By Jessica Hanewinckel
Each year, Jews worldwide celebrate a long list of holidays that aim to bring biblical history to life. For example, on Purim, comedic Purim spiel performances reenact the story of Queen Esther and the wicked Haman. During Sukkot, meals are eaten under the sukkah to remember the tents in which the Israelites dwelled during their 40 years of wandering in the desert. Passover brings the retelling of the story of Exodus, and on Chanukah, we light eight candles on the chanukiah to remember the miracle of the oil, which should have only provided enough light for one night but lasted eight. And as festive and reminiscent of the biblical-period as these commemorations are, it’s arguably difficult to feel as if the past has truly come alive.
But bringing to life the Jews of the Bible, and many of the Bible’s most famous stories, is exactly what the Israel Bible Valley, a relatively new endeavor by a group of U.S. and Israeli Jews, plans to do. If you’ve ever stepped foot into Colonial Williamsburg, depicting the 18th century colonial United States, or into a Renaissance faire, which reimagines life in 14th-17th century England, you’ll have a good understanding of what to expect, and of the inspiration for what to create out of this 15-mile-long valley amid the foothills just southwest of Jerusalem, known in the Bible as Emek HeElah. The biblical period of about 1,500 years — from about 1600 BCE to the destruction of the temple in 70 CE — will be brought to life, with as much historic and biblical authenticity and accuracy as possible.
“It will be a working village,” explains Efraim Warshaw, director of development and resources for the project and its North American representative. “Everyone who works there will be dressed in the costume of the time. All the shops and craft places will be making and selling things as they’re described in the Bible. There will be a leather maker to make sandals, and a potter to make all the pots and vessels, a glassblower, a jewelry-maker, a scribe and many other such things.”
But plans for the Israel Bible Valley include much more than just a working village with a marketplace and housing structures. Warshaw says that with all the land available, they’ll also make use of three Jewish National Fund forests on the site, grow and harvest the seven species of fruits and vegetables mentioned in the Bible on working farms and orchards, produce wine and olive oil, offer guided hikes through the area with references to sites of biblical significance, keep biblical livestock tended by shepherds, and offer archeological digs of one of 160 unexcavated archeological sites on the land, where biblical villages did, indeed, once exist.
In fact, Warshaw says, this particular parcel of land, which the Israeli government has set aside for use as the Israel Bible Valley, is made even more perfect for its intended use because of the particularly prominent role it played in many Bible stories. One example, which will be reenacted each day, is the battle between David and Goliath, which, Warshaw says, is said in the Bible to have taken place in the heart of the valley. The procession of King David through the valley toward Jerusalem, upon recapturing the Ark of the Covenant from the Philistines, will also be recreated.
“He came right through this area, so every day we’re going to have a recreation of the procession, which will go through the main street of the town,” Warshaw says. “It will be the Levites playing their biblical instruments, the flute and the lyre and the drums and the cymbals, and King David leading it, and the Ark carried by the priests. All the tourists will gather around as it marches through, and they’ll be invited to sing and dance and clap along the way.”
The three harvest festivals observed in biblical days — Sukkot, Shavuot and Passover — will also be recognized and celebrated by the costumed “villagers,” and visitors will have the opportunity to observe this and most other aspects of life. It will literally be a chance to walk in the footsteps of modern Jews’ forefathers and mothers.
But the project, which is seven years in the making and overseen by a leadership council of 25 prominent Israelis representing all facets of Israeli society (including authors David Grossman and Amos Oz, several former Knesset members, and president emeritus of Hillel International Avraham Infeld) isn’t just for Jews or tourists. Says Warshaw, the Bible Valley is intended as much for Israelis as for international tourists, and as much for Jews as for Christians or those of any other religion, or no religion at all, who would like to learn more about the Bible and history of Israel and the Jewish people.
“We want to have people of all religions, all nationalities and backgrounds come together here,” Warshaw says. “This is geared to Bible lovers throughout the world: students, adults, Christians, Jews and others.”
