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October 1, 2014 | 7th Tishrei 5775

Curiouser and curiouser

The Reinhardt family, like other Templar familes, came here to speed the coming of the messiah… They didn’t take into account, my father joked, that the messiah is not a German like them, but he is like us, a Jew, and we go by “Jewish time;” and so it happened that the Germans made an appointment with him, came to Israel, waited and waited – and he… well, no shofar sounded, no donkey awoke… he didn’t come. -Meir Shalev, Fontanella (a novel)

Taking advantage of a visiting niece and a perfect spring Friday, last week we made an excursion to one of the most beautiful corners of the lower Galilee, the Templar settlements of Bethlehem-of-the-Galilee and Waldheim. These two communities (or what is left of them) represent one of the stranger episodes in the history of modern Israel.

In 1868 a group of families from the “Temple Church,” a new movement within Mennonite Christianity that looked forward to the coming of the messiah and rebuilding of the Temple in the near future, came to Israel, and soon established several communities, including agricultural suburbs that later were incorporated into Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem. Today, the graceful avenues and stone buildings of the “German Colony” in each of these cities remain as a much-appreciated architectural heritage. The German settlers brought with them state-of-the-art technology in architecture, city planning, metal-working, agriculture, irrigation, transportation, etc., and had a large impact on the still-backward economy of this corner of the Ottoman empire. Before the First World War, some of the members of the Haifa community purchased land in the Alonim Hills overlooking the Jezreel Valley, and began to build two rural communities, Bethlehem of the Galilee (See Joshua 19:11) and Waldheim. These two villages became showplaces of modern agriculture, and had a strong impact (both as suppliers of goods, services, and training, and as role models) on the newly established Jewish settlements in the Jezreel Valley.

The German settlers mapped out wide avenues, and along them built solid two- and three-story stone houses with red tile roofs. The Germans are all gone now (see below), but the avenues with their houses remain. Some are in various stages of collapse, but many have been refurbished and integrated into the post-1948 Jewish communities built on the two sites. Strolling through them you get a feel for a very different life that once was lived here. Moreover, the Germans managed to impede the Turks’ wholesale cutting down of the natural forest in the area (for locomotive fuel in the First World War), so the two villages are surrounded by a rare natural oak forest, which at this season is filled with a wonderful display of wildflowers.

The German settlers’ religious beliefs went through various changes, and (of course) splits into sub-sects (e.g., Waldheim has a church; Bethlehem has a meeting house). But their connection to the fatherland and its culture – and to the German government - remained strong. Thus, with the rise of Nazism in the 30s, many of them wholeheartedly joined the new movement, leaving us with bizarre archival photographs of Hitler Youth meetings in the Galilee, and records of boycotts of Jewish businesses here, and even of attempts at anti-British sabotage. Therefore, next to the old stone houses of Waldheim are the remains of brick barracks built by the British as an internment camp for the Germans during the war. In 1944 some of the German internees were exchanged for a few hundred Jewish prisoners in Bergen Belsen. After the war, those remaining were given the choice of Germany or Australia.

Like the Crusaders before them, the modern Templars injected their dose of European culture into the land of Israel – and then vanished into the footnotes, leaving us to end our tour of their town with lunch in a gracious Templar house that has been converted into an authentic Yemenite restaurant.

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