Rabbi Loren Sykes is the Principal of the NFTY-EIE High School in Israel. In these weekly postings, he gives a description and rundown of what the group is doing day to day, which he hopes sheds some light on what the EIE experience is like.
This week, the focus of our Jewish History course was The Second Temple period. During this time period, we learn about Herod’s construction of a Temple to God that was of unparalleled grandeur and his building of a desert palace atop Masada to honor himself. We learn about the rise of the sectarianism, zealotry and messianism. We hear about the infighting among the different groups that led to their failure to defend the city and resulted in the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Finally, we learn about the messianic fervor that surrounded the Bar Kochva rebellion, its failure and the fall of Masada.
To fully understand the glory and destruction of this crucial period in our history, EIE went out into the field several times this week. We spent one morning at the Israel Museum where we visited a three dimensional model of Second Temple Jerusalem. The model is based on historical records and, in no small part, on the details preserved in “The Jewish War” by Josephus Flavius. The model conveys the glory and beauty of ancient Jerusalem, towered over by the Temple, and allows our Jewish history teachers to help students gain greater perspective on the city and what was lost when it fell to the Romans.
We then shifted our attention to the rise of the different sects of the period, specifically, to the Essenes who authored the texts we know today at the Dead Sea Scrolls. We spent time at The Shrine of the Book which is located on the campus of the Israel Museum and which contains both remnants and replicas of the ancient scrolls. Students got an up close look at the lives of this group of ascetics from discoveries made both at Qumran and near Masada.
Yesterday, we spent the day in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. We saw the remains of enormous mansions that probably belonged to wealthy members of the priestly class. We saw the remains of several mikvaot – ritual baths – that were preserved after the city fell. Ritual purity was a major focus of this time in our history and, in order to enter the Temple environs, one had to immerse to become ritually pure. We learned what the Temple was like from the archaeological remains preserved in the Davidson Center and in the area known as Robinson’s Arch. There is an exceptional and unique power to learning about the fall of ancient Jerusalem while standing in today’s Jerusalem, seeing the ancient ruins while gazing at the modern city.
Today, students woke up very early in the morning to climb Masada. They leave so early in order to make it to climb the Snake Path and arrive at the top just before sunrise. They had a very spiritual tefila or prayer session together which was followed by dividing into classes, learning about the different areas of the Herod’s desert palace. They also learned about the rise of Bar Kochva and those who, like Rabbi Akiva, thought he was the Messiah, the rebellion he led and, ultimately, the suicide pact of the zealots atop Masada and its fall to the Romans.
On Shabbat, students will stay at the field school at Ein Gedi, a true oasis in the desert, and will hike Nahal Arugot. They will return to Jerusalem tomorrow night for a few hours and then to Kibbutz Tzuba. After an intense period of academics, a week like this, with multiple trips, a fun shabbat, no homework over the weekend, and some free time at Jerusalem’s First Station is a well-needed and deserved break.
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Loren Sykes