We are all put on this earth with a certain amount of time and a certain set of talents and predilections. In our family, volunteering our time and talent is just one small way of giving back: to G-d and to society. In a way, it is in the Jewish soul, a form of Tikkun Olam, Repairing a Broken World, however trivial. It is a way to combine faith and works. The two together form a powerful combination. Plus, it gets us out of our ruts in life and gives us an outward outlook. If it were up to me, there would be way too many ways I could serve, thus spreading myself too thinly. Especially being in a new land with a new culture and language; and now, especially, since I am in the process of setting up my own new business here, sometimes working 18 hour days. So I have to choose carefully. It must be meaningful for myself and for those whom I serve. It must be fun – something that really interests me. So I have chosen two very different volunteer activities.
I grew up in a fairly Zionistic family. Forever reading stories of the early pioneers and histories of the establishment of the State of Israel, I wanted to one day play my part. As a young teen, I had dreams of running away from home and joining the Israeli army, most marked when the Yom Kippur War broke out. I had a dashing Israeli soldier penpal through high school and college who would send me pictures from training activities, division, hiking, and tank training in the Sinai. It seemed romantic and exciting. Defending the land!!!! So….. although it is much more mundane work for me now, once a week, my husband and I get on a shuttle with 6-8 other Karmi’elites at seven in the morning and head towards an Israeli Defense Forces base about half an hour away. It serves as a major supply hub for the Northern divisions. We all agree that in many ways the army serves us more than we help them. As soon as we alight off the bus, we head to the mess for a nice breakfast – usually eggs, salads, yogurt, bread and tea. We are waited upon by the kitchen staff who are always so nice to us. Also there are other volunteers – some from the Sa-El program, some special needs groups, kids from France, Christian groups from the US, it’s always quite a mix.
Our small group is always assigned to the same warehouse, where we are now familiar with the routine: unpacking boxes and counting out and labeling items that can range from helmets, to Hummer axels, from transmitters to windshield wipers or gun straps. We count, we inspect, we label, we repack. Our boxes are then shipped out to all the neighboring bases in the area. I like to pray that the parts will never be needed for active combat, but if they are, that they will function perfectly as intended and the user will have Divine protection. It gives an even greater sense of purpose to our humble mission. We work for about an hour and a half before break, then put in another hour or so in before lunch. The meal is always a grand affair – a meat meal with veggies and lots else. The general who is head of logistics at the base usually visits each table at lunch to express his personal gratitude to all the workers who have volunteered their time. I’ve never seen such genuine gratitude from someone so high up. He asks where we’re from, what we’re doing. My favorite (“Only in Israel”) moment was when he went to the table of challenged adults to hug them each individually, spending time with each person. A pistol at his hip, he was squatting to be at eye level with each volunteer as he made that special connection. Yes, I do think we get a lot from serving here. And we are usually home by 12-1 with lots more of the day left…
One afternoon a week is spent doing something very dear to my heart on many levels. Back in California, I home-schooled all my children based on a Classical Curriculum (heavy in the humanities, yet not lacking in the sciences modeled and after the Triviuum approach to education). We studied the Classics, lots of history and art, and learned Hebrew and Latin. Fortunately, Malibu is home to the Getty Villa, a re-creation of the ancient Roman Villa diPapiri in Herculaneum. I took several educator seminars and courses there, and was a docent there for years. Also, in Los Angeles, I served on the steering Committee for Catholic and Jewish Women in Dialogue and also served our local community by moderating a group studying the Nature and Dignity of Women.
