By Jean Smallwood, Church of England Licensed Lay Minister and participant in CCJ’s Yad Vashem seminar 2016
In November 2016 I joined the Council of Christians and Jews’ annual seminar to Yad Vashem. On a day off over the weekend we enjoyed a day trip to the Galilee. We had been delayed and we realised that we would not have time to visit Nazareth so it was suggested that as we were close to Magdala we should go there instead. It was late in the afternoon and the light was fading but we had a conducted tour and saw most of the outdoor site. The tour finished in a newly constructed prayer centre. I was so impressed by the whole site which had a first century synagogue, two houses each with a ritual bath, as well as the prayer centre, and I realised that something inside me was urging that I return to discover more.
When I returned home, I tried to persuade myself that the thoughts of returning were just the equivalent of a “holiday romance” but in spite of myself I found myself looking at Magdala’s website and exploring the possibility of volunteering there. I filled in the application form and after an interview via Skype was accepted onto the volunteer programme. At the end of July I flew to Israel.
Volunteers are housed in Tiberius and taken every day by minibus to Magdala, a journey of around ten minutes. Most of the volunteers are from Mexico and in the 18 to 25 years age range and the language is Spanish. Most are Roman Catholic so from the outset I had little in common with them but surprisingly I did fit in as a surrogate mother, aunt, big sister, friend and confidant! I was also able to help them improve their English.
I was tasked with several jobs on the site. First thing in the morning I cleaned the toilets and then went on to clean the Perspex cover of the replica Magdala stone as well as watering the plants. After that flurry of activity I was then on standby to conduct a tour of the site to people who were just visiting or for tours that had been pre booked by travel firms. I might take one person round the site or I could have up to fifty people.
During the time I was there I met people from all over the world and from all religions. It was interesting that Jewish people from all over the world were particularly moved by seeing the Magdala stone with the ancient menorah, the synagogue which is only one of seven complete synagogues in Israel, and the only one in the Galilee, the large market site and the houses each with the mikvah.
I learned so much from the Jewish visitors. The baths at Magdala are still patent and fill with water during the rainy season. It was so wonderful to see and hear the response that the Jewish visitors gave when hearing and seeing something from their history and there were many hugs and tears.
The Menorah Stone at Magdala
This was balanced by the responses from the Christian visitors. Seeing the stone (another replica) in the synagogue and knowing that Jesus could most likely have stood in the synagogue to read from the scrolls from in front of it moved so many of the visitors. They of course were not as moved by the menorah or the mikvah but in the prayer centre, known as the Duc in Altum (Into the Deep) there was the Encounter Chapel which was built over the harbour floor. These stones of the floor had been carefully numbered, photographed and taken up. They were cleaned and then replaced exactly as they were. When Jesus stepped from the boat he would have stepped onto these stones before walking up to the market place. This was the place where most of the visitors became emotional. Some took off their shoes and rubbed their feet on the floor and others knelt down and placed their hands over several of the stones.
During my time in Magdala, I was at times also so moved by what I was witnessing. The fact that both Jews and Christians were getting so much from their visit was very powerful, as indeed was the reaction by interested tourists who had no faith at all.
I would encourage anyone who is going to the Galilee to visit the place which is described as the crossroads of the Jewish and Christian faiths.