Samaritans pray on Mount Gerizim
Samaritans pray on Mount GerizimYonatan Sindel/Flash 90

Har Bracha is nestled on the southern end of Mt. Gerizim in Samaria, which is more of a mountain range than it is a single peak. The town takes its name from the mount of Biblical fame, where six tribes stood to recite blessings into the ampitheatrical valley between Gerizim and Mt. Ebal, which look down on the ancient city of Shechem.

The town is looking to build its next neighborhood facing Kiryat Luza to the north, including the subtle but scenic Samaritan temple on the mountain's northeastern tip.

The town is also interesting for the fact it is the voting headquarters of that Samaritan community, a sect which broke off from mainstream Judaism as it were in ancient times.

Today, it would be easy to dismiss them as a curiosity or novelty in terms of religious groups. However, they are a remnant of a group that was once Judaism’s chief rival in the region. The Samaritans were once a much larger community, with a possible ratio of two Jews for every Samaritan at the time of the Second Temple’s destruction. The community definitely parallels major elements of Judaism and even continues their form of the Passover sacrifice, seeing Mt. Gerizim as the mountain chosen by God rather than Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem – the site of the first two Temples.

Besides being literally "stuck" as it were in the middle of Samaria geographically, they are actually the most well-connected of all the region's communities. Many hold "triple citizenship" holding ID cards from Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. Half the community now lives in Holon, Israel.

According to Gilad Shani of Shelach, a branch of the Education Ministry, Samaritans in Kiryat Luza tend so see themselves as somewhat in between.

“They are sort of a special mixture,” he says, which creates some issues for the community’s attempt to survive.

The community’s limited numbers – as few as 750 but up about 500% since the fall of the Ottoman Empire – has created genetic issues for the community’s marriages. With so few options, the community is inviting women from outside Israeli and Palestinian society to enter the community. Genetic testing has alleviated the problem, but the secluded nature of the community has had to be surrendered in order to allow for brides for a population with a disproportionate number of males.

“You start seeing Samaritans with blonde hair and blue eyes,” remarks Shalev Kayam, Har Bracha’s General Secretary. He refers to a few brides who have emigrated from Eastern Europe and taken on the Samaritan religion.

There is also the political balancing act the community has to conduct. Some of its members serve in the Palestinian Authority government. Still others serve in the IDF. The community itself fully coalesced only during the First Intifada when it became the target of attacks inside Shechem itself, where residents had to abandon an ancient synagogue.

The town also contains the Samaritan Museum, which is a major tourist attraction for the eclectic array of travelers that come through the area. Jews from nearby Har Bracha and other Jewish villages like Elon Moreh also make the trip, according to Shani.

The army is stationed in Har Bracha, which is in Area C; it patrols the road to Kiryat Luza, which is in Area B; and the entrance into the Nablus nearby is the beginning of Area A. That feeling of being in between everything has not harmed the ability of the community to have good ties with Har Bracha. Relations between Kiryat Luza and Har Bracha are cordial but not so intimate, says Kayam.

“The relationship is on the one hand, good, but we don't mingle. They come here for everyday activities. They come over when they need to get things done like shopping or visiting the doctor’s office here in town.”

Perhaps the best link between the two villages is one of sesame seeds. The community’s High Priest, Aabed-El, is one of the founders of Har Bracha Tahini, which has kosher certification and is distributed in the town nearby.

“They have the best tahini in the area,” says Kayam.