As State Slumbers, Volunteers Step in to Rescue Neglected Sanhedrin Tombs

If ever you want to find the Sanhedrin Tombs in northern Jerusalem, don't use the half-lira bill from the 1950s as your guide.

That banknote depicted an impressive burial site from the Second Temple period, which the Israel Antiquities Authority calls "one of the most important antiquities sites in Jerusalem and in the country as a whole." But today it is neglected, unmarked, and covered with graffiti and soot - and the bureaucratic bickering about who's responsible indicates that isn't likely to change any time soon.

The ultra-Orthodox residents of Sanhedria, the neighborhood where the tombs are located, have expressed little interest in maintaining the ancient burial caves, though they were recently cleaned up by a group of Russian-speaking immigrants who have little connection to Judaism. However, the dirt quickly accumulated once more and the signposts they put up have been removed.

Rafi Kasimov, who coordinates the Land of Israel program for Russian speakers at the Conservative movement's Schechter Institutes, called on the ultra-Orthodox to join his students' attempt to restore the site.

"It's a paradox that Russian speakers, all of them very far removed from tradition, who eat pork, came in their own free time to clean a grave that is located in the middle of an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood," said Kasimov.

Since the 1950s, the caves have been surrounded by a forest planted by the Jerusalem municipality. However, while the forest is well-maintained and relatively clean, the caves have become a target of vandals. Many of the burial caves are covered with graffiti and some are covered in soot from fires that were lit nearby. It is difficult to read the inscriptions that adorn the entrance to the main cave because of the layers of dirt and weeds covering it.

Members of the group contacted the Jerusalem municipality to seek support, but the municipality merely provided garbage bags and gloves. The group cleaned the main burial cave and posted signs there in Hebrew, English and Russian.

A week later the signs were removed. The municipality said individuals are not legally permitted to post signs there, but has not put up new signs.

"Signs must be posted here so that local residents will realize that they have an asset here," said Kasimov. "I call on all the ultra-Orthodox people who protest outside the Intel plant and throw stones to come here. What could be better than cleaning a Jewish grave site?"

However, the municipality said it was not responsible for the tombs where the 71 scholars of the Great Sanhedrin, the highest court of ancient Israel, are said to be buried. The site, called "the tomb of the judges" in Arabic, has 71 burial niches.

"Due to numerous queries regarding the filth and pollution inside the grave complex, there was a cleanup of the area, and now the site is closed to prevent dirt and vandalism," the municipality said in a statement. It said the Sanhedrin tomb site is the responsibility of the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Religious Services Ministry.

However, the Israel Antiquities Authority said it does not "maintain or operate" the site.

"The Sanhedrin Tombs are part of a park set up by the Jerusalem municipality," the authority said. "Responsibility for maintaining the park, as well the other public parks in the city, lies with the Jerusalem municipality. Unfortunately, the municipality is not doing enough to preserve and maintain this important site. The Israel Antiquities Authority's appeals to the municipality regarding this matter have yet to be addressed. It is only fitting that a budget be found to refurbish the site, which is among the most important antiquities sites in Jerusalem and in the country as a whole."