In this week’s Torah reading, we have one of the examples in the Pentateuch of stories which happen in the land of Israel. Jacob and his family cross into the land after many years living near today’s Turkey/Syrain border in the home of Laban, Jacob’s father-in-law. They cross over the Jabbok stream on their way towards Shchem/Nablus.
The Jabbok stream today separates the Golan Heights from the country of Jordan. Archaeology shows that this area of the Golan Heights was an important area of Jewish settlement. With the inclusion of larger territory under the rule of the Romans and freedom of movement, Jews were free to spread out and follow opportunity. After Hadrian exiled Jews from Judea, these peripheral areas became more important for preserving Jewish community. One such village in the Goaln Heights in the region of Sussita, one of the cities of the decopolis, was Um el-Kanatir.
Perhaps it was the spring which first drew Jews to live there as early as 23 C.E. The name of the site today comes from the arched building which once protected the spring. The town continued to thrive and used the spring as a resource for the flax industry which developed there. Being close to the major Roman town of Sussita was also a benefit for this community.
But it isn’t the spring that makes this place a site for visitors today, but rather the memory of the Jewish community who once lived there. Jews not only lived and worked here, but also celebrated their religious beliefs and the eternal connection to Jerusalem. They built an impressive synagogue in the 6th century which has been unearthed.
In 1884, Lawrence Olefant and Gottleib Schumacher were taken to this pile of stones by a local Arab sheik. There they saw what remained of the 6th century synagogue after it had been destroyed by an earthquake in 749 C.E. Olefant and Schumacher were impressed and identified it as a synagogue but they did not excavate there. (The land of Israel has a plethora of sites and there simply are not enough resources to properly excavate them all.) The “neglect” of the site for over 100 years after its discovery allowed for modern archaeological techniques to be implemented to rebuild this synagogue.
In the past 14 years, under the archaologists Yehoshua Drey, Ilana Gonen and Chaim BenDavid, the ancient synagogue of this small Jewish town on the outskirts of Sussita is being rebuilt stone by stone. The stones are tagged and measured and computers figure out from their physical attributes and location, where they sat in the synagogue. This synagogue is not yet open for bar mitzvahs and weddings, but has been developed so that we can visit this site of Jewish life from the past.