When Itzik Rahamim talks about the glory days of Beit She'an's Roman and Byzantine periods, his eyes light up. He described the splendor, the theater and the crowded public baths to the group of tourists he led last Saturday. "Beit She'an was the capital of the Decapolis [a league of 10 cities in the Roman Empire, located in Syria and Judea]. About 30,000-40,000 residents lived in Beit She'an during that period." Rahamim says he likes to teach the history of Roman Beit She'an, "but I am more connected to modern, 20th century Beit She'an. I like to lead groups through the streets of the modern city. It is important to me that tourists get to know our city and I enjoy guiding them."
Rahamim has been conducting these somewhat untraditional tours of Beit She'an and the surrounding area for a while already. A few years ago, Rahamim, the principal of the city's Tomer elementary school, joined the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority's "Community Park" project in which community residents guide tourists through national parks in their area. Thus, he began guiding tours in the Beit She'an National Park.
Three years ago, Rahamim launched an Internet site about Beit She'an (www.skitopo.net), featuring suggested tour routes and other information for visitors. It surprised him to find that a growing number of Israelis prefer to tour modern Beit She'an rather than the Old City. A group from Sha'arei Tikvah joined Rahamim's tour on Saturday. Rahamim led them through the Nof Gilead quarter, the newest neighborhood in the city that includes impressive, large homes. "This way, people see the real Beit She'an," he says. "The city suffers from an image of unemployment, poverty and misery. People only remember the little girl who said she was hungry and the 'Beit She'an: Seret Milhama' film [focusing on the city's soccer team]."
At an observation site that looks over Jordan and the Beit She'an Valley, Rahamim tells tourists about the development of communities in the valley and about the previously strained relations between the city and the surrounding kibbutzim that have now become neighborly. He describes demographic shifts, frozen growth, failures in the absorption of immigrants and the early history of the modern city.
He informs the tourists that, contrary to popular belief, the first settlers in the newly occupied city were Ashkenazi Jews of European descent, many of them Holocaust survivors who sparked the city's growth. He surprised the group with stories of Jews who lived here among the Arabs during the years 1918-1936. "The story of the 95 Jews who lived here is untold. I am researching that period." Then he moves to the next stop along the tour, an apartment building that was captured by terrorists in 1974, who killed an entire family.
As the tour continued, Rahamim ran into a former student who told him that he had moved to Jerusalem. This unexpected meeting provided Rahamim with the opportunity to highlight another aspect of life in Beit She'an. "This is the the situation in the city today. There is emigration that's part of a 'success syndrome.' Because the education system promotes achievement, young people look for ways to develop after their army service, and many of them leave Beit She'an," Rahamim explains.
He describes a network of social solidarity and expresses regrets at Beit She'an's negative image. "We contributed more than a little to the problematic image ourselves, because we bought into it," Rahamim believes. "I hope that my tour will bring about a change and that people will see the other Beit She'an."