Places to visit in Bet Shemesh

Monasteries and Wineries of the Judean Hills: A Road Trip of Oct 5, 2023


Embark on a captivating road journey through the monasteries and wineries of the Judean Hills, starting with the unique Beit Jamal Monastery. Home to the Church of St. Stephen, widely considered the most beautiful and unusual church in the Holy Land, sets the tone for an enriching adventure. Next, go to Mony Winery, an exceptional establishment where Christians and Jews collaborate to produce kosher wine. This interfaith initiative adds depth to the region's viticultural practices.

As you leave Mony, ascend to the panoramic views of the Sorek Valley, a landscape that breathes life into the Biblical tales of Samson and Delilah. Take a moment to soak in the scenery and reflect on the ancient narratives that unfolded in these hills. Finally, end your journey at Flam Winery, a highly professional and well-promoted establishment. Though it leans a bit towards commercialization, it's a fitting conclusion to a day of spiritual and sensory exploration in the Judean Hills.

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Evgeny Praisman (author)
Здравствуйте! Меня зовут Женя, я путешественник и гид. Здесь я публикую свои путешествия и путеводители по городам и странам. Вы можете воспользоваться ими, как готовыми путеводителями, так и ресурсом для создания собственных маршрутов. Некоторые находятся в свободном доступе, некоторые открываются по промо коду. Чтобы получить промо код напишите мне сообщение на телефон +972 537907561 или на и я с радостью вам помогу! Иначе, зачем я всё это делаю?
25.78 km
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Located in the picturesque foothills of the Judean Mountains, Beit Jamal is a Catholic village and monastery run by the Salesian order. This tranquil haven is nestled near the southern outskirts of the city of Beit Shemesh.

Beit Jamal Monastery sits atop a hill at an elevation of 370 meters above sea level, offering breathtaking views of the surrounding landscapes. It's situated approximately 35 kilometers east of the Mediterranean coastline.

The complex of Beit Jamal comprises four main buildings:

The House for Salesian Monks: Here, the dedicated Salesian monks focus on education and assistance in areas where the population is in need. The Church of Saint Stephen: This beautiful church is a place of worship and reflection. The Convent for Women of the Bethlehem Sisters of Saint Bruno: A haven for the sisters who follow the path of Saint Bruno. The Monastery for Men of the Bethlehem Brothers of Saint Bruno: A peaceful retreat for the brothers dedicated to Saint Bruno's principles. Opening Hours:

Morning: 08:30 - 11:30 Afternoon: 13:30 - 16:30 Closed on Sundays & Christian Feasts

Visitors are welcome to explore this sacred place during the specified hours, where they can experience the rich history and deep spirituality that Beit Jamal Monastery has to offer.

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Olive trees, their oil, and the olives themselves hold a significant place in the history and current life of this monastery. Among the exceptionally ancient trees, you can encounter an olive tree that dates back at least eight hundred years. This tree has become a symbol of the continuity of life and cyclicality, as olive trees, the older they become, the hollower they are inside, yet they continue to produce new branches and fruits.

In the vicinity of the monastery, you will find an ancient stone table used for the process of olive oil extraction. Nearby stands a functioning cast-iron press, which is still utilized to extract the precious olive oil. Over time, this process has not only become a tradition but also a symbol of patience and conservation, characteristics deeply ingrained in this unique place.

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The Beit Jamal Monastery in Israel is a particularly interesting religious institution. It houses nuns from the Order of Bethlehem, also known by three distinct names. The first name, Order of Bethlehem, is in commemoration of the birthplace of Jesus Christ. The second, Order of the Assumption of the Holy Mary, was influenced by Pope Pius XII, who on November 1, 1950, announced the Assumption of Mary, a Christian belief that Mary ascended to heaven with her body. In Christian theology, this proclamation equated Mary's power to that of Jesus Christ, who also ascended bodily to heaven without dying in the land of Israel. The third name of the order, named after Saint Bruno, is also significant. When the order was founded, the nuns decided to affiliate themselves with the Carthusian order founded by Saint Bruno, which greatly influences their monastic lifestyle.

