How Masada Became a Private Playground

Bar mitzvahs, performances for corporate employees, other events now held on venerated site.

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Visitors to Masada.
Visitors to Masada. Credit: Bloomberg

It happened one night in June at 12:45 A.M. A performance of the opera “La Traviata” had just ended at the foot of Masada, the ancient Herodian mountain fortress and palace that is now a national park. The guests are beginning to start off for home by bus or car while about 70 people make their way to the mountain. Awaiting them at the visitor’s center entrance is Eitan Campbell, director of the site, an employee of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. After a few moments, the silence is broken by the sound of the cable car motors, and the members of the group then ascend in total darkness to Masada’s summit for a tour. That’s despite the fact that signage at the visitors’ center in no uncertain terms says that no one is allowed at the top at night.

The cable car is usually operated by four people, but on this night, it was run by Campbell along with just one other staffer. One could only imagine what would have happened if the cable car had gotten stuck in midair, or if one of the visitors had tripped or, heaven forbid, fallen into the abyss.

Parks authority director general Shaul Goldstein said the group was made up of musicians and singers from the opera who were returning to Italy the following day. No one had broken the rules, he asserted, since the sign was directed to outside visitors, while the director of Masada was authorized to admit people onto the mountain. Goldstein expressed support for the nighttime visit, adding that it was consistent with the policy that he was trying to lead at his agency when it came to efforts at public diplomacy on Israel’s behalf.

“People were coming from abroad from an artistic background whom we want to develop a relationship with, so Eitan said, ‘Come with me up to the mountain. You’ll see the beauty of Israel,” Goldstein explains. “It’s a genuine Zionist act, the act of revealing what the State of Israel is. Let self-righteous types say what they may. Eitan identified an opportunity and deserves credit for it.”

Bat mitzvah extravaganza

Three weeks after the group of performers made their nighttime foray up the mountain, a private bat mitzvah celebration was held there that sparked a public outcry. The event was in honor of the two daughters of the wealthy Los Angeles Damaghi family that had donated $50,000 to Masada National Park the year before for the reconstruction of frescoes. The ceremony, to which about 500 people were invited, was held on a Friday afternoon, after the park’s regular visiting hours on a 400 square meter stage.

About 30 dancers, singers and other artists had been due to perform on the stage, but due to the publicity that the event had attracted, as well as coverage of another party that the family had held at an Israeli military base, the Masada celebration was scaled down. In addition, the Environmental Protection Ministry, which is responsible for oversight of the parks authority, objected to holding the event. Environment Minister Amir Peretz even ordered Goldstein to cancel it. “It is doubtful that this is a routine event, if for no other reason than that it is taking place after visiting hours at the site,” Peretz noted in a letter to the parks authority director general. When Goldstein decided to hold the event anyway, Peretz summoned him to explain.

Masada, one of the country’s most famous heritage sites, has undergone a number of changes in recent years. It now has a spacious visitors’ center and a new cable car takes visitors to the summit. The government has invested about 200 million shekels ($52 million) at the site since 2000, which has funded the new visitor’s center and cable car.

Another surprise has to do with the relationship that the park has with Rabbi Shimon Elharar of Arad, who calls himself Masada’s Chabad rabbi. His fliers and business cards can be found at the visitors’ center. When TheMarker called Masada to inquire about rabbis available to perform bar mitzvahs, Elharar’s was one of two names provided. He is not only Masada’s rabbi, an unofficial moniker by which park staff refer to him; he and the ultra-Orthodox Chabad movement with which he is affiliated have a real foothold on the mountain.

Masada is the site of one of the world’s oldest synagogues, which served the Jews who held out against a siege by the Romans there 2,000 years ago. It is relatively small and one of its rooms is set aside for Elharar and his associates. A Jewish ritual scribe who works for a non-profit organization that Elharar heads sits in the room and creates Torah scrolls. A charity contribution box full of bills and coins sits on his desk.

When TheMarker called Elharar to inquire about bar mitzvahs on Masada, he said he heads the Masada Heritage Foundation and also serves as Chabad’s representative to Masada and the Dead Sea region. Until recently, he also generated income from Torah scrolls. His website used to offer the purchase of a letter in a Torah for $10. At some stage, he said by phone, he stopped the practice after the prior scribe was replaced. The foundation is still generating income, however. According to the Guidestar charity database, last year it received 138,000 shekels from the writing of Torah scrolls and another 38,000 shekels in donations.

Why him?

Why was it Elharar who was given a spot on the mountain rather than someone else involved with religion or heritage activities? The Reform movement, for example, or the Tzohar movement of Orthodox rabbis, or perhaps an extreme ultra-Orthodox movement?

It was Elharar who proposed the post to the parks authority and after a year of deliberating, he got approval. Elharar has no exclusive right to perform bar mitzvahs at Masada, a spokesman for the parks authority said. “Anyone can bring whichever rabbi he wants. We don’t recommend whom to choose.” And Goldstein, who took over as parks authority director general in 2011 after Elharar was already in place, said he was currently considering whether to open the use of the synagogue to a public bidding process.

He did not consider the current situation problematic. “When I assumed my position, I asked why this person was there and not someone else,” he said. “It turns out that this had huge added value. People from all over the country, army units, come up here and write a Torah scroll. It’s true that Chabad is not an organization affiliated with the state, but they’re the movement closest to the Jewish people,” he said. “They know how to include everyone.”

Another arguably surprising relationship is with the Asphalt Theater owned by Moshe Hanuka, fliers from which are also at the visitors’ center. Hanuka has worked on Masada since 2004 and the park staff has even provided him with an equipment storeroom. He produces performances near Masada’s Western Palace, which over the years have been directed at various segments of the public, primarily corporate employee groups. Over the holidays, he schedules performances for the general public. In the past, advertising for the shows even appeared on the official Masada information of the parks authority website.

Without disparaging the quality of Hanuka’s performances, the relationship with the park again raises a question as to who gets priority access. According to Hanuka, with whom we spoke simply as someone expressing interest, he said that he began working at the park after being invited by the Israel Teachers’ Union, and since then continued to produce shows on the mountain, without any official relationship.

Parks Authority: 'No problem'

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority counters that there is no problem with Hanuka’s activities, for among other reasons because he is an artist. “National parks, by law, are designated for the wellbeing of the public. Cafes and restaurants can be opened on them and events can be held,” Goldstein said. “Therefore if someone wants to perform or have an event of the kind that connects him to Masada, why not?”

For his part, Hanuka responded: “I don’t have a storeroom on the mountain. I store a few mats near the corner for the preservation workers on the mountain. I got in there because of a love of the place, and by virtue of this, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority helped us. But I don’t have a commitment from them that I will always be there. I don’t have possession of the mountain and anyone else can appear on the mountain as he pleases, but they don’t want to do it because it’s terribly hard work.”

There is a whole host of other events as well, which also raise the issue of environmental damage. Every fall during the Sukkot holiday, for example, Masada hosts singing performances as part of the Tamar festival, even though parks authority staff acknowledge that it causes damage to the antiquities, as reflected in minutes of a meeting at which the issue came up in 2010. Four years later, the Tamar festival events continue to be held.

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