In a dry land, water is sacred to all faiths

JERUSALEM — Twenty feet under the ancient City of David and modern-day Jerusalem, a murky stream of water runs through the city’s bedrock like a vein to the heart of the Holy Land.

The Gihon spring has flowed intermittently through this rock for thousands of years. For most of that time, it was Jerusalem’s only water source, and its supply was unpredictable. True to its name, Hebrew for “gushing,” the spring could lie dry and empty for days at a time before suddenly bursting forth with water. Today, five years into a debilitating regional drought, Israel’s water supply is just as tenuous.

“The fertile crescent used to be fertile,” says Pinhas Alpert, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Tel Aviv University. “It’s not anymore. We’re undergoing a dramatic decrease in rainfall.”

According to Israel Meteorological Service, Jerusalem saw only 67 percent of its usual rainfall this year, the latest statistic in a multi year-long downward trend. And as global temperatures continue to rise in years to come, the region is expected to grow even drier.

“The people living in this land are much more dependent on God to pray for the rain to come,” says Rabbi Yonatan Neril, the founder of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, a nonprofit which strives to mobilize believers from different faith traditions to promote environmental causes. Its efforts represent part of a growing interfaith community calling for water conservation and sustainability in Israel.

“Israel is different from Egypt, which has the Nile, and from Iraq and Syria and Turkey, which have the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers,” he says. “So the water situation in Israel is much more vulnerable. It depends on the rain, and I think that’s by divine design.”

Whether God or nature designed it all this way, water has been central to Jerusalem’s survival for as long as the city has existed. And for a window into the relationship between water, the Israelites and God, you need look no further than the Gihon spring.

“When you see archaeological artifacts – clay pots – they're dead. But the spring is living,” says Asher Arbit, a tour guide and archaeologist with the City of David tour company. “And it's why Jerusalem exists here. Because of this water."

Arbit’s shoes squelch with sacred water as he wades through the 533 meter-long tunnel where the Gihon spring flows. Equipped with a headlamp and an extensive knowledge of Jerusalem’s ancient history, he guides visitors through knee-deep water, bringing biblical tales to life as they wind their way through the dark and narrow tunnel.

Asher Arbit, a tour guide with City of David tour company, points to the spot on Jerusalem's hilly landscape where the mouth of the Gihon spring was located in ancient times. (Godland News / Sarah Wyman)

For thousands of years, the lives of Jerusalem’s inhabitants have been intertwined with the gently-trickling stream. Arbit traces the grooves in the hard rock wall with his hand as he recounts how, in 1010 BCE, King David’s troops invaded the subterranean water system to conquer Jerusalem. Three hundred years later, King Hezekiah engineered a tunnel to divert the supply inside the city’s walls, guaranteeing Jerusalem’s inhabitants safe and reliable access to clean water. And for thousands of years, the faithful have drawn water from the Gihon spring during the Jewish festival of Sukkot. It is used during the water libation, which celebrates the fertility of the land and the Israelites’ dependence upon God for survival.

“It’s really about praying for water,” says Rabbi Neril. “And also showing gratitude and thanks for when the rains do come.”

Neril is sitting in a bright office a few miles south of the Old City that looks like it could have been lifted out of a Silicon Valley startup. Colorful furniture is arranged throughout the open workspace, and sunlight streams into the room through an expansive bank of windows.

The office is home to several sustainability-oriented groups, many of which share religious roots. Though Neril is happy to discuss the theological foundations of his work – he’s edited two books and a series of videos and podcasts about the connection between water and Jewish teaching – his activities go beyond religious study and prayer.

“We’re in the bottom of the ninth here,” he says. “It’s about survival.”

Neril’s organization, the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development, is acting with some urgency in the face of this challenge. Together with Palestinian and Jordanian seminary students, Neril and his colleagues lead seminars about the connection between the Jordan River, faith and water conservation. Their aim is to unite the region’s faith leaders in their efforts to make clean water available to everyone and ensure their society’s survival in decades to come.

“My ecological concern isn’t like an appendage pasted on to my religious identity. It’s really one and the same,” says Neril.

Thousands of years have passed since the spring of Gihon first bubbled from Jerusalem’s bedrock, answering the prayers of the Israelites who lived there. Today, it continues to serve as a living reminder of how insecure survival is in this place, how uncertain it has always been and how much it depends on nature’s cooperation. As Neril and his colleagues know well, life in Israel is metered by an existential thirst. Its fate is – and has always been – intertwined with nature and the will of God.