The nuns in Beit Jamal mainly come from France and Belgium, and they communicate in French. They engage in prayer, contemplation, and minimize talking. Currently, 25 nuns reside in the monastery; some have been there since its establishment in 1985, while others joined later. Each nun has a specific role in the daily life and operation of the monastery. For their livelihood, they produce and sell beautifully designed ceramic items, various jams, and juices to tourists and visitors.

Interestingly, the monastery contains a Jewish chapel, devoid of Christian symbols. This room, equipped with a prayer podium, a seven-branched menorah, and an open Torah scroll, is intended to foster good relations between Christians and Jews.

As for Saint Bruno, he was born in Cologne, Germany, around 1030. His early life was marked by intellectual pursuits; he was educated in Paris and later returned to Cologne, where he was ordained a priest and became a prominent teacher. His life took a turn when his friend, Bishop Hugh of Grenoble, showed him a secluded location in the mountains, which inspired Bruno to establish the Carthusian Order in 1084. The order was dedicated to a life of solitude, prayer, and manual labor, and it gained immediate acclaim for its rigorous asceticism. Bruno never saw his order expand significantly during his lifetime but laid the foundations for what would become a lasting spiritual path. He died in 1101 in the wilderness of Calabria, where he had established another hermitage. His teachings and lifestyle continue to influence monastic traditions, including those observed in Beit Jamal.

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Certainly, Женя. The place known as Beit Jamal is deeply embedded in Jewish and Christian traditions. Contrary to popular assumptions, the name Beit Jamal doesn't translate to "Beautiful House" due to the scenic hills, nor is it linked to the Arabic word for camel, 'Jamal.' Instead, its origin can be traced back to the Second Temple period, specifically to a settlement called Kfar Gamliel. This was likely a large estate or property belonging to Rabbi Gamliel, often called Old Gamliel or Elder.

Rabbi Gamliel is an indispensable figure in Jewish and early Christian histories. He was president of the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish court and council in ancient Jerusalem. His tolerance towards early Christians is famously noted in the Book of Acts. Gamliel advised the Sanhedrin to exercise caution and leniency towards the followers of Jesus, arguing that if their message was truly divine, it could not be halted. This stance is crucial for Christianity because it supports and fortifies the argument that Christianity is the legitimate successor to Judaism. Gamliel is also celebrated in Jewish tradition as a respected teacher in the Mishnah, often honoured with the title "Rabban."

Nicodemus, another Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin, was also amicable towards Jesus and his teachings. Known best for his conversation with Jesus about being "born again," he later assisted in Jesus's burial, showing his openness to the new faith.

Abibos, Gamliel's less-documented son, is considered a saint in Eastern Orthodox tradition. Though the specifics of his life are not as well known, he is respected in both religious communities.

Now, the existence of a monastery lacking distinct Christian attributes at Beit Jamal becomes more comprehensible. This unique feature is aimed at Jewish individuals in the hopes that they could find a space to pray and gradually develop towards Christianity.

So, the historical and spiritual legacies of Rabbi Gamliel, Nicodemus, and Abibos resonate even today, represented in places like Beit Jamal. Their intertwined stories provide a nuanced understanding of the complex religious landscape during the formative years of Christianity and Judaism.

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In Beit Jamal, the Church of St. Stephen holds a crypt that is a profoundly significant site for most Catholic churches. By its very definition, a vault is a hidden underground chamber where a church's core history and meaning are often concentrated. This is especially true for churches in the Holy Land. A winding staircase leads down to this crypt, where you'll find an ancient Mikvah, a unique bath used for ritual purification in Jewish tradition.

This space vividly bridges and underscores the concept of the continuity between Judaism and Christianity in the eyes of Christians. It strongly emphasises the story of Rabban Gamliel and early Christianity. The very fact that the church is dedicated to St. Stephen seamlessly transitions the narrative from a Jewish to a Christian framework. In this way, the crypt serves as a historical and spiritual nexus, echoing the interconnected legacies and theologies of these two major world religions.

