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Jews Return to Ancient Jericho Synagogue

For the first time in four and a half years, a group of Jews was allowed to visit and pray in the ancient Shalom al Yisrael synagogue in Jericho Tuesday.
First Publish: 4/13/2005, 7:28 PM / Last Update: 4/13/2005, 4:26 PM

In addition to three army jeeps of religious IDF soldiers and rabbis, three Israeli citizens were permitted to visit the synagogue: Jordan Valley Regional Chairman Dubi Tal, Jewish Jericho activist and Ofrah resident Orna Kobos, and Gershon Goldshlik, a resident of the community of Mevo’ot Yericho, a small community on the northern outskirts of Jericho.

Goldshlik spoke with Arutz-7’s Ezra HaLevi about the visit. “We arrived at the synagogue at 7 in the evening,” Goldshlik said. “It seemed to be coordinated fully with the Palestinian Authority (PA) forces, who accompanied our IDF escort in front and behind. They were fully armed, with Kalachnikov rifles and uniforms; it was a bit disconcerting, but they did not interfere.”

The visit, during early evening hours, differs markedly from the manner in which the IDF has allowed Jews to return to Joseph’s Tomb, in Shechem. Those visits take place with very little notice, in the middle of the night - though with significantly larger groups.

“There were 18 of us in all,” Goldshlik said. “The IDF brigade commander and IDF Rabbi of the southern Jordan Valley accompanied the group, as well as several soldiers from the Nachal Hareidi religious combat unit who were also present, so that we could have a quorum of at least ten men for prayers.”

"Some stood guard," he continued, "while the rest of us prayed and looked around the synagogue and yeshiva. It was the first time prayers have been held at the synagogue in almost five years."

Jews began visiting and worshiping in Jericho’s synagogue after Israel conquered Jericho in the 1967 Six Day War. This right was preserved even under the ill-fated Oslo Accords, which transferred control over the Jericho area to the Palestinian Authority in 1993.

The synagogue, dating from the Byzantine period, was discovered in 1936, and found to have an intricate mosaic floor depicting a menorah and a shofar. The mosaic also included the Hebrew inscription "Shalom al Yisrael," meaning "Peace unto Israel."

Initially, an Arab living in the house above the synagogue charged admission to Jews wishing to pray at the site. In 1986, however, Israel's National Parks Authority purchased the building and turned the site into a National Park.

In the early '90s, the house above the synagogue became the study hall of the Shalom Al Yisrael yeshiva, a Torah study academy. Bi-weekly Sabbath celebrations were organized for the purpose of "reconnecting" with Jericho's ancient synagogues - there are at least two others - and Jewish communities. Visiting Jews often spent the Sabbath in a local Arab hotel.

In 1993, then-Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin agreed to give the Shalom Al Yisrael yeshiva special status, similar to that enjoyed by Yeshivat Od Yosef Chai at Joseph's Tomb in Shechem. Shortly after Israel handed over control of Jericho to the Palestinian Authority, the Sabbath visits were outlawed by PA demand.

Though Jewish students were barred from taking up residence at the site, they still traveled to the synagogue daily. For the next seven years, groups dedicated to Jewish Jericho spent every other week sleeping in makeshift tents, and observing Shabbat without the luxuries of refrigeration, permanent toilets or air conditioning, despite Jericho's desert heat.

The Oslo process eventually culminated in a terror offensive that resulted in Israel’s complete abandonment of all Jewish sites in Jericho and Shechem, and their subsequent destruction by Arab vandals. The ancient Shalom Al Yisrael synagogue was one of the first casualties.

Yesterday's visitors examined the damage to the site. Goldshlik said that the mosaic floor of the synagogue, as well as the rooms of the Torah study center attached to it, are now in good condition. IDF soldiers have visited the site in recent weeks to clean it and perform some maintenance work on the structure.

“Everything is clean now," he said, "not like the horrible pictures when it had just been burnt. There is even a table in the middle of the synagogue with some of the holy books that were salvaged from the fire.”

The Torah scroll stored at the synagogue was rescued from the fire and resides at Mevo'ot Yericho.

Arutz-7’s Haggai Huberman reports that the IDF sees importance in restoring the status quo regarding Jewish rights to holy sites in Jericho, as mandated under the Oslo Accords.

According to Goldshlik, the army says it intends to organize weekly prayers at the synagogue. There does not seem to be PA opposition to such an arrangement at this point. "The Arab mayor of Jericho was on hand during Tuesday’s visit and did not seem to have a problem with Jewish prayer at the site," Goldshlik said, but added, “I suspect they are interested in ensuring that the opening of the site goes smoothly so that the Jericho casino can be opened to Israelis as well."

For more information, and to request to visit Jericho’s ancient synagogue, call Orna:
From Israel: 052 869 9300
From overseas: +972 52 869 9300