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Natural cornerstone: The blossoming of Rosh Pina

Lush and colorful, you’d never know that this little town was once plagued by starvation, drought, disease — and a wedding shootout

Villa Tehila (photo by Shmuel Bar-Am)
Villa Tehila (photo by Shmuel Bar-Am)

In 1878, a group of pioneers founded an agricultural settlement on land bought from the Arabs of Jaouni Village. Starvation, drought and disease quickly brought an end to this, one of the first rural settlements in the Galilee. By 1880, almost all of the settlers — originally from Safed — had gone back home.

A group of immigrants from Romania bought the property in 1882. Together with a number of Russian immigrants and a few of the original pioneers from Safed, they began clearing the rocks in preparation for farming.

On December 12, 1882, after a long-delayed rainfall made it possible to begin planting, the pioneers proclaimed the establishment of their new community. They called it Rosh Pina — or “cornerstone,” taking the name from Psalms 117:22: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.”

Yet despite the hopeful name and the group’s enthusiasm, Rosh Pina was about to suffer calamities similar to those that bedeviled the earlier settlers. Their bad luck began with a wedding, soon after the community was founded. Arabs from Safed, who had been helping to build the new settlement, had been invited to attend the ceremony. It was their custom to fire rifles into the air at celebrations, and one of them apparently grabbed a settler’s rifle. In the ensuing melee, the Arab was accidentally shot and killed.

Bent on revenge, Safed’s Arab community headed straight for Rosh Pina. Ultimately, the Jews were saved by the mukhtar (tribal head) of Jaouni, who took everyone into his home and told the angry Arabs that if they were going to murder people they would have to start with him.

Nimrod Overlook, Rosh Pina (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Nimrod Overlook, Rosh Pina (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

In the end, the mukhtar negotiated a financial settlement between Safed Arabs and the settlers. As a result, the Rosh Pina farmers ended up with so little money that they could barely subsist. Disputes with local Bedouin, who used the area’s springs to water their flocks, added to the farmers’ problems. Desperate, the settlers mortgaged their houses and their land.

By mid-1883, they were at the edge of despair. Salvation came at the end of the year, when Baron Edmond de Rothschild offered to lend a helping hand. Taking on all of the settlers’ debts, the Baron agreed to pay them a monthly stipend.

Still, Rosh Pina didn’t become a viable community. The farmers’ failure to reap good quality wheat led them to try growing grapes for raisins. When that proved unsuccessful, they tried producing wine. When that didn’t work out, they built a flour mill. When that failed, they grew mulberries and manufactured silk — a venture that ended badly.

Eventually, however, Rosh Pina finally took off, turning from agricultural to cultural pursuits. Full of galleries, good restaurants, and lovingly preserved old buildings, Rosh Pina is, today, one of the most sought-after tourist spots in the country.

Here are just a few of Rosh Pina’s historic buildings, along with two overlooks. They can be found in one small, cobblestone-paved area: HaRishonim (Founders’) Street, HaHalutzim (Pioneers’) Road, and on HaBoulevard Street.

Be'eri Overlook (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Be’eri Overlook (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

1) Be’eri Overlook

For a fabulous overview of the entire area, head for the Be’eri Observation Point. It is dedicated to the memory of 21-year-old Be’eri Oved, murdered in the Haifa bus suicide bombing on March 5th, 2003.

Beit Hapekidut (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Beit Hapekidut (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

2) Beit Hapekidut, House of the Clerks

Naturally enough, the clerks sent by Baron Rothschild to run Rosh Pina needed elegant living quarters and offices. After all, from Rosh Pina they ran the financial concerns of all the Baron’s settlements in the Galilee. They lived in a lovely dwelling called Beit HaPekidut, or House of the Clerks. Because there are offices in this building, and the one next door, it is open during the week for visitors.

