Meet­ing Je­sus On Kib­butz

The Yar­denit Site Is a Draw for Pious Chris­tians

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Nathan Jeffay Nathan Jeffay is the For­ward’s Is­rael cor­re­spon­dent. Contact him at jeffay@for­ward.com.

The story of Is­rael’s busiest bap­tism cen­ter.

Or­lando Soares, a charis­matic Chris­tian pas­tor on pil­grim­age from Eng­land, emerged from the Jor­dan River, close to where Je­sus is said to have been bap­tized, beam­ing with hap­pi­ness. “It’s like a restart — a dec­la­ra­tion I want to do ev­ery­thing again,” he said. “You’re re­born. It rep­re­sents new life and new com­mit­ment to God.”

Busy sea­son is start­ing at this spot of the Jor­dan, where it joins the Sea of Galilee.

Over the com­ing weeks, Chris­tians from around the world will head to Is­rael to ful­fill a dream of Christ­mas in the Holy Land, and many of them will find their most sa­cred ex­pe­ri­ence at a site run by Jews. For­get cow­sheds, chicken coups, com­bine har­vesters and even com­put­ers — bap­tism could be the new hot kib­butz in­dus­try.

This bap­tismal site of Yar­denit is the largest in­come stream for the sec­ond old­est kib­butz in Is­rael, Kib­butz Kin­neret. Though it is not the site of Je­sus’ bap­tism — the ac­tual spot is near Jeri­cho, in the Is­raeli-oc­cu­pied West Bank, and wasn’t eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble un­til a cou­ple of years ago — Yar­denit is the most pop­u­lar place on the Jor­dan River for bap­tisms.

Back in the early 1980s it was a fish farm. The kib­butz lead­er­ship was un­en­thu­si­as­tic when the Min­istry of Tourism asked it to change its use, af­ter the death of a pil­grim high­lighted the dan­gers of the hap­haz­ard bap­tism prac­tices. At that time, there was no des­ig­nated site for bap­tisms, and the pil­grim was killed ex­it­ing his car af­ter park­ing, as many did, on a busy road along the river so that he could im­merse.

“We weren’t ex­cited, but we agreed,” said Yonathan Bo­brov, the site’s man­ager. Bo­brov was born on Kib­butz Kin­neret 63 years ago and has lived there ever since. “It was only 10 years later that we started to see it as a great thing and see its po­ten­tial.”

But Yar­denit had a long way to go be­fore it be­came the chic, welloiled op­er­a­tion that it is to­day. It now re­ceives 600,000 vis­i­tors an­nu­ally. Some of them bap­tize in the clas­sic sense of for­mally ad­mit­ting them­selves to Chris­tian­ity by en­ter­ing the river or be­ing sprin­kled with its wa­ter; oth­ers im­merse to em­u­late Je­sus and reaf­firm their faith.

In the past few years, Yar­denit has con­structed mod­ern build­ings and ren­o­vated older ones to of­fer

For­get cow­sheds and com­put­ers, bap­tism is the new kib­butz in­dus­try.

com­fort­able chang­ing rooms and show­ers, along with an up­scale res­tau­rant and a gift store that looks like a Chris­tian-themed duty-free shop. It sells ev­ery­thing from bot­tles of holy wa­ter and charms em­bla­zoned with pic­tures of saints to sho­fars and tal­li­tot for Chris­tians who want sou­venirs re­call­ing Je­sus’ own re­li­gion.

Upon ar­rival, guests are asked if they have their own bap­tismal gowns. If not, they can rent one for $10, or buy one for $23. For $2 ex­tra, the gown comes with a pic­ture of Je­sus be­ing bap­tized on its front, with or with­out a Rus­sian cap­tion say­ing “Jor­dan River.” Like at theme parks, a videog­ra­pher records group bap­tisms and shows them on a screen in a stall on the river­bank so that vis­i­tors can buy the videos if they wish.

But de­spite the com­mer­cial bent, the place has been taste­fully con­structed. When Bo­brov be­came man­ager in the 1990s, he re­moved the ad­ver­tise­ments for soda and ice cream. There are no en­trance fees, and pil­grims can visit with­out spend­ing a dime. And the kib­butz takes se­ri­ously its mis­sion state­ment for the site: to give each visi­tor a “unique reli­gious ex­pe­ri­ence.” It dis­plays the ac­count of Je­sus’ bap­tism from the Gospel of Mark in 70 lan­guages, and helps groups to run spe­cial cer­e­monies af­ter im­mer­sion, some­times invit­ing con­gre­ga­tions to plant olive trees.

“I think ev­ery­thing that the kib­butz has done is in a very dig­ni­fied and wel­com­ing man­ner,” said David Par­sons, a se­nior of­fi­cial at Jerusalem’s In­ter­na­tional Chris­tian Em­bassy, one of the main Chris­tian bod­ies that bring pil­grims to Is­rael. “There was no site like this be­fore Yar­denit and the kib­butz iden­ti­fied a need and an­swered it with the lovely set­ting and all the ser­vices you need.”

Un­like Par­sons, most pil­grims are un­aware of the un­likely story of kib­butzniks fa­cil­i­tat­ing mass bap­tism; they are far too taken with the Bib­li­cal story. In fact, while most Is­raelis have never heard of the site, some Chris­tians re­gard it as more im­por­tant than Jerusalem. “This is the most im­por­tant sym­bol in Chris­tian­ity,” said Brazil­ian Pen­te­costal pas­tor Fran­cisco Ni­co­lau, who was vis­it­ing the site.

Renato Rogo, 27, from Bris­tol, Eng­land, said, “Ev­ery time I read the Bi­ble, I imag­ine my­self in the place I have been read­ing about, and I’ve been think­ing about be­ing here since I be­came Chris­tian in 2006.”

Some peo­ple are con­vinced that its spir­i­tual power is so strong that it car­ries even via broad­cast. “I saw on tele­vi­sion a group of pil­grims bap­tiz­ing at Yar­denit,” said Di­vanier Bar­bosa, a 60-year-old tai­lor from São Paulo. “Then I re­ceived the Holy Spirit and started speak­ing in tongues. I had a vi­sion that I would be here and had to do ev­ery­thing to get here. I had a lot of dif­fi­culty with money, but it didn’t mat­ter, I had to strug­gle to get here.” She said that her im­mer­sion didn’t dis­ap­point. “I feel like a new crea­ture.”

COUR­TESY YAR­DENIT

You’ve Been Dunked: Pil­grims at Yar­denit, on the Jor­dan River, con­duct rit­ual bap­tisms.

COUR­TESY YAR­DENIT

Wade in the Wa­ter: Most Yar­denit vis­i­tors don’t know that the site is run by Jewish kib­butzniks.

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