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In the village of Beit Jamal, a remarkable church stands as a testament to early Christian history and centuries of archaeological discovery. According to Christian tradition, a Byzantine villager named Lucian dreamt in December of 415 AD that the bones of St. Stephen, considered the first Christian martyr, were located in this village. His dream was validated when bones were indeed found, leading to the construction of a Byzantine church dedicated to St. Stephen.

St. Stephen is a unique figure in that he lived as a Jew and was a student of Rabban Gamaliel the Elder. Eventually, he became a follower of Jesus. The church also underwent its share of trials; it was destroyed by the Persians in 614 AD, along with other significant religious sites. However, archaeological excavations between 1916 and 1922 unearthed the remnants of this Byzantine church, including its foundational structures, mosaics, and a Greek inscription. Four tombs were also discovered, attributed to Rabban Gamaliel, his son, Nicodemus, and St. Stephen himself.

Fast forward to modern times, a new church was erected on the ancient site in 1932. The recovered mosaic and Greek inscription were preserved, and the site was further honored by a metal cross sculpture donated by artist Yigal Tumarkin in 2000. Research in 2006 by Emil Puech from the French School of Archaeology in Jerusalem substantiated the site’s historical significance, identifying an inscribed stone tablet that translates to "The Sanctuary of Stephen the First Martyr." Today, the church is maintained by seven Salesian monks, led by Father Antonio Scudu, who also offers in-depth tours for visitors keen on understanding the layered history of this sacred site.

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On the church's outer wall, you'll find remnants of a 5th-6th Century Byzantine mosaic floor and stone carvings unearthed during 1916 digs. A lintel, visible on the left, bears the inscription “DIAKONIKON STEPHANOU PROTOMARTYROS,” signifying it as the archive for St. Stephen’s relics. This discovery came from work done between 1989-1999 by Italian archaeologist Andrej Struss, near a site 800m northwest from the monastery. Initially a martyrium, the site later became a wine-press.

Inside, vibrant paintings narrate St. Stephen's life and martyrdom. The altar faces east, conforming to church tradition. Prominently, a painting on the northwest wall depicts St. Stephen's trial, as described in Acts 6:11-15. These art pieces are the work of Luigi Poggi and Emile Ritz, representing different Christian traditions. Another painting shows Stephen being stoned, with his halo highlighted.

Paul is seen witnessing the stoning in the background, as per Acts 7:58. Below that, paintings depict Stephen as “Proto-Martyr” in Greek. The church also houses a crypt accessible from the lower right, beneath which Roman 1st Century tombs of Stephen and others are believed to be located. Don Bosco, the founder of the Salesian Society, is honored in a niche with intricate mosaic-like decorations.

The history of Beit Jimal Monastery is a tapestry of religious, cultural, and political threads that spans multiple eras. Originally a Muslim village incorporated into the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, it became a site of interest to Christians in the late 19th century. Fr. Antonio Belloni established an agricultural school there in 1873, which later transformed into an orphanage managed by the Salesians, a religious society founded by Don Bosco.

In the British Mandate era, the population diversified to include Christians and Muslims. The 1948 Arab–Israeli War marked a significant transition, culminating in the possession of the area by the Society of St Francis de Sales. Now, the monastery campus also includes two more monasteries for men and women belonging to the Monastic Family of Bethlehem. They lead lives of prayer and work, producing local goods like honey and olive oil.

St. Stephen church, built in 1930, rests on Byzantine ruins and showcases historical mosaics. Despite its peaceful mission, the monastery has faced dark times, including acts of vandalism and terrorism. Yet, it stands as a complex symbol of multi-faith and multi-ethnic histories, representing the intricate and sometimes tense relationship between different religious communities in the region. Overall, Beit Jimal serves as a microcosm of Palestine's layered history, a locus where various cultural narratives intersect.

