During the 1960s, 15 Christians from Finland came to Israel as volunteers. Although most of them didn’t know each other, and they hadn’t arrived as a group, they all shared a common goal: showing solidarity with Israel.

In 1971, the Finns got together and decided to build a communal settlement to commemorate Jews whom their government had sent to their deaths during the Holocaust. And they asked the government of Israel for a plot of land on which to establish their little community.

The government’s response was slow to come.  In the meantime, the group – made up of singles, couples and families — waited in temporary quarters on the edge of Moshav Neve Ilan just outside of Jerusalem in the Judean Hills.

Finally, after months had passed, the Finns were told they could choose from several empty heights in the area. They picked a hill right above Neve Ilan, where they had often gone to pray. Devout believers in both the Old and New Testaments, they found the countryside on the slopes, and the valleys below the hill, just about as Biblical as you could get.

Building began in 1973 on Yad Hashmona (Monument to the Eight). The name commemorates eight Jewish refugees who fled Austria in 1938 and reached safety in Finland. Unfortunately for them, Finland collaborated with Germany during the Second World War. And in 1942, the Jews — eight men, women and children -were turned over to the Germans and sent to the death camps. Only one of the refugees survived.

Wood and other materials for building Yad Hashmona were brought from Finland – including the sauna, something no self-respecting Finn would do without. Yad Hashmona was run like a kibbutz, although there were no children’s houses. But property was communal, as were meals, and the settlement paid everyone’s bills. Not surprisingly, their first enterprise was a carpentry shop where they produced beautiful wooden furniture.

The synagogue at Yad Hashmona (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The synagogue at Yad Hashmona (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Today a small but thriving community, Yad Hashmona runs a highly successful, rustic guesthouse, offers elaborate Friday brunches, and hosts a Biblical Village. Like the kibbutzim, Yad Hashmona has had to make changes in its structure. These days members have an income from work, are responsible for their own expenses, and make their own decisions. The guesthouse pays for itself and, despite the settlement’s lack of a kashrut certificate, is packed with both Israelis and tourists.

While similar in structure and enterprise to other communal settlements in Israel, Yad Hashmona’s population is unique. Not only have new Finnish Christians replaced those who have left, or passed away, but all of the other members are Israeli Jews – Messianic Israeli Jews, who celebrate bar and bat mitzvas as well as all the Jewish holidays. They believe in the prophets, and in miracles. They believe Moses brought the Hebrews out of Egypt and turn them into a nation under God with a framework of laws. And they accept Jesus of Nazareth as their Messiah.

According to Zuriel Bar David, who grew up in Yad Hashmona, there were only a few Messianic Jews in this country until the 20th century, when his paternal grandfather arrived. His name was Haim Haimov, and he was born to a wealthy secular family in Bulgaria. While studying in a Swiss university he was introduced to the New Testament, and felt that it made a lot of sense.

A wine press at Yad Hashmona (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

A wine press at Yad Hashmona (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Haimov immigrated to Palestine in the 1920s. On a return home to Bulgaria to help with the family business, he met and married a Bulgarian Messianic Jew. The two moved to the Promised Land and settled in Ramat Gan, where Haimov, his wife, and eventually their seven children became a nucleus for one of this the country’s first Messianic Jewish communities.

One of Haimov’s progeny, Eli Bar David, volunteered at Yad Hashmona after completing his military service as a paratrooper. He liked the place so much that he became a member of the community; another of Haimov’s offspring — Zuriel’s father — brought his family to Yad Hashmona as well, to be followed by other Messianic Jews.

A decade or so ago, Eli created a Biblical Village at Yad Hashmona so that visitors could see with their own eyes how things worked in the days of the Bible. Someone who is here for his first, or only time, and has never before seen the agricultural terraces or watchtowers mentioned in the Bible suddenly understands what they are,” remarked Zuriel, as he took us on a tour of the site. He added that Christians especially find a new spiritual significance to the passages in both Old and New Testaments.

When Zuriel begins to talk about Yad Hashmona and the people who live there, tourists have lots of questions. Christians as well as Jews find the subject of Messianic Judaism quite strange; Zuriel stresses that he expounds on it only if asked.

The view from Yad Hashmona (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The view from Yad Hashmona (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Zuriel began our tour of the Village with the biblical view below the heights. We then stopped at the synagogue which, although it looked like it had been around for nearly two millennia, was designed and prepared by antique restoration expert Yeshua Dray.  While the columns and curbstones are authentic, presented by the Israel Antiques Authority, but everything else that looks ancient is the product of artistic work.

We passed a little pool – man-made, of course – that gave rise to tales about biblical springs. Then we entered a cave with an ancient aura, perhaps because, while the cave itself is new, the sarcophagi are authentic, dating back to the Roman era. Here we learned about burial customs in the First and Second Temple periods: where bodies would have lain, where bones would have been collected, and where you would have stood if you were participating in some kind of ceremony.

From here we walked first to a cistern and then to a mikveh, or ritual bath. According to Messianic belief, the earlier followers of Jesus gave the Jewish ritual bath a whole new meaning: not only were you purified, but you emerged from the water into a new life.

Pausing at the watchtower (the biblical Shomera), Zuriel remarked that our forefathers depended almost entirely on nature. They built agricultural terraces, like those in Yad Hashmona’s Village, carved out cisterns, and plastered them to hold water. They also separated the chaff from the grain on threshing floors just like the one we saw on our tour, where we witnessed a demonstration of the tools used for eking out a living.

At the reconstructed oil press, we learned that the ancients rarely ate olives, as their production required the use of salt – a very expensive commodity. But they used the oil liberally, for light.

The last portion of the village features a completely new ancient wine press. Here our guide spoke about manufacturing wine as a group activity with children stomping on the grapes, laughing as they tread. And he added an unusual insight into the behavior of the biblical Samson, a rather strange and violent figure. From birth Samson was a Nazarite – forbidden to go anywhere near wine. Perhaps, said Zuriel, as a child he hid in a corner and watched as his playmates jollied it up at the wine press. Already a loner, this may have caused him to become the sad and vengeful character of the Bible.

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Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.