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In the past few years, Yardenit has constructed modern buildings and renovated older ones to offer 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.”
Nathan Jeffay is the Forward’s Israel correspondent. Contact him at email@example.com.