have sprung up since Israel’s War of Independence making the Galilee today home to not only Jewish people but a large Arab Christian and Muslim community as well. Businesses and the hustle and bustle of everyday life are conducted interchangeably in Hebrew and Arabic. It is an area in Israel where coexistence thrives.

“The Galilee has various soils and climatic conditions created by an altitude that varies from minus 200 meters below sea level to 1,100 above”

The region is also home to the “breadbasket” of Israel, even though the farmers who grew “bread” in the form of wheat, corn and barley, soon realised they could not compete with the world’s large food producers. Innovation led the farmers to change their strategy and grow premium products that can be exported to Europe during the seasons when they are not available in supermarkets there. It is thanks to Israel that the European shops are stocked with vegetables and fruit like potatoes, avocados and mangoes during the long cold winters. But it is not just necessity that breeds business, it is also simplicity. Oranges grown in the Galilee have been developed in such a way that they are easier to peel! The Galilee has various soils and climatic conditions created by an altitude that varies from minus 200 meters below sea level to 1,100 above. It is thus the host to mushrooms grown in Europe and bananas grown in the tropics.

Farming is crucial to the Galilee. Not only does it provide food, in our dry and desert land it is agriculture which sustains the soil, prevents the area from turning into desert and generates income for a rural area so people won’t abandon it. Populations are a form of defence.  A good and thriving population is crucial when surrounded by enemy territory.

As a tour guide, I love what is known in the trade as “hidden gems” – sites that most people never go to, or even hear about. If there was a gold medal for the most innovative, and touching of these hidden gems, I would award it to Kibbutz Kishorit.

Situated high on one of the Galilee mountains, and just a stone’s through from the city of Carmiel, the little kibbutz has only 215 people. The population includes Jews, Christians and Muslims. Most remarkably, the members all have special needs. They have all been  diagnosed with the likes of Asperger syndrome, or schizophrenia, or Down syndrome or autism.

Every day, 150 helpers from the surrounding villages come to the kibbutz to help the members cultivate its own vegetables and fruit. The place also has vineyards, a winery and even a tasting room. If that wasn’t enough to keep everyone busy there is also a stable with horses, an organic goat milk dairy, a bakery and a kennel for the increasingly popular, mini schnauzers.

A non-profit organisation, the kibbutz offers the special needs inhabitants a vocation, an opportunity to develop, a place to deal with their frustrations and challenges, and last but not least, a home for life.

All great things start off small and Kishorit is no exception. In the beginning it only had four members, four staff members. In a land with thousands of years of history the kibbutz is “brand new.” It was founded in 1997 by Shuki Levinger, a social worker, and Yael Shilo who had a special needs stepson.  The idea that it was possible to create a home for special needs adults from all ethnic backgrounds caught on much quicker than anyone could have imagined. A visitor today will see a thriving environment where the broken and forgotten are now living independent, productive and happy lives. Shuki Levinger is convinced that this is the outcome of caring for one’s neighbour. The actions and care for the community were exemplified in the life of Honi the Circle Maker, and in Kishorit, these very things are still happening today.

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