Perhaps just as important as catering to the millions of tourists who travel to Israel each year in search of a deeper connection to the Bible is reaching those Jewish children in Israel and the Diaspora whose knowledge of the Bible has diminished in the last several decades.
“Many of the founders [of the Israel Bible Village] themselves are grandparents, and they have seen that they and their children were brought up in a period when … the Bible was the heart of the Israeli curriculum. Everyone sang biblical songs. There were performances all over. Biblical ethics were taught. … This has slipped over the last 20 years, so that most kids in Israeli schools [are secular]. The secular kids have been losing interest in the Bible as the Israeli curriculum has emphasized science, math, technology and computers. The older generation is worried that the younger generation, their own grandchildren, is not interested in our great cultural heritage, and that is one of the main reasons they were motivated to develop this whole thing. They wanted to restore the Bible to central position in Israeli cultural life.”
Though the Israel Bible Valley will emphasize the religious, biblical side of Judaism, Warshaw says they’re not affiliated with, nor under the supervision or control of, any religious authorities. Instead, the leadership council is working with educators, architects, city planners, and scholars of the Bible, history, archeology, linguistics, anthropology and other applicable areas. Their goal, Warshaw explains, is to ensure the professionalism and accuracy of what began as a very grassroots project but which has grown, and continues to grow, in scope and vision over the years. In fact, three of the five founders are an educator, an architect and a city planner themselves. The architect, Shlomo Gertner, is developing statutory plans, which will then be submitted to the Israel Land Authority for land usage approval, which Warshaw says is more of a formality, since the land has already been set aside for them.
Warshaw, who is visibly passionate about the endeavor, finds no reason that the Israeli government should not to approve the use of the land. Not only will the Israel Bible Valley bring biblical knowledge back into Israeli culture and provide a thrilling experience for tourists of all faiths and backgrounds, he says, but it will be enormously beneficial to the tourism industry and specifically to the local economy in the region surrounding the valley.
“Near Israel Bible Valley are all kinds of kibbutzim and moshavim and agricultural settlements,” Warshaw says. “We’ll provide lots of work opportunities for them and their youth. They will have expertise we will want. They may be the potters and leather makers, the agriculturalists who will run our farms.”
Another aspect of the valley will be production of its own produce, to be sold under the Israel Bible Valley brand within the valley, at nearby kibbutzim and moshavim and at nearby roadside stands.
“The people in our immediate area, in another section of the valley, are already growing some of these products,” Warshaw says. “For a minor fee, they will be able to get the use of our brand. We want to help the economy of the general area. It’s sort of a forgotten area of Israel. It’s not the center of commerce, and not too many people go there. We want to bring more life to the area.”
The endorsements for the project are coming in droves: The Biblical Lands Museum in Jerusalem, the Tisch Biblical Zoo of Jerusalem, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, the Israel Lands Administration, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Biblical Village in the Galilee, to name just a few. Says Warshaw, the Ministry of Education is already talking about having all schoolchildren of certain grades visit the valley as part of the state curriculum, and the Israel Defense Forces is considering sending soldiers there as part of their training and education about Israel early in their service, he adds. Additionally, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is supportive because the project is another way to positively promote Israel worldwide.
“[The Israel Bible Valley] provides them with a way of reaching out in their embassies around the world to local people and cultures who admire the Bible and look up to the Bible,” Warshaw says, “and since the diplomats at the Israel embassies around the world represent the land of Israel, this opens doors. The fact that we are building this makes it easier for them to connect with locals in their areas.”