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Beit Jimal Monastery is not just a historical and religious landmark; it's also a tranquil setting for sermons and meditations. The locale offers stunning panoramic views, encompassing the coastal valley to the west and the central mountain ridge to the east, adding a layer of natural beauty to its spiritual ambiance.

The place has another layer of historical significance tied to Rabbi Gamliel, who had a unique perspective on Jesus and his apostles. According to Christian texts, Lucian, a priest, claimed that Rabbi Gamliel revealed his burial site to him in a dream, which was in a village called "Kafr Gamla." The relics of Saint Stephen, Nicodemus, and Abibus were also found there and were later transferred to Jerusalem's Hagia Zion. In 1915, while establishing their agricultural school, the Salesian monks discovered remnants of a Byzantine church at Beit Jimal, which included a mosaic mentioning "Stephen." This led to the belief that this could be the original tomb discovered by Lucian in 415 CE.

Of particular importance is the discovery of the remains of Saint Stephen, Nicodemus, and his grandson, Abibus, next to Rabbi Gamliel's tomb. These relics underwent several relocations—initially moved to Jerusalem's Hagia Zion, today known as the Abbey of the Dormition. Subsequently, Saint Stephen's relics were transferred to a newly constructed church north of Jerusalem, which is today's Saint Etienne Church. This aspect adds a unique layer to the multifaceted history and significance of Beit Jimal.

The rich tapestry of Beit Jimal weaves together various religious traditions, historical periods, and geographical marvels, serving as both a center of religious reflection and a vantage point for nature's grandeur.

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The history of meteorological observations in Israel dates back to the 19th century, initially conducted under two research societies from Germany and Britain. Early Hebrew meteorologist Dr. Abraham Baruch arrived in 1909 and aimed to establish a network of meteorological stations. Later, he managed Tel Aviv's meteorological station and even received an honor from the British government for his work.

However, the oldest continually operating meteorological station in Israel is at Beit Jimal Monastery, established in 1919 by an Italian patriarch. With the onset of the British Mandate in 1920, five more stations were set up in locations like Haifa, Gaza, Jenin, Be'er Sheva, and Jerusalem. These stations reported to the Mandate's Agricultural Ministry and were overseen by the Egyptian Meteorological Service. Rain measurement stations were also set up around the country by Dev Ashbel. By the 1930s, under Ashbel's supervision, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem established meteorological stations in nearly every new settlement, in collaboration with Zionist institutions.

The Beit Jimal Monastery station stands as a unique blend of religious and scientific history, making it a point of interest not just spiritually but also for its contributions to the understanding of the region's climate.

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Nestled next to the Deir Rafat monastery, you'll find Moni Winery. This isn't just any winery; it's a kosher one managed by the Christian Artul family who hail from the town of Maghar. Now, Maghar is quite a place. Named after the Arabic term for "the caves," it has roots that go back to the Roman times. It later became part of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, with locals specializing in silk-spinning and farming. Fast forward to the 19th century, and you'd find a diverse community of Muslims, Christians, and Druze living there. Of course, diversity sometimes comes with tensions, like the Druze-Christian clashes in 2005. But that's Maghar for you—a living, breathing tapestry of Middle Eastern cultures and histories.

Now, back to Moni Winery. It's cozily situated in the caves of the monastery. Named "Moni" to honor Dr. Moni Artul, a family member who tragically passed away young, the winery was founded in 2001. Its location is stunning—the Judean Hills, overlooking the captivating Sorek Valley. Shkib Artul, the founding patriarch, was originally an olive trader. But the region's fertile land and unique terroir seduced him into planting vineyards.

What's the winery about? Quality, plain and simple. They produce both wine and olive oil and employ modern technologies for winemaking. The offerings are diverse—reds, whites, rosés, and even high-quality dessert wines. Some of these wines get the royal treatment, aged in wooden barrels housed in natural limestone caves, just perfect for aging.

Last but not least, the head winemaker, Shshon Ben Aharon, is a master of his craft. Appointed in 2014, he's among Israel's most respected winemakers, adding a signature touch to every bottle. But remember, Moni Winery isn't just about excellent grapes and top-notch wine. It's a family affair—the Artuls bring their Christian-Arab heritage from Galilee into the mix, adding yet another layer to the winery's unique charm.

