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Torah Scrolls Make Trek Up Mountain, Completing Masada Shul’s Restoration

May 4, 2006
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Most tourists who make the pilgrimage to Masada have seen the ruins of the 2,000-year-old stone synagogue built by the Jewish Zealots who hid there from the Romans for four years before committing mass suicide in 73 C.E. It was a sad little building, without a roof, its crumbled walls but a few feet high. One had to imagine where the worshippers stood to pray. What rituals did they observe? What, if any, religious items did they have?

Last year, the little synagogue was restored. It now boasts a roof, door and small bookshelf. But the focal point is along the eastern wall: an ark covered by a dark blue velvet curtain, which, for the first time in two millennia, houses two complete Torah scrolls.

“After 2,000 years, we brought back the Torah to Masada,” says Eitan Campbell, director of the Masada National Park and a key figure in the restoration project.

The impetus came three years ago from Yehuda Meshi Zahav, founder and chairman of Israel’s ZAKA non-governmental rescue and recovery team. He had brought a team of ZAKA volunteers to Masada for a Sound and Light show, and noticed there was no Torah there. When people held a religious ceremony atop the mountain, they had to bring their own scroll.

On Shavuot eve, 2004, a ZAKA group brought a donated Torah scroll to Masada, carried it up the mountain, and opened it at the top in a festive ceremony before handing it into Campbell’s safekeeping.

After that night, Campbell kept the scroll securely locked in his vault at the visitors center at the base of the mountain. When visitors asked to use it, he would let them take it up the mountain, but he “didn’t feel good about it,” he says. The Torah didn’t belong in a vault, it belonged on the mountain.

“We realized it belonged in the geniza,” he says, the small room behind the ruined synagogue where the Zealots buried their holy books. That was where Yigal Yadin’s excavation team found Bible fragments in 1963, including the famed “dry bones” passages from Ezekiel.

“There were some obstacles,” Campbell admits. One can’t keep a Torah scroll in a ruin — it requires a roof, floor and secure ark. And the chief archeologist was “not too enthusiastic” at the idea of interfering with the structure, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

“But the importance of returning a Torah to the exact same place where Eliezer Ben Yair might have hidden his Torah scroll that night, that he could understand,” Campbell says, referring to the Zealot who led Masada’s defense.

South Florida philanthropist Warren Struhl provided the funding for the synagogue’s restoration. Struhl and three colleagues forked over the $80,000 Campbell needed for the job, and donated a second Torah scroll as well.

On Sept. 26 at 3 a.m., more than 600 men, women and children, fervently Orthodox to secular, began to dance and sing their way up the southern slope of the mountain, carrying both Torah scrolls to their new home inside the restored synagogue. The goings-on were streamed live over the Internet.

“It was a morning that anyone who was there will never forget,” Campbell says.

Israeli music legend David Broza, who has held more than 20 concerts at Masada since 1993, flew in from the Canary Islands for the event. At sunrise, he played a few songs — not religious songs, he said, but the soulful, spiritually infused music for which he is known.

Last week, he was back at Masada, showing it to his daughter and her boyfriend. He and Campbell, who both feel a strong attachment to the site, sometimes sleep on the mountain. But whereas Campbell is entranced by the tragic history of the Jewish Zealots, Broza says it’s the power of nature that draws him back.

“There’s massive energy, the change of light from 3 a.m. to sunrise” he told JTA, reflecting on why he returns again and again to hold concerts there.

“You let yourself get carried away, you don’t really have control over your emotions. And if the show is good, the music takes you even further.”

Both Torah scrolls are now housed permanently on the mountain. They are used for morning prayers every Monday and Thursday, Campbell says. “Word has gotten out that the scrolls are here,” he says. “We’ve closed the 2,000-year circle. If those last defenders would know there’s still a Jewish presence on Masada, it would mean a lot to them.”

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