JERUSALEM, Israel – What happens when Israeli high school students literally dig into their past, invest in their present and prepare for their future?
That's the story behind hundreds of young Israelis who spent a week excavating a 2,000 year old Jewish village near Beit Shemesh. First, they needed money to make the trip from Israel to Poland for what's called the "March of the Living."
It's this annual pilgrimage for thousands of Jewish young people to commemorate the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) that brought them to the dirt and dust of an active excavation site in the heart of Israel.
"This unique project, which connects the country's past and Israel's heritage with Holocaust studies and the journey to Poland, provides students with an educational experience in which they are exploring and investigating," Boyer High School Principal Dafna Menashe Baruch said.
The students plan to join thousands of others walking from the Auschwitz to Birkenau death camps as a tribute to the 6 million Jews killed during the Nazi regime.
That's why for one week, the 240 eleventh graders from Jerusalem's Boyer High School helped unearth the remains of Second Temple period homes, many with their own private mikvehs (ritual baths).
What's a mikveh? It might look like a small swimming pool but it's been an essential part of Judaism's ancient past as a means of purification. Today, some Jewish women immerse themselves in the mikveh following their monthly cycle, before marriage and after the birth of a child. During Temple times the priests required a mikveh when a leper was healed (Lev. 14:9) and Jewish men would immerse themselves before bringing their sacrifices to the priests.
Since the excavation began several months ago, eight ritual baths and cisterns have been uncovered, as well a labyrinth of passageways and caves dating to the Bar Kochba Revolt, one of Judaism's most significant events.
During the reign of Emperor Hadrian, Shimon Bar Kochba led Jewish forces against the Roman occupation. The emperor planned to rename Jerusalem Aelia Capitolina and build a pagan temple in the holy city. More than 500,000 Jews were killed and 1,000 villages destroyed during the three-year uprising (A.D. 132-135) .
One of the excavated caves held intact ceramic jars and cooking pots believed to have been used during the revolt, indicating the town existed after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D.
Beit Shemesh itself, located halfway between Jerusalem and modern Tel Aviv, has a rich biblical history. It's mentioned several times in the Bible. In Joshua 15:10-11, it's described as the northern border of the tribe of Judah. In Joshua 21 it is one of the cities allotted to the Levites (priests). I Samuel 6 records how the Ark of the Covenant wound up in Beit Shemesh. It's a fascinating story.
Now 2,000 years later, young Jewish students are discovering their history two millennia ago, commemorating the tragedy of the Jewish people 70 years ago, while looking forward to their future.