Warshaw, who became involved with the project about four years ago, is based out of Los Angeles and is beginning his fundraising efforts in the Southern California area, which he says he hopes to extend to other major cities in the U.S. and Canada as funds allow. The project’s fundraising goal of $100 million is off to a promising start of just under $4 million, but Warshaw still has a lot of work to do. He is in the process of applying the project’s U.S. fundraising arm, American Friends of the Israel Bible Valley, for status as a 501(c)(3) charitable organization, but until then, he is working through Israeli company Israel Gives to allow U.S. citizens to make tax-deductible donations. (Other gifting options for larger or more complex sums, as well as a variety of naming opportunities, also exist.) Since the project is still fairly young and at a semi-grassroots stage, no breaking of ground has taken place yet. Because of the nature of the Israel Bible Valley’s varying attractions, though, Warshaw says they’ll be able to establish programs and build facilities and structures in stages, as funds come in.
According to Warshaw and his public relations and fundraising campaign strategy, the project hopes to hold a breaking of ground ceremony this fall. By the end of this year, he says they should have sufficient funds to establish hiking tours on the land (at an operating cost of $100,000 per year). By 2013 or 14, he thinks they’ll have raised the $9.5 million to build the amphitheater, for large dance, music and theater performances and for celebration of biblical festival holidays. By 2015, he hopes to have raised the $17 million necessary to construct the model biblical village, including 20 workshop spaces.
From there, it will take another $24 million to construct a subterranean visitor center and gift shop, where Warshaw says they’d like to show visitors an IMAX orientation film about the biblical period. A biblical museum will cost another $9.5 million and will include permanent and changing interactive exhibits, many of which would be of interest to youth. Because Warshaw anticipates that tourists would come to the valley for a day or more, the leadership council is also planning to construct a large recreational park and facilities, including an artificial lake, biblical landscaping, picnic areas, a playground, a basketball court and soccer field, a children’s biblical puppet theater and a waterfall and stream. The estimated total cost for the recreation area is $10.8 million. Rounding out the Israel Bible Valley will be its interior, including stables, pastures and barns, agricultural stations, orchards and grain fields, forests, botanical gardens and supervised digs at archeological sites, totaling $8.5 million.
With so much to see and do, Warshaw estimates the valley will be an important stop for many tourists to Israel and even mentioned the possibility of contracting with a hotel company to put a hotel on the site, similar in style and architecture to Jerusalem’s King David Hotel, or Eilat’s Isrotel King Solomon, to fit in with its biblical surroundings.
“Israel now has more than three million tourists a year, coming from [around the world],” Warshaw says. “Most of them choose to visit the country since it’s the land of the Bible. Our planners anticipate at least a half million tourists a year will want to spend [at least] a day at Israel’s largest theme park.”
But unlike most theme parks across the globe, the Israel Bible Valley is answering to a higher calling.
“We want people to understand biblical civilization as a whole, not just the literature,” Warshaw says. “And we want [increasingly] more people to be attracted to the land of Israel, and to bring to Israel people of various religions, cultures and nationalities, [so that we can] experience it together and learn from each other. And ultimately we would like this to be a center for peace.”
For more information, to donate or to learn more about donor opportunities, visit www.israelbiblevalley.com or call Warshaw directly at (818) 712-9383.
San Diego Celebrates Israel’s 64th year of statehood
The Jewish Federation of San Diego County and community partners will be host to San Diego’s annual community event to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut. This year’s event will be April 29 at Ski Beach in Mission Bay Park and is free and open to the public. Attendees can expect to celebrate and learn more about Israel and her culture, with representation from dozens of local vendors, organizations and synagogues. The Friendship Circle of San Diego will kick off the day at 10 a.m. with its annual Friendship Walk on Vacation Isle, to benefit children with special needs.
The celebration will include a hummus cook-off, free live music, entertainment, Israeli folk dancing, a circus, kid’s activities, sports, teen programs, arts and crafts, games, a seniors club area, shopping and delicious kosher food. There will also be an opportunity drawing for a free ticket to Israel courtesy El Al Airlines.
For more information on San Diego Celebrates Israel, visit www.sdcelebratesisrael.org or call (858) 571-3444. To register from the Friendship Walk, visit: http://friendshipwalksd.com.