Israel's kibbutzim find God

These agricultural communities have shunned religion for so long that inevitably there’s resistance to religion and a great deal of catching up to do.

BEIT HASHITA – If the synagogue most secular Israelis will not attend has to be Orthodox, then nowhere is this saying truer than on the kibbutz – or at least, so it was up until now.

Just ask Yaakov Yonish (known as “Yonish” by his friends and family) of Beit Hashita, a flagship of the kibbutz movement that is widely known for its eponymous brand of canned pickles and olives. Yonish, a salt-of-the-earth guy in his seventies who holds a master’s degree from the Technion but prefers to list his profession as shepherd, is the driving force and spirit behind one of the newest non-Orthodox congregations in Israel, set up just over a year ago at this privatized kibbutz in the Jordan Valley. Like many kibbutzniks, he feels uncomfortable with the term “Reform,” preferring to describe its affiliation as “traditional with ties to the Reform movement.”

Every three weeks on Friday evening, anywhere from 50 to 70 residents of the community gather for a Reform-style Kabbalat Shabbat service at the kibbutz cultural hall, with several dozen showing up for Beit Midrash Jewish studies classes every two weeks. And for the second year running, the kibbutz will be holding a joint celebration for all its bar- and bat-mitvah boys and girls, with each one being called up to read from the Torah.

Once the bastion of Israeli secularism, kibbutzim around the country are suddenly discovering alternative forms of Judaism. And at communities where Yom Kippur was once marked with barbequed pork feasts, Conservative and Reform rabbis are being invited to lead Kol Nidrei services.

The irony of this change is not lost on the leaders of the non-Orthodox movements in Israel. “What is happening on the kibbutzim is especially intriguing considering their historic role in the establishment of the state, their longstanding association with secularism and the crises they’ve been through,” notes Gilad Kariv, executive director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism.

The Reform movement, he estimates, has extended its reach to somewhere between 60 and 70 kibbutzim in recent years, providing its services to rural communities located in half a dozen clusters, mainly in outlying areas of the country. “These are kibbutzim that until now had no connection whatsoever to religion,” he notes.

This past Yom Kippur, adds Kariv, Conservative and Reform rabbis ran services at somewhere between 20 and 30 kibbutzim. And that doesn’t include the handful of movement-affiliated kibbutzim set up in decades past, most with large concentrations of Anglo-Saxon immigrants. “More and more kibbutzim are telling themselves that if we’re going to move in this direction, we might as well embrace something closer to our liberal values that reflects the egalitarianism that’s always been part of our ideology,” he notes.

“There’s a feeling that these kibbutzim want some connection to Judaism and are asking themselves whether Chabad is the only alternative,” says Rakefet Ginsberg, vice president for development at the Israeli Conservative, also known as Masorti, movement, which has connections now with about half a dozen kibbutzim. In some cases, that means that on the High Holy Days, its rabbis are invited to conduct services on their premises. In other cases, it means they come to officiate at weddings, circumcisions and bar- and bat-mitzvah ceremonies.

But gaining a following on the kibbutzim, she notes, is no small challenge. “They’ve shunned religion for so long that inevitably there’s resistance and lots of catching up to do.”

Full of challenges

Just to illustrate how confounding the process of reconnecting with Judaism can be, Ginsberg cites the example of Kibbutz Beit Keshet in the lower Galilee, with which the Conservative movement recently forged ties. Some of its members, though completely secular, insisted that men and women be separated during services because that’s how they remember it being done traditionally, whereas others were adamant about praying together. “So what we ended up doing is dividing the room into three sections,” recounts Ginsberg,” one section for men, another for women, and the third for both men and women.”

Yonish is all too aware of the challenges. A little over a year ago, when Beit Hashita held its first Reform-style Kol Nidrei service, he and the other 170-plus worshipers were greeted by a group of protesters when they emerged from the kibbutz cultural hall. “They told us, ‘You are not going to bring God into our home,’” he recalls.

Among a growing list of non-Orthodox rabbis who were born and raised in secular kibbutzim, Tlalit Shavit, in her faded jeans and cowboy boots, knows she doesn’t fit the part very well. “Whenever I visit preschools, they say to me, ‘You can’t be a rabbi – you don’t have a beard or a kippa.’” Among her other outreach activities, she is also the new designated rabbi for Beit Hashita, where she works closely with Yonish.

Leading Yom Kippur services at a place like Beit Hashita, which lost 11 of its own sons in the war that broke out on this day 40 years ago, can be an especially daunting task, she acknowledges. “Some people told me there was too much God and too much religion for them in the service,” recounts Shavit, who grew up in Kibbutz Sdot Yam near Caesarea and began to embrace Reform Judaism while living temporarily in New York. “It’s not easy for them, since many of them have a built-in aversion to anything that smacks of religion.”

Two relatively recent developments may explain the change of heart among many kibbutzim and their willingness to reexamine their fraught relationship with Judaism. One is the collapse of the socialist model that dominated kibbutz life until the 1980s, and the other is the changing demographic of these communities, as more and more city dwellers seeking a better quality of life, many of them from more traditional backgrounds, have built homes in new neighborhoods established on kibbutz land.

Beit Hashita is a case in point. “Until about 10 years ago, I had no connection to religion or tradition,” recalls Yonish. “But then the kibbutz was privatized and new people started moving in. After socialism collapsed, it seemed to me there was no glue to bind us together the way there used to be. I began to ask myself what do we have in common with the 200 new residents who’ve moved here, and the one thing I could come up with was Jewish tradition.”

But it was something very personal, he acknowledges, that initially triggered his change of heart. “When my daughter got married and moved to England, I understood that just being an Israeli is not enough to tie us to this place,” he says. “That’s when I started going around the kibbutz and telling people, ‘Friends, we’ve run too far away from our roots.’”

Since moving to Yahel, a kibbutz affiliated with the Reform movement, three years ago, Rabbi Benjie Gruber has also begun to serve another half a dozen nearby kibbutzim in Israel’s southernmost district. “I do about 10 to 15 bar mitzvahs each year and about 5 or 6 weddings,” he says. “And this year for the first time, I’ll be conducting the annual service for all the second-graders at the regional school at Kibbutz Yotvata when they receive their first Chumash,” referring to the Five Books of Moses.

Another first this year was an invitation he received from the very secular Kibbutz Eilot to lead a tashlich service at the Red Sea, to symbolize the throwing away of sins on Rosh Hashanah.

Gruber, who himself grew up Modern Orthodox, says of most of these secular kibbutzim, “if they didn’t come to me, they’d be doing nothing in terms of religion.”

For Ginsberg, what’s surprising is not that the kibbutzim have begun to embrace progressive Judaism but that’s it taken them so long to do so. “In so many other areas in this country, the kibbutzim led the way,” she notes. “But here, they seem to be lagging behind. I guess it has to do with the fact that they’ve been disconnected for so long.” 


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