The Brighter Side

Discovery of ancient ritual bath spurs nearby kibbutz to try to save it

Kibbutz Hannaton is spearheading a fundraising effort to move a Roman-era mikveh to its land, where it would join the pluralistic ritual bath

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Hannaton kibbutz members Haviva Ner-David (left), Anat Harrel, and Steve Gray with archaeologists at the Roman-era mikveh discovered in the Jezreel Valley in July 2020. (courtesy, Jessica Steinberg)
Hannaton kibbutz members Haviva Ner-David (left), Anat Harrel, and Steve Gray with archaeologists at the Roman-era mikveh discovered in the Jezreel Valley in July 2020. (courtesy, Jessica Steinberg)

The discovery of a Roman-era mikveh, or ritual bath, on the site of a highway interchange under construction in the Jezreel Valley has united a kibbutz, the Israel Antiquities Authority, a public infrastructure company, and the local government in their efforts to save it for posterity.

Residents of nearby Kibbutz Hannaton are hoping to raise around $75,000, enough money to dig up the ritual bath and move it — stone by stone — to the kibbutz’s land. The plan is to place it on a hill next to the community’s own ritual bath, the only one in Israel that is open to anyone who wishes to use it, regardless of religion, gender, or creed.

If Hannaton’s dreams do come true, the mikveh may become the focal point of an archaeological park to be created at the kibbutz, and perhaps even restored to its original use, which would allow visitors to take a dip in a 2,000-year-old ritual bath.

“We’d like to save the artifact, but really we want to use the synergy of our ritual bath and this discovered one to make it more than just an ancient site,” said Steve Gray, one of the Kibbutz Hannaton members who volunteered at the dig and was there when the mikveh was uncovered.

Netivei Yisrael, the National Transport Infrastructure Company, is on board to help, but cannot use its public funds to help support a dig. Ditto for the Israel Antiquities Authority, which is thrilled about the idea of creating an antiquities park at Hannaton, and will happily lend artifacts, but does not have any budget to contribute.

The Roman-era ritual bath unexpectedly discovered near a major highway construction project in July 2020. (courtesy, Steve Gray)

When the mikveh was uncovered just a few weeks ago, “I got very emotional,” said Yitzhaki Tishler, the Netivei Yisrael highway project manager.  “I fought for the kibbutz to have the right to try and see this through.”

His hands are tied, however, by the timeline for the project. The kibbutz members have only a few weeks to raise the money before the national transport authority will have to continue its work, part of a complex interchange on Route 79 that will include a portion of the Israel Railway.

“I said I want to help them dig out the mikveh,” said Tishler, who has offered the use of one of his diggers for the estimated four days of removal. “And my bosses agreed to that.”

The kibbutz members launched a Jewcer crowdfunding campaign and have been contacting donors through their own networks, trying to meet the highway authority deadline, which would have the team continue construction in August.

Hannaton will also have some financial help from the local government authority, where deputy mayor Avi Samovith said he has already turned to many local government bodies, asking for contributions.

“It’s a process to get money,” said Samovith. “It’s complicated, it’s not written into any budget, and it’s the corona era. It would be easier if Netivei Yisrael could give us two months. But this is how these things roll.”

Kibbutz Hannaton member Steve Gray next to an ancient wine press on the grounds of the kibbutz, near the site where they would create their archaeological park (courtesy, Jessica Steinberg)

“Netivei Yisrael isn’t going to slam the door for us,” said Gray, a former corporate venture capitalist. “The challenge is to get all the pieces close enough together so that they’ll feel we’re getting it done. But now isn’t a great environment for fundraising.”

Gray, now a tour guide who has lived at Hannaton since the kibbutz was renewed in 2008, was volunteering at the dig, one of his coronavirus activities, he said.

The Israel Antiquities Authority is often called in when Netivei Yisrael, the National Transport Infrastructure Company, works on highways or bridges where there are known archaeological artifacts. The government company has spent hundreds of millions of shekels on archaeological salvage digs at various projects over the last decade, according to a Netivei Yisrael spokesperson.