Interior, Gideon Mer House (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Interior, Gideon Mer House (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

3) House of Gideon Mer

Next door, a second fancy abode was also meant for the Baron’s clerks. But they were long gone by 1929, when Dr. Gideon Mer moved in. Born in Russia in 1894, Mer abandoned his medical studies for a life of hard labor farming the land of Israel. After serving with the Jewish Legion in World War I, Mer returned to Israel and drained swamps. He then completed his medical degree and moved to Rosh Pina, where he began researching a cure for malaria, the bane of swamp dwellers.

Finding it difficult to find other volunteers, he began by experimenting on his family — and himself. Apparently, in his zeal to discover whether malaria would cause a miscarriage, he injected his pregnant wife with the disease. Fortunately, it did not take — and the result was a bouncing baby boy. In 1934, he succeeded in bringing malaria under control. His discovery won worldwide acclaim, and the Doctor’s House became a world famous medical center.

Visitors to the house can explore the doctor’s old workroom, still with the original furnishings. Our dubious favorite: the mosquito cages with special sleeves. Mer’s children would put their hands inside so that they could be bitten and catch malaria. Other attractions include bats and rats in formaldehyde.

Vilkomitch House (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Vilkomitch House (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

4) Vilkomitch House

Although Rosh Pina failed in so many areas, there was one in which the little community excelled: Hebrew education. Rosh Pina’s school was the first in the world in which all of the subjects — including Hebrew — were taught in Hebrew. One of the houses not only belonged to Principal Simha Haim Vilkomitch, but also served as a cultural center in which the school put on operas and Shakespearean productions. Currently, it houses an art gallery and shop.

5) Alter Schwartz Hotel

Constructed in the early 1890s by one of the settlement’s founders, Alter Schwartz’s hotel was the very first of its kind in the Galilee. Among its overnight visitors were Chief Rabbi Avraham Cook and famous pioneer/soldier Yosef Trumpeldor.

Schwartz was the grandfather of another famous personality: Yigal Allon, farmer, soldier, and politician. Unfortunately, the hotel is now falling apart, and the sign outside reads “danger!”

Rosh Pina Synagogue (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Rosh Pina Synagogue (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

6) The Settlement Synagogue

Beautifully restored, the settlement’s synagogue was the first public building erected in Rosh Pina. Inside, the amazing ceiling features a heaven filled with fluffy clouds. Each corner has a theme, from palm trees to musical instruments played in the Temple. Two stalwart lions guard the Holy Ark.

Villa Tehila (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Villa Tehila (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

7) Villa Tehila

Built in 1885 by the Rosenfeld family, Villa Tehila is one of the oldest houses in Rosh Pina. After purchasing it in 1970, Tehila and Amichai Israeli were able to preserve the exteriors while transforming the farm’s sheds, stables, storerooms, and even the outhouse into 11 guestrooms that retain an old-world charm. The cowshed, now a lobby, still boasts its original 19th-century Romanian beams; the quaint little courtyard features a farmer’s wagon and a wooden horse.

Each guestroom has its own distinctive design, and an air of authenticity (one former stable has retained its hitching posts). Agricultural equipment, masses of artwork, rich wooden furniture, and esoteric collections give this guesthouse — where we often stay overnight — a unique flare. Visitors are welcome; just ring the bell.

The view from Nimrod Overlook (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The view from Nimrod Overlook (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

8) Nimrod Overlook

The newest addition to Rosh Pina is an unusual overlook created by Hezi Segev, whose son Nimrod was killed in action during the Second Lebanon War (2006).  After Nimrod was called up for reserve duty he suffered a bout of dehydration. Just before he went back to his unit, he told his father that he somehow knew that his tank would hit a mine, and that when he returned it would be in a coffin.

On August 9, 2006, Nimrod’s prophetic words came true. His tank was put out of action by a mine, and the crew — now sitting ducks — perished when a missile was fired at the tank.

The overlook, with a fabulous view, is located at the edge of the old settlement, on a hill where Nimrod played his guitar and saxophone while composing songs. In a painful act of love, and with his own hands, Hezi covered the hill with a vast variety of foliage. He tied bells to the trees; when they ring, he feels son Nimrod close by.

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Aviva Bar-Am is a travel correspondent and the author of seven guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am is a private tour guide.

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