Kibbutz Kinneret, Israel — 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, well-oiled 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.