On Saturdays and holidays it’s almost impossible to find a parking space close to the Beit Jamal monastery near Beit Shemesh. Even the winding road that leads up to the monastic complex is often jammed with cars. That’s because hordes of Israelis and tourists leave their vehicles on the side of the road in order to enjoy a picnic under olive and carob trees on the monastery grounds. This month, masses of flowering almond trees are a major attraction as well.
People visit Beit Jamal to wander in the garden of the walled monastic complex, to walk around the garden or to explore the unusual church and its antiquities. And visitors can always be found talking to the monastery’s friendly Salesian monks, or making purchases at Beit Jamal shops.
Tourists began flocking to Beit Jamal several decades ago. That’s when, for lack of candidates, the monastery ceased to function as a school for underprivileged Arab children. Instead, the monks began taking in groups and individuals who wanted to spend a few days on a spiritual retreat.
At about the same time they opened a shop carrying honey from the monastery bees, olive oil from monastery trees and wine from grapes grown in their vineyards and processed at the Cremisan monastery winery just south of Jerusalem.
A few years later, several dozen nuns from the monastic order that includes the Sisters of Bethlehem, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and St. Bruno erected a convent within the walls of the old Salesian monastery. Although they live nearly silent lives and spend most of their time in prayer and meditation, they, too, have a shop in which they sell beautiful, hand-crafted pottery. Guests are made welcome both by those nuns permitted to speak to outsiders and by the monks of Beit Jamal.
Until the mid-19th century, Beit Jamal was only a tiny Arab village with a few scattered houses. Then, in 1869, Italian Catholic priest Father Antonio Belloni purchased Beit Jamal and resettled its inhabitants elsewhere. He built a large, impressive monastery on the hill and in 1873 opened an agricultural school for underprivileged and orphaned boys.
Soon afterwards, when he learned that the Salesian philosophy of education was similar to his own, Father Belloni asked priests of the Salesian Order to take over both the monastery and the school. And in 1891 he, himself, joined the Salesians, a Society which was established 34 years earlier by St. John Bosco (Don Bosco) from Turin.
Don Bosco was born in dire poverty, and as a child was often obliged to abandon his studies and work as a shepherd to help his mother put food on the table. Nevertheless, with great tenacity, he completed seminary requirements and was ordained as a priest in 1841.
Drawn to young outcasts, aghast at the conditions in which children were forced to live in Italian prisons, he vowed to devote his life to rescuing as many young people as he could. Education was the tool, he felt, and he began in 1841 by working with a single street waif who had been thrown out of a church. Despite enormous odds, by 1846 he had 400 pupils under his wing.
Corporal punishment was simply not in Don Bosco’s vocabulary, and the priests teaching in his schools were instructed to do so using reason, religion and kindness. At the time of his death in 1888 there were 130,000 children studying in 250 Salesian Society houses all over the world.
Years went by, and hundreds of young boys received an excellent education at Beit Jamal. Then in 1916, and while enlarging the monastery garden for use in additional agricultural studies, the monks uncovered beautiful mosaics and other remains from a small parish church at least 1,500 years old.
With the discovery of the ancient church, a martyrs’ shrine and a covered grotto that some experts thought had been used as a tomb, archeologists began to make the connection between the Arab village of Beit Jamal and the similar-sounding Caphargamala – a little town mentioned in Byzantine writings and located 20 miles from Jerusalem. They believed that the cave may have held the tomb of St. Stephen — a disciple of Jesus — or at least some of his relics.
According to the New Testament, St. Stephen was stoned to death by the Sanhedrin (Jewish supreme council); members were furious because he stubbornly tried convincing his fellow Jews to accept Jesus as the Messiah.
In 415, Lucien, the parish priest of Caphargamala, wrote a detailed letter describing how he had located St. Stephen’s tomb inside his village. He wrote that Rabbi Gamaliel, a first-century member of the Sanhedrin, had appeared to him in a vision, told him that he had owned a villa in Caphargamala, and related that after St. Stephen was stoned he had brought the body back home and buried him in his own private tomb. Lucien wrote that he had followed Rabbi Gamaliel’s directions and discovered the tomb.
Because the only cross in the Byzantine church was found inserted into the floor of the southern aisle, and because it lay atop a cave, some experts feel that this was the burial site – or that the grotto would at least have held some of St. Stephen’s relics.
Other archeologists disagree, and believe that the cave held a ritual bath, or mikvah, from a villa belonging to a wealthy Jewish family. Whether tomb or mikvah, it is likely that it can be traced to Rabbi Gamaliel, as indicated by the Greek name Caphargamala (Gamala Village) and the village name of Beit Jamal.
In 1930 the Salesian monks built a stunning sanctuary dedicated to St. Stephen directly above the Byzantine foundations. On the exterior walls they hung the beautiful original mosaics, including the geometric mosaic with a red cross. Inside, they followed the early Byzantine design, covering some of the interior with painted artwork made to look like mosaics and other walls with large, boldly drawn pictures in striking colors that tell the story of St. Stephen. Just outside the church stands a sculpture commemorating the martyrdom of St. Stephen and contributed by renowned Israeli artist Yigal Tomarkin in the year 2000.
Beit Jamal has an additional claim to fame, as well. At the end of the 19th century the monks established a meteorological station that, today, is the oldest weather station in this country that continues to provide wind, temperature and precipitation data to Israeli weathermen.
Visiting information: Mon-Fri 8:30-12:00 and 13:00-17:30. Saturday 8:30-17:30. Closed on Sunday
Location: Along Road 38, about a kilometer south of Beit Shemesh.
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.