When the dig first began, the archaeologists thought they were digging up a known Byzantine-era farmhouse, and were operating a so-called salvage dig with the help of volunteers like Gray, and high school graduates from a nearby gap-year program.

But when the Jewish National Fund would not permit the removal of a massive oak tree that was also in the same location, the bypass had to be adjusted, and the dig expanded, unexpectedly discovering the ritual bath.

The overpass being constructed by Netivei Yisrael infrastructure company in July 2020 had to be moved slightly so as not to disturb an ancient oak (courtesy, Jessica Steinberg)

The discovery was made over the last two days of the dig, said Gray, adding that the lead archaeologist was so excited that he picked up a shovel and a bucket and started digging, something he had not done in 20 years.

“We knew that there was a Byzantine farm here,” said Sami Kamil, the Arab-Israeli archaeologist who oversees Israel’s northern region for the Israel Antiquities Authority. “But when we found the mikveh, we suddenly understood that the big farm was from the Roman period, and if there was a mikveh, it was a Jewish farm, because the Jewish farmers would ritually purify themselves before making olive oil or wine. The mikveh changed everything for us.”

Once they had uncovered the mikveh, the Israel Antiquities Authority set up a temporary open house for locals to view the ritual bath. It was during the open house that Haviva Ner-David, a rabbi and writer who runs the Shmaya Mikva in Hannaton, first saw the ancient mikveh.

She, like Gray, felt it would make sense to move the mikveh to Hannaton.

“It’s the synchronicity of it all,” said Ner-David, who is ordained as both a rabbi and an interfaith minister, certified as a spiritual counselor, and holds a doctorate on mikveh from Bar Ilan University.

Haviva Ner-David, rabbi, writer and mikveh coordinator at Kibbutz Hannaton, at the archaeological site where a Roman-era ritual bath was found in July 2020. (courtesy, Jessica Steinberg)

It was Ner-David who had worked to repair and restore the dilapidated, original kibbutz mikveh after moving to Hannaton from Jerusalem in 2008 with her family, and as part of a core group of families who helped renew the kibbutz.

Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul, is now the only mikveh in Israel that can be used by virtually anyone, and is meant to draw people who want to explore Jewish spirituality through the ritual bath, from brides and converts, to LGBTQ couples officially converting their babies, soldiers about to enter the army, or anyone experiencing a special life event.

Now the kibbutz has the opportunity to further develop its own mikveh program by moving the ancient ritual bath to its site, and perhaps expanding the area into an archaeology park with the help of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The area for the archaeological park would be next to the kibbutz mikveh, an area already zoned as a green space for the expanding kibbutz.

Anat Harrel, a tour guide, Hannaton resident and part of the mikveh rescue team, pointed out the ancient town of Zippori just across the valley, where Jesus’s grandmother, Anne, reportedly lived.

“Jesus might have dipped in this mikveh — it’s right on the way to visiting his grandmother, and only a half-day’s walk from Nazareth,” she said.

Archaeologists Kamil Sari (left) and Walid Atrash at the July 2020 dig that uncovered a Roman-era ritual bath that Kibbutz Hannaton members want to move to their land. (courtesy, Steve Gray)

For now, however, the mikveh is still in its original location, on a hot, sunny hill just a few minutes’ ride from Hannaton, on a hill behind the underpass under construction.

The wide, shallow stairs and deep pool of the mikveh, which is 4.2 meters long by 3.2 meters wide and approximately 1.8 meters at its deepest, are nearly identical to the ritual baths of today. Archaeologist Sari conjectured that the wide stairs were created to allow for a flow of people going up and down the stairs.

“It’s a big find for this region,” said Sari, adding that the dig would continue on an upper part of the hill, where further discoveries were made.

“Now we just have to move it over to us,” added Gray. “If there’s good will and good luck, we’ll make it happen.”

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