Daily Israel Report

Synagogues Flourish in Secular Kibbutzim

A few years ago, a Degania member predicted, “There's been no synagogue here in 100 years, and there won’t be one in the next 100.” She was wrong.
By Hillel Fendel
First Publish: 8/25/2009, 1:49 PM / Last Update: 8/26/2009, 8:00 AM

A few years ago, a member of Kibbutz Deganiah predicted, “There has been no synagogue here in 100 years, and there won’t be one in the next 100 years.” She was wrong.

Not only is there a synagogue in Deganiah, founded in 1910 as Israel's first Kibbutz ever, but similar houses of worship (popularly known as “shuls”) are open and active in other secular kibbutzim in the north such as Ein Harod and Maoz Chaim, as well as in other secular communities in the region such as Tomrat.

Another example of a long shul-less kibbutz is Givat HaShloshah, founded by a long-time member who suddenly realized that she wanted to commemorate her one “Jewish” day of the year – Yom Kippur – at home. The woman waged a one-person campaign to gather together a Torah scroll, prayer books, a building – and now, a scant few years later, some 15-20 people take part in weekly Sabbath prayers.

Just ten weeks ago, at a joyous Torah scroll installation ceremony in the famously-secular Kibbutz Ein Harod, the son of one of the more active shul “members” came and asked him, “What do you need a synagogue for, anyway?” The father answered, “We went far away – too far.” The reference was to the escape from Torah Judaism by many of the early Zionist pioneers – a vacuum that is now once again being filled with spirituality.

The above story is told by Rabbi Shlomo Raanan, head of the Ayelet HaShachar (Morning Star) association that - among its many other activities - accompanies secular communities that wish to build a synagogue or otherwise enhance their connection to Judaism. Two years ago, for instance, more than 500 northern farmers took part in a “telephone chavruta (study partner)” program organized by Ayelet HaShachar on matters concerning the Shemittah year.

Though many kibbutzim were predicated on the idea that no synagogue would ever be built there, “today there are those who feel that there is a communal need for a synagogue,” Raanan told B’Sheva’s Ofrah Lax.

"First Time I Have Felt Jewish"
The founding of the synagogue in Kibbutz Maoz Chaim, a bastion of secularity since its founding in 1937 just east of Beit She’an, did not happen without some rancor. Only after two votes of the entire membership was a building approved for designation as a synagogue – and even then, only by the narrow margin of two votes. Friday night services are held regularly, and the members hope to expand to Sabbath morning services as well.

The shul’s founder told this story: “One long-time resident, a 78-year-old who immigrated from Argentina 40 years ago, told me after his first visit to the synagogue, ‘I’ve been in Israel all these years, and this was the first time I felt Jewish. I plan to come every week, and I want you to teach me the prayers.’ I told him that the whole thing was worth it just for that.”

"Just today," Rabbi Raanan told Israel National News on Tuesday, "an eye surgeon asked us for help in starting a synagogue in Barkan, near Ariel. And we are already at work on Yom Kippur prayers in kibbutzim such as HaHotrim, Hof HaCarmel, and others that have never had synagogues."

The small synagogue in Mei Ami – near Umm el Fahm, just south of the Galilee – was founded by the grandson of early Kibbutz movement leader Yitzchak Tabenkin, in honor of his son’s Bar Mitzvah. Its success has been modest, however; only three people pray there regularly. "But we have a minyan [required prayer quorum of ten men] on Yom Kipppur…," Yoav says.

Another story told by Raanan: “A few years ago, I was in Deganiah [Israel’s first kibbutz], and I asked where the synagogue was. The secretary told me, ‘For 100 years we haven’t had one, and we won't have one in the next 100 years either.’ Two years ago, I was again in Deganiah, on Simchat Torah [the holiday commemorating the joy of Torah], and I pointed to the newly-opened synagogue and said, ‘This is our true Torah joy.’”

“The name of the game,” says Raanan, in between organizing Torah classes and other programs for those who have never enjoyed them before, “is patience and tolerance. Each place according to its own pace and requests.”