For the first time in nearly nine years, Jews prayed at the centuries-old Shalom Al Yisrael synagogue in Jericho. Israeli soldiers and PA police guarded.
The synagogue is located in the ancient city of Jericho (Yericho in Hebrew), north of the Dead Sea in the Jordan Valley. Some 1,500 years old, it was discovered in 1936 by D.C. Baramki of the Antiquities Authority under the British Mandate. Its 10x13 meter mosaic floor features images of a menorah, shofar, lulav, Holy Ark, and the Hebrew words "Shalom Al Yisrael” (Peace Upon Israel).
After Israel liberated the Biblical areas of Judea and Samaria in the 1967 Six Day War, Jews began visiting the synagogue. For a while, they were charged admission by an enterprising Arab who built a house atop the site, but in 1986, the National Parks Authority purchased the building and enabled free entry. Jews began studying and praying there regularly, and they grew into a small yeshiva.
Though Jericho was given over to Palestinian Authority control in 1994, the synagogue was granted special status, enabling continued free Jewish entry. This was the result of pressure by MK Chanan Porat, IDF Gen. Nechemia Tamari, Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau and others upon Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin.
In October 2000, when Arafat’s Palestinian Authority began the Oslo War, Arab vandals torched and burnt down a large part of the building. Local Arabs prevented Israeli fire trucks from putting out the fire. Though the Torah scroll, which had been kept in a safe inside the structure, was saved, no Jews have since been able to visit the synagogue - until last week.
This past Thursday, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the Rabbi of the Holy Sites, and Oded Viner of the Chief Rabbinate, together with army officials, paid an emotional visit to Shalom Al Yisrael. The visit was facilitated by Civil Administration head Brig.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai, and was coordinated fully with the Palestinian Authority and top PA officers.
The stated purpose of the visit was to check on the physical condition of the site. The PA had, in fact, painted the building and cleaned the area for the occasion.
The visit reached a climax with the holding of the first prayer service in nearly a decade. Rabbi Rabinovitch led the afternoon Mincha prayers, and noted afterwards that it was “truly an emotional moment to visit and pray at the site where our forefathers prayed so many years ago.”
There are currently no plans to allow Jews to frequent the synagogue in the near future. Joseph's Tomb, in Shechem (Nablus), was similarly overrun and destroyed by Arab vandals, but the IDF facilitates periodic visits for dozens of Jews at a time to the holy site.