Israel’s flagship agricultural school had its beginnings in a cave. And Charles (Karl) Netter — the school’s founder — recruited the first student off a Jerusalem street.

Netter was looking for suitable candidates for his project when he spotted a youth lounging on the street eating a watermelon. The boy’s widowed mother, who was barely eking out a living, readily agreed to let him go: not only would it help with the family’s financial difficulties, but it assured her son of an education. And that’s how Mikve Yisrael Agricultural School sprang into action — with one teacher, and one pupil — and in a cave.

Mikve Yisrael Agricultural School was established by Alliance Israelite Universelle, a French organization founded in 1860 to improve the lot of the Jews in communities all over the world. Soon afterwards, the organization began opening Jewish schools in different parts of North Africa.

Ten years after its foundation, “Alliance” decided to set up a network of schools in Palestine. It began by purchasing a tract of empty land from the Turkish sultan slightly southeast of Jaffa, and sent Netter to establish a school.

Where it all began: The cave at Mikve Yisrael (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Where it all began: The cave at Mikve Yisrael (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

When Netter and his new student from Jerusalem moved to their future premises, there was nothing at all on the property. So, joined by a few other pupils, they lived and studied in a cave located in the center of today’s agricultural school.

From these humble beginnings Mikve Yisrael went on to become a pioneer in the fields of both agriculture and education, growing into a thriving enterprise known as the Mikve Yisrael Youth Village. Inside the village are a boarding school, three junior/senior high schools supervised by the Education Ministry’s Administration for Rural Education and Youth Aliyah, and a very large farm.

Both borders and day pupils participate in hands-on agricultural studies on the farm. These serve them well when it comes time to sit for matriculation exams, for all of the village’s 1,200 pupils are required to pass a matriculation exam in agriculture.

A path runs through the oldest part of the Village, whose historic old buildings were named for the function they fulfilled. A large edifice called Beit HaHanhala (Administration Building) is topped with red rafters and faces an enormous lawn. While today it holds only offices and larger rooms for meetings, when constructed the upper floor served as living quarters for the school’s principal.

In 1873, construction began on the school’s winery. Its architect was Theodore Zandel, a German from the nearby settlement of Sarona. Zandel, who designed Sarona’s winery as well, was the architect in charge of the building site at Jerusalem’s massive Augusta Victoria complex.

Workers dug into the local limestone rock at Mikve to create four arch-supported underground chambers. Once completed, a little metal “elevator” made of an iron tray and a pulley transported the grapes downstairs so that the wine could be prepared and then carried up to the large rooms on the ground floor for storage.

Along with a “slik” (hiding place for weapons that were illegal during the British Mandate), bullets and exploding bricks were discovered in the largest underground chamber during restoration. It was here that young men and women were sworn into the Haganah, and their Bible, a gun and a copy of the oath are on display. The room, where all kinds of ceremonies are held today, also features a secret exit that would allow Haganah soldiers to escape during a British raid.

Not far from the pier connecting the upper and lower floors, another of the four underground chambers still holds some of the old wine barrels. Also on display are a number of tools, including implements for closing the wine bottles.

A statue of the founder Charles (Karl) Netter (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

A statue of the founder Charles (Karl) Netter (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Mikve’s oldest building is Beit Netter (Netter’s House). Two stories high, and very simple, it featured a school, a kitchen, bedrooms, a dining room, a synagogue, and chickens.

Netter had planned for Mikve to become much more than simply a school, and envisioned it eventually developing into something like a French farm. But he became ill and in 1882 he passed away. It was agronomist Yosef Niego, who directed Mikve from 1891 until 1909, who put up the rest of the historic buildings.

The synagogue (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

The synagogue (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

One of these was a beautiful synagogue which, although planned by Netter, was completed only in 1895. When built, the synagogue served a double purpose: the first floor was used for worship and held the main library, while the second story contained classrooms. In 1970, the lovely wooden ceiling, marble floors, and colorful windows were restored. Because the synagogue is meant for all, there are two pulpits: one, Sephardic style, is in the middle of the room, while the second Ashkenazi pulpit is located near at the head of the prayer hall.

A triangular marble plaque above the synagogue’s main entrance is engraved with a dark brown plow and a cluster of green grapes. The entrance, which faces north, is located directly across from a beautiful garden and a boulevard of palm trees. The trees lead to what was, for many years, the school’s gate. Netter had planted mulberry trees here – but Niego thought they weren’t impressive enough and replaced them with palms.

In 1898, Theodore Herzl passed through the gate when he visited Mikve prior to what he hoped would be a fruitful meeting with powerful German Kaiser Wilhelm II. As director of the school, headmaster Niego hosted Herzl in Netter’s House before the Founder of Modern Zionism tried, unsuccessfully, to sell the Kaiser on the idea of a Jewish homeland in Israel.

A stunning Bengali ficus tree, surrounded by a multitude of offshoots, stands in a little garden located in front of the synagogue. Brought from India by Niego in 1888, it was planted in the garden and thrived to become a marvelous sight. It is said that just as the tree scatters its roots, so does Mikve disperse – through its pupils – agricultural and Zionist ideals. In the early days, after backbreaking labor in the fields, students are said to have shared a first kiss under in the shade of this glorious ficus tree.

Mikve has been a willing partner to many a national mission: Not only did the Haganah have a base at Mikve, but the school took in wave after wave of children both before and after the Holocaust and continues to do so. It also turns out that one of the teachers played a crucial part in the War of Independence. Indeed, it was inside Mikve’s blacksmith shop that the famous Davidka weapon was created.

Although there are lovely trees along the path, most of Mikve’s unusual plants and trees are located in the botanical gardens. The first of its kind in the country, it was founded with two main goals: as a testing ground for trees from all over the world in an effort to learn which could be adapted in Israel and as a learning experience for the pupils.

Some of Mikve's 'most Israeli' trees (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Some of Mikve’s ‘most Israeli’ trees (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

By far the most famous tree to spring out of Mikve’s soil is the ubiquitous eucalyptus, introduced into Israel by Netter. One of the two species planted in the country’s first eucalyptus forest didn’t fare so well. But the second – the Red River Gum – became so widespread that in a survey one Tu Bishvat (the trees’ New Year), the eucalyptus was chosen as “the most Israeli tree.”

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Please contact us at israeltravels@gmail.com if you want information on how to get a tour of the site.

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.