So, it was no accident that I chose to live in the Galilee home of the Magdala Project. We found Magdala on our visit to the area five years ago. Most exciting on many levels. It is run by a Catholic priest who had the vision of starting a center for women – all women, regardless of religion, race or background(based on the model of Mary Magdalene). In the future, there is hope that it will be a center where women could come to heal from emotional, physical, psychological trauma and start life afresh. A center where clergy support staff from a variety of fields could work together so women would be restored to fullness and become educated on their dignity and worth as being made in the image and likeness of the Creator. It would also be an ecumenical place where all people could come to the shores of the Galilee to rest, contemplate, pray, meditate and recharge – as well as dialogue. After the property was purchased by the Legion of Christ and plans drawn up for the Magdala Center, archaeological probes found one of the most important discoveries in the area in the last century! A first century synagogue was the first to be unearthed, and within a year of digging, two villas, a complete marketplace, fish-salting and curing areas, and an ancient port: the large and prosperous city of Magdala (Tarichae). This was the place where Mary of Magdala lived as well as the home of the great historian Josephus Flavius. Most certainly Jesus walked the streets here and taught in the synagogues. Coins dating from 6, 47, and 64 were excavated on this site, thus dating the city. During the Jewish rebellion of 67-68, the Romans under Vespasian and then Titus laid siege to the city, killing many inhabitants, and selling women and children into slavery for Rome. Off the shores of this port a great sea battle was fought between the Jewish and Roman forces, so intense that Josephus writes “the lake became red with the blood of those killed.” From the Galilee, the Romans would then march towards and lay siege to the Holy City of Jerusalem.
So with all this history coming to life for me here, I decided to give tours once a week, It is very exciting and rewarding . The greatest archaeological find is the first century synagogue. The synagogue was large and highly decorated for its time with columns, frescoes, and part of a beautiful mosaic floor in the Greek key pattern. The synagogue is formed in the round, and was a place where both men and women came to worship together. On one side was the Aron haKodesh, where the sacred Torah and the Haftorah were kept. In the center of the synagogue stands the Magdala Stone, a piece of liturgical furniture that was most likely used to unroll and read the Torah. This is most glorious and unusual piece as it is a recreation of the Holy Temple carved in stone. There is none other like it. The front depicts the seven-branched menorah or lamp stand flanked by two large amphorae used for keeping the olive oil to light the menorah. At the forefront is a representation of the altar of sacrifice. The symmetrical sides display the colonnade that flanked the outer walls of the Temple in Jerusalem. There are two oil lamps in the shapes of pomegranates, one on each side. In his desciption of the Temple, Josephus writes that these were placed along the inner walls to light the way of those passing through the colonnades. The back of the stone provides us with a representation of the Holy of Holies. There are two wheels within wheels and a fiery chariot symbolic of the throne of G-d (Ezekiel 1). The top of the Stone is also quite ornate with a rosette (the ancient Flower of Life) and two palm trees which were embroidered on the parachute, or curtain that divided the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple. Josephus describes the embroidery in his writings. The Flower of Life was a symbol of hope and resurrection, but also could be an almond blossom. In the Holy Place during the First Temple Period, the Ark of the Covenant was kept which contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments and Aaron’s staff which perpetually budded with almond blossoms. The almond tree is the first to bloom in the early spring and the last to produce “fruit” in the late fall. On the top of the Magdala Stone are six heart shaped figures. Archaeologists, historians, and theologians surmise that it could be the twelve showbreads that were kept in the Temple. It is a most exquisite and historically important find.
One of my favorite pieces is located in the adjacent room of the sanctuary, in the study hall, lined with low benches. In the center is another piece of liturgical furniture. another large stone, simple, yet very practical. It has a flat top and two diveted lines on each side for placing the two rolls that form the “spines” upon which the Torah parchment was wound. So 2000 years ago, rabbis were laying out and reading the Torah and discussing it together with the congregants – an Ancient Scripture study class. When I first saw this piece five years ago, I was so excited! And now that I live nearby, it is an honor to be able to docent in this place.
My journey thus far has been rich, rewarding, and full of opportunity and learning despite the daily hardships. I am so blessed to be able to give back and volunteer in two extremely different places. Both are interesting and have helped me grow and understand the different people who live here and who visit as tourists and pilgrims. You can find out much more information from reading all about Magdala, the excavations, the vision, the symposia that have taken place here, and more by going to