Doing the Templer Run in the Galilee

They came to Israel in 1868 to establish a model society and hasten the coming of the Messiah, and left a lasting legacy of beautiful stone houses. A tour of Galilee’s Templer homes.

Koby Fleishman lives in Bethlehem of Galilee, in a house built in 1922. The big stone house with blue wooden shutters sits in the center of a greenery-filled yard in the village, some 10 kilometers northwest of Nazareth. The mulberry tree was planted in 1928, says Fleishman.

The tree has seen the Turks, Germans, British and Israelis, and all sorts of intrigues. Some, particularly those that happened during the Templer period, were described in Meir Shalev’s novel “Fontanella.” (Waldheim, where the book’s action takes place, is the former name of nearby Alonei Abba.)

The house originally belonged to the family of Koby’s wife, Nurit Weiss, and Fleishman is keenly aware of the importance of its preservation.

It was built in the 1920s by the Wagner family, who, like other Templers, had come to Haifa from Germany. Karl and Elsa Wagner bought a large plot of land in Bethlehem of Galilee in order to farm. Their son built the house, and the family raised pigs.

Now an effort is underway to create a visitors’ center here and offer country lodging. Dozens of black-and-white photographs on the walls of the ground floor capture moments in the place’s history.

Bethlehem of Galilee’s past cries out for preservation. The same is true of Alonei Abba, just two kilometers away. There are 13 large Templer houses in Bethlehem of Galilee and another 12 in Alonei Abba, all dating from the early 20th century. Some are in excellent condition, others are near ruin. But each one is a treasure.

Early 20th-century Templer architecture had a number of salient characteristics: German motifs integrated with Oriental arches; a balcony above the entrance; an inscription that included a Biblical verse; and a gable on the upper part. The houses are quite beautiful. You can’t just walk by them. And juxtaposed with the small houses that were built near them in the 1950s, their grandeur stands out still more.

Despite the obvious tourism potential, most of them are now private homes and the owners aren’t keen to have strangers wandering around and taking pictures. Both locales are currently taking a cautious look at how tourism might coexist with the safeguarding of their privacy; at how architectural preservation can be balanced with the homeowners’ desire to do as they please with their property.

Long-time Bethlehem of Galilee resident Avi Zithershpieler – owner of a nearby spice farm – says with a big smile, “I’m afraid of Koby Fleishman. Whenever I take my dog out for a walk in my pajamas, he comes by with a group of visitors, points me out as a typical local and tells some amusing story about my family.”

The Wagner family house in Bethlehem of Galilee, built in the 1920s. Photo by Moshe Gilad

A number of tourist businesses have cropped up in the two moshavim in the past few years. A glossy brochure describes 16 of them. Only two are dedicated to the Templer past of Alonei Abba and Bethlehem of Galilee (Beit Lehem HaGlilit in Hebrew – literally “the Galilean Bethlehem”). The others offer attractions like fruit picking, a tour of an olive press, milking cows or eating Yemenite jachnun in a Templer house.

The tour of the Templer houses in the two moshavim lasts a few hours. The last stop was Fleishman’s home, and this was also the only house that we entered.

The first Templers came to Israel in 1868 to establish a model society and hasten the coming of the Messiah. They dispersed from Haifa to several other towns and colonies that they founded. In each one, they built impressive stone houses that have stood the test of time (with the Sarona colony in Tel Aviv the best known).

The Messiah may not have come yet, but at least the geraniums are currently in full bloom.

Alonei Abba

Near the entrance to Alonei Abba is the stone house built by the Steib family of Tübingen. Like most Templer houses, it has two floors and a half-sunken basement.

The house had its moment of fame when it was featured in the 1960 movie “Exodus,” when the yard was the setting for a tear-jerking scene between Ari Ben Canaan (a young Paul Newman) and his father.

Across the road is a house that’s in better shape. It belonged to the Larsen family of Denmark, and beside it is a smaller building that was used as a carpentry shop.

Down the street is a round plaza flanked by a neo-Gothic-style church, built in 1915. The beautiful structure is closed, and a peek in the window shows that the interior is in desperate need of renovation. The Templers didn’t need a church, explains Fleishman. But the settlers who came to Waldheim were followers of George David Hardegg, who left the Templers in 1874 and joined the Evangelical Church. Asked what will become of the church, Fleishman shrugs.

Behind it stands another Templer building in much better condition. It has red windows and is surrounded by a garden filled with sculptures and works of art. This is the home and art gallery of Hannah Levav, who also gives tours of the moshav.

On the other side of the plaza is a three-story Templer structure that stands empty and somewhat derelict. The ground floor was used for keeping farm animals and equipment. The second floor was the family quarters and the third used for storage.

A Templer house in Bethlehem of Galilee. Photo by Moshe Gilad

As the tour continues, Fleishman knowledgably points out the other Templer homes, naming the families they belonged to and relating some of the dramatic tales associated with them.

There are tragedies – like the story of how two Templer colonists were killed by Haganah gunfire in April 1948 – and there are bits of amusing gossip: Who are the current tenants? Who married whom? Who ran away? Which MK’s sister lives here, which writer lives there?

Bethlehem of Galilee

In the center of Bethlehem of Galilee stands the large community center, which now has two floors. Next to it is the water tower, which resembles a fortress with a jagged turret, and the long milking building.

Down the street is the beautiful house of the Beilharz family. It’s easy to see that they were experts in construction and masonry. They built many things in Haifa, including the Laurence Oliphant house; the Kaltenbach flour mill in Bat Galim; and the pier that was erected in honor of the German emperor’s 1898 visit. They also built a hospital in Tiberias.

During World War II, the Templers identified with the Nazi regime and were considered subjects of an enemy state; Fleishman displays several artifacts from that period that are inscribed with swastikas. Bethlehem of Galilee was turned into an internment camp, surrounded by fences and guard towers.

Families evacuated from Haifa were put in the Beilharz house. In early 1940, the house had 22 tenants. In July 1941, the family was sent to Australia, along with hundreds more Templers.

In 1952, as part of the reparations agreement with Germany, Israel paid $13 million to the Templers in compensation for their property.

Alonim Forest

The area around Alonei Abba and Bethlehem of Galilee is one of the few in Israel that can truly be called a natural forest. Some 200 meters before the entrance to Alonei Abba, off of Road 7513, is an entrance to a nature reserve with an easy, circular 1.5-kilometer hiking trail.

If you continue toward Bethlehem of Galilee and turn right before the entrance to the moshav, a dirt road leads to the spice farm. There are tours and a shop with a large selection of spices and medicinal herbs. Owner Avi Zithershpieler says it’s tough to make a living from farming, and that agritourism is the key to the future.

Where to see Templer houses

Tel Aviv: The German (American) Colony – between Florentin and Jaffa, Auerbach Street, Bar Hoffman Street; Valhalla (a small neighborhood next to Neveh Tzedek); Sarona – around the Kirya, Kaplan Street and David Elazar Street, and between Shaul Hamelech Boulevard, Derekh Begin and Ha’arba’a Street.

Haifa: The German Colony – along Ben-Gurion Boulevard and between Derekh Ha’atzmaut and Hatziyonut Boulevard; Carmelheim – now the Merkaz Hacarmel neighborhood

Jerusalem: The German Colony – Emek Refaim Street

Central Israel: Bnei Atarot (Wilhelma), near Ben-Gurion International Airport

Jezreel Valley: Alonei Abba (Waldheim), Bethlehem of Galilee

Moshe Gilad