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The winery welcomes visitors to a viewpoint that offers a spectacular view of the Sorek Valley, making for an extraordinary hospitality experience. The combined effort of excellent grape-growing conditions, dedicated individuals, and a unique setting creates a high-quality, kosher Israeli wine that stands out.

The winery features a sprawling terrace shaded by grapevines, a perfect setting to take in the views. Guests can indulge in a delicious snack from the shop, choosing from an assortment of fine cheeses and, of course, their unique wines. What sets this spot apart is its daily availability; the terrace is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., making it a versatile destination for any itinerary.

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Established in 1927 by the Italian Bishop Farina and encouraged by Latin Patriarch Luigi Barlassina, the monastery was built in response to an earthquake that occurred in the region. The patriarch aimed to honor Mary, mother of Jesus, to protect the Holy Land from similar disasters. Hence, the official name of the church is "Regina Palaestinae" or "Our Lady, Queen of Palestine."

At the head of the monastery stands a statue of Mary, Jesus' mother, with a hand gesture of blessing and protection from disasters. Beneath her appear two hanging mosaic circles with the letters A and M, signifying the beginning of the "Ave Maria" blessing. The statue was made in an Italian artist workshop, based on a model from the monastery of the Holy Dorothea Sisters in Venice. The bronze statue is about 2.5 meters high and was complicated to transport, so it was divided into ten parts and reassembled at the top of the church. Mary's head was originally adorned with a crown of golden stars, but due to concerns about theft and weather damage, the monastery heads decided to remove it. However, today the statue's head is again crowned with stars, this time made of bronze.

Patriarch Barlassina wanted the church walls and ceiling adorned with the first words of the Angelus prayer, "Ave Maria," in multiple languages. Official translations of the prayer were solicited, resulting in 404 versions, 280 of which were selected to be written on the church walls. The Jerusalem artist Mubarak Sa'id painted angels holding ribbons with these words.

The site underwent renovation in 1973, repainting the ceiling in blue and restoring the angel paintings. However, the restoration was incomplete, and some of the multilingual prayers on the ribbons were not finished. The wooden church doors also feature the prayer 56 times in various languages. The church's apse hosts a statue of Mary, illuminated by side windows, and the hall has a statue of an angel holding a fish, an ancient Christian symbol.

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Years ago, an Arab village named Rafat was located 2 km east of the monastery, which is how the monastery got its name. The village was taken over by Israeli forces during the War of Independence.

Back in the 1800s, the village struggled financially under Ottoman control. To get by, some of its land was sold to the Latin Patriarchate, but they agreed not to do religious conversions there, just education. As for the monastery, a monk named Father Moritz Gisler designed its buildings, which include an orphanage, a school, and the central church.

Now, the Catholic Church rents out what's left of the village homes, and there's a Jewish therapeutic community called "Retorno" in the old orphanage.

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Nestled in Tzora Forest, northwest of the city of Beit Shemesh, Mitzpe Shemesh offers more than just a summit viewpoint. This expansive wooden terrace overlooks the breathtaking hills of Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh itself. Initially serving as a temporary command post for the Harel Brigade of the Palmach, the abandoned stone structure was later adopted and converted into this serene lookout by the Jewish National Fund. Its uniqueness lies in its accessibility; one doesn't necessarily have to reach the summit. A simple roadside stop can provide enchanting views over the valley.

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Derech Apsalim is not just another forest trail but a nine-kilometer artistic journey through Tzora Forest, punctuated by various stone sculptures inspired by Biblical stories such as Samson and Delilah. Situated at the heart of this scenic trail, Mitzpe Shemesh becomes a pivotal resting spot. Roughly 200 meters west of Mitzpe Shemesh, a spacious parking area serves as a gateway to two other trekking routes: "Shimshon's Trail" and "Tel Tzora." Shimshon's Trail is a 1.5-kilometer path featuring educational signs with Biblical verses detailing the life of Samson. The trail concludes at the peak of Tel Tzora, which hosts two memorial graves for Samson and his father Manoah, and offers a yet more expansive view of Beit Shemesh and the Jerusalem hills.