“What happens to the waters is a religious issue.”

Voices from Godland, Episode 2: The Beatitudes

GALILEE — Godland brings you to the Church of the Beatitudes, where Christian pilgrims reflect on the meaning of Christ’s teachings and the roots of their faith.

Voices from Godland introduces listeners to the Holy Land through the eyes of the people who worship there — pilgrims and religious gatekeepers. Episodes highlight the human voices of holy sites, explore the relationship between place and faith, and commemorate the religious experience. Listen on Soundcloud or in the iTunes podcast app.

Sacred hymns: Mormons look to music to feel God’s presence at Inwood First Ward

NEW YORK — Daniel Dubei reaches for the hymnal tucked into the pew in front of him as the first notes of the church organ ring out through the chapel. He thumbs quickly through the pages, arriving at hymn 195 – “How Great the Wisdom and the Love” – in time to add his smooth baritone to the rising tide of voices around him.

The silhouette of the Salt Lake Tabernacle organ appears dark and ornate against the matte green binding of the hymnal. Its real-life counterpart – thousands of miles from the small Mormon meetinghouse in Upper Manhattan – is a towering and beautiful structure, one of the largest organs in the world. 

The chapel at Inwood First Ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, where Dubei and his family attend church each Sunday, bears little resemblance to the Tabernacle in Utah. The New York chapel, with its small electric organ, is spacious and well-lit. Dated wainscoting stretches halfway up the white walls, and a plain podium carved from light oak serves as the focal point of the room. The space feels simple and sturdy.

But if a passerby closed their eyes to listen to the music bursting from the Inwood chapel, they might imagine a grander space. The ward – or congregation – sounds more like a professional choir than a random collection of churchgoers. Its members deftly toss the melody back and forth between registers and embellish the text of the hymn with perfectly-executed trills and harmonies. The unmistakable timbre of an opera singer’s voice, clear and bright, rings out from the mass of voices.

The final notes of the hymn hang in the silent air of the chapel as the organist returns to his seat. Dubei taps the hard cover of the hymn book with his index finger and whispers “it should be double this size.” The official book was last updated in 1985, but Dubei says hundreds of unofficial hymns have been composed by Mormon musicians in the years since. Some Mormons, including Dubei, want to see the growing diversity of the church reflected in the hymnal – to hear the voices of their brothers and sisters around the world echo in their own chapel. The church is slow to progress on social issues, says Dubei, but their music doesn’t have to be.

Music is a valued part of all Mormon communities, but it is especially important to the congregants at Inwood First Ward. Dubei, who wears a long tie decorated with musical notes, went back to school in his forties to pursue a bachelor’s degree in music. Other members of his ward, he says, are Broadway performers, world-class soloists and accomplished jazz musicians.

Inwood First Ward is a little more liberal in its musical taste than other Mormon wards, its congregants tell me. In Salt Lake City, for example, one might not hear a saxophone accompany the sacrament hymn or a violin solo written by Bach. But in this ward, you can hear both in a single church meeting and observe as ward members rock back and forth to the beat.

The religious significance of music within the Mormon faith stretches back to at least 1830, when a revelation given through the prophet Joseph Smith commanded the prophet’s wife – Emma Smith – to compile a selection of sacred hymns for the church. Dubei readily quotes this verse from the Mormons’ book of Doctrine and Covenants: “For my soul delighted in the song of the heart; yea, the song of righteous is a prayer unto me, and it shall be answered with a blessing upon their heads.”

In the Inwood chapel, the powerful sound of hundreds of voices raised in song expands to fill every corner of the room, filling congregants with warmth and passion. They feel the music in their bodies, a testament to God’s presence. Dubei describes it as opening his heart to God. “Music provides access to the soul – really touches it – in a way words can’t.”

Dubei turns his attention back to the podium as a speaker wraps up her testimony and returns to her seat. A violinist and a guitar player quietly adjust the height of their music stands before the rows of pews. The chapel hums with hushed voices and fussing babies.

The violinist, her long red sleeves swaying as she lifts the instrument to her shoulder, plays the first note. The melody of the hymn fills the chapel, surrounding the rapt audience.

Gradually, as the piece reaches its crescendo, the violinist leans into her instrument, allowing her body to lunge forward into the ascending notes. The scroll of her violin points upwards, as if reaching towards God. Faith and music ring together through Inwood First Ward, each enriching the other.