Sunday, March 29, 2009

Artists, Architects and Plumbers - Part 2

17 March 2009
Lower Galilee Valley

Driving a car is like riding a bicycle. Once you know how, it comes back quickly, particularly if you need to get into the flow of traffic in Tel Aviv. Today was the day I had been looking forward to and Liz was dreading. We were going to do the single most dangerous thing you can do in Israel, drive a car. Despite the statistical fact that you have more to fear from Israeli motorists than Arab terrorists, I love getting mobile and taking a road trip. The weather was lovely, the roads in good shape and traffic not bad as we drove both ways against the rush hours. Our first destination was Kibbutz Hanaton, the only kibbutz affiliated with the Conservative Movement (Masorti in Israel), which is in the midst of rebuilding its membership and reviving its mission.

Hanaton sits atop a hill overlooking the Eshkol Reservoir in the Lower Galilee Valley. As the ads used to say, getting there is half the fun. The drive takes you out of the heavily built up coastal plain into the less populated rolling green hills of the Carmel range, past Zichron Yaakov, through Yoqneam, into the Jezreel Valley and up to Hanaton. Directly below the kibbutz is a new neighborhood, clearly more upscale than the modest kibbutz housing, being built on what used to be kibbutz land (part of the kibbutz's economic recovery plan). To the west, on a plateau looking down on the kibbutz, are the dairy and chicken sheds. The hillsides around Hanaton are also sprinkled with Arab villages. In this part of Israel the population is about evenly divided between Arabs and Jews.

The kibbutz was originally founded in the 1980s, with the goals of spreading religious diversity from the Diaspora to Israel, educating Israelis about Masorti Judaism and providing a Conservative alternative for Jews seeking to combine their aliyah with spiritual growth. Unfortunