Late last week, as the sun was setting, I stood in the center of an archaeological ruin in the town of Modi’in, Israel, about a five-to-ten minute walk from my home. Israel has thousands of archaeological sites, some of tremendous historical and religious significance and others which will be investigated but likely bulldozed someday, as they are deemed of lesser value and standing in the way of the modern state’s progress.
What made that evening very special was the fact that it was the start of Shabbat, the seventh night of Chanukah and the site was Umm el-Umdan, containing an ancient rural village, mikveh and beit knesset, confirmed as one of the oldest ever unearthed in all of Israel, dating back to the Hasmonean Period. Given its location and dimensions, some archaeologists contend that it was very possibly the home of the Maccabees themselves. The beit knesset was unearthed in 2002 and according to the Israel Antiquities Authority the layout is similar to only a handful dating from the Second Temple period such as those discovered in Gamla and Herodium.
A large gathering of men and women from the surrounding Buchman neighborhood had entered the site. For the past several years the residents have come to this place to welcome Shabbat and pay tribute to the Maccabees. The men stood in the central part of the site, in a rectangular area that was probably the main floor of the beit knesset. In front of me was a small indentation in the stone framework surrounding the floor, perfectly positioned to accommodate an ark to hold Torah scrolls. As I looked past it, I realized that it was perfectly oriented on this hill to face Jerusalem. Our prayers began- we completed mincha and proceeded with a very beautiful kabbalat Shabbat service incorporating the music of Shlomo Carlebach.
However, it was not lost on any of us that this site has remained unmarked, undeveloped and virtually ignored by both municipal officials and our national government. Although Umm el-Umdan holds a prominently high position on the national registry of “Heritage Sites,” the only thing of note that has occurred here is that the weeds engulfing its large stones have periodically been pulled by municipal workers. The average city resident doesn’t even know the location of the site although it lies squarely along the main entry road to Modi’in from the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway. In fact, as we were preparing to pray last night, a jogger came by and shouted a thank you to us, saying “I never knew this was here.”
While standing and praying in the quickly receding daylight and having great difficulty reading from my siddur, just to our right, perhaps 200 yards away, I could see Modi’in’s new pride and joy: our recently opened extreme sports park lit up as brightly as Yankee Stadium at a night game and full of skate boarders. I’ve been told that it’s the biggest and best one in the country. The juxtaposition of the two sites really struck me: all I could think of was Maccabees vs. Hellenists. Please don’t get me wrong. I love skate boards. In fact in high school back in the 1960s I owned a first generation board and used it often. I believe Israel has room for all of us, no matter what path we choose to go down.
But that’s the rub— How could we have been standing those 200 yards away on this incredibly meaningful site, in the town where the Maccabees’ efforts assured Jewish continuity and be in the dark? How could this archaeological site be so ignored and treated almost as a nuisance by the municipal government, without – aside from the weeds being plucked – a shekel having been invested in site preservation? Without a shekel spent to put up a proper historical marker acknowledging the beit knesset’s existence in our town? Without even a string of cheap light bulbs strung to allow people to pray comfortably and in safety at the site? Maybe what we have forgotten is how to be modern day Maccabean activists who need to let our countrymen know how we feel.Howie Mischel