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As you walk along the picturesque trails near Kibbutz Tzora, you might encounter a herd of cows grazing peacefully. These cows are part of the kibbutz's agricultural initiatives. Tzora itself has a fascinating history, founded on December 7, 1948, by Palmach fighters. It was originally established to secure newly acquired territories for the young state of Israel and has absorbed diverse groups over the years, including pioneers from South Africa and families from various countries.

Tzora was revolutionary in its own right; it became the first kibbutz in Israel to abolish the communal dining hall in September 1961. This shift was symbolic of a move towards individualism within the collective structure of the kibbutz. The kibbutz also plays a role in examining its own history. In 2015, a documentary film directed by kibbutz member Michael Kaminer delved into the story of the kibbutz's establishment on the ruins of the Palestinian village Sarea.

The name Tzora itself is biblically significant and is mentioned in the Book of Joshua. The region is known to be the homeland of the biblical judge Samson. Education within the kibbutz is primarily focused on early childhood, with older children attending schools in the nearby regional council or the Har-Tuv school operated by the kibbutz itself. Whether you're interested in history, agriculture, or simply the serenity of the landscape, Tzora offers a unique blend of past and present.

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Flam Winery stands as a bright example of a family-run vineyard, nestled in the foothills of the Jerusalem mountains with additional vineyards located in the north of the country in Upper Galilee. The family patriarch, Israel Flam, brings years of experience from his tenure at Carmel, Israel's historically renowned winery. During his career, he and his family were stationed in South Africa, where they became acquainted with local winemaking practices. It was in South Africa that the eldest son was born, forever linking his destiny with vineyards and the art of winemaking. Eventually, the Flam family established their own winery, integrating their younger son and daughter into the business. They firmly believe that family is the best setting for crafting truly exceptional wines. Note that the winery is closed on Saturdays.

In 1998, the Flam family—Golan, Gilad, and Kami—established the winery. Golan, the winemaker, studied in Italy and gained experience working in quality vineyards in Tuscany and Australia. Gilad, who has a background in law and business management, is responsible for the winery's business strategy, while Kami oversees the financial aspects.

Flam Winery's philosophy blends European and New World theories. They subscribe to the European notion that "good wine starts in the vineyard," but also to the New World idea that the winemaker plays a crucial role in defining the wine's character. The production process emphasizes wines with deep colors, rich textures, pronounced varietal flavors, and long, velvety tannins.

The vineyards supplying grapes to the winery are located in several parts of Israel: central Israel, the Yosef vineyards, and the Jerusalem mountains for Merlot and Syrah varieties. Additional vineyards are in the Upper Galilee's Kadesh Valley and Ben Zimra, a prime area for growing Cabernet Sauvignon.

Flam Winery is part of the Quartet of Judean Hills group. As of 2022, the winery produces about 200,000 bottles annually.

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Flam Winery is a family-operated vineyard situated in the foothills of Jerusalem and in Upper Galilee, with roots tracing back to Israel Flam's experience at Carmel Winery and a sojourn in South Africa. Established in 1998 by the Flam family, each member brings unique expertise: Golan in winemaking, Gilad in business strategy, and Kami in finance. The winery's philosophy merges European and New World ideas, focusing on crafting wines with deep colors and rich textures from vineyards scattered across Israel. Producing about 200,000 bottles annually, Flam Winery is part of the Quartet of Judean Hills group and closes on Saturdays.

Despite its fantastic flavors, remarkable history, and stunning vineyard views, Flam Winery's visitor center seems overly commercialized to me. This commercial aspect permeates every experience, creating a dissonance between the location and its approach, between what you see and what actually occurs. Among all the wineries along the Judean Hills wine route, Flam stands out as the most hyped and consumer-oriented.

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