Flag at Jericho Synagogue
Flag at Jericho SynagogueIsrael news photo

Jewish history was made in Jericho on Sunday, as a new kollel opened in the city.

The kollel opened on the site of the Shalom Al Yisrael synagogue, an ancient synagogue in Jericho which dates back to the late 6th or early 7th century CE. The kollel is operating under the direction of students from the Maale Efraim yeshiva.

Orna Kovos, one of the leaders of the Jewish return to Jericho, told Arutz Sheva on Monday that there has also been a demand for use of the kollel by other yeshivas. She added that the kollel so far has 11 students and is headed by Rabbi Yuval Aharoni, but many more are expected to join.

She noted that over the past three years, the Jewish presence in Jericho has increased. What began as monthly visits by Jews during Rosh Chodesh for the purpose of conducting prayer services, she said, gradually increased and the Jewish presence in Jericho today is in the form of tours, prayers, lessons, and now the kolel as well.

One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Jericho is first mentioned in the book of Joshua, and was the first city that the Israelites conquered when they entered the Land of Israel. As the Tanach (Hebrew Bible) describes, the Jewish people marched around the city seven times blowing rams’ horns, at which point the walls surrounding the city sank into the ground.

In 1948, during the War of Independence, Jericho was conquered by Jordan. In 1967, during the Six Day War, Israeli troops conquered the city, at which time the Shalom Al Yisrael Synagogue was discovered beneath an Arab house. The synagogue was found to have an intricate mosaic floor depicting a menorah and a shofar, with the Hebrew inscription “Shalom al Yisrael” (“Peace unto Israel”). The conquest and discovery enshrined the right to a Jewish presence at Jericho’s synagogue.

Although initially, the Arab living in the house above the synagogue charged admission to Jews wishing to pray at the site, in 1986 Israel 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.

In 1993, the Oslo Accords transferred control over the Jericho area to the Palestinian Authority. Then-Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin agreed to give the Shalom Al Yisrael yeshiva special status, which was supposed to ensure that Jews could continue to make use of the holy site. When Israel handed over control of Jericho to the Palestinian Authority, however, the Sabbath visits were outlawed by PA demand.

Jewish students still traveled to the synagogue daily. This went on until 2000 when the Second Intifada broke out. In 2000, Arab vandals destroyed Jewish sites in Jericho and Shechem , the Shalom Al Yisrael synagogue being one of the first. On October 12, 2000, the synagogue was vandalized by Arabs, who burned holy books and damaged the mosaic. The synagogue’s Torah scroll was saved and now rests in nearby Mevo’ot Yericho. In 2005, IDF soldiers restored the site of the Shalom Al Yisrael Synagogue. 

While the PA has done its best to deny any Jewish connection to the ancient city, Kovos said that it is important to show the Arab residents of Jericho that the city is indeed a Jewish one. She said that the Arab neighbors so far have looked at the efforts “sympathetically. Jericho’s glory days were after the Six Day War, when it was economically prosperous. They [the Arabs] want to us to physically come back to Jericho, because Jews spend money when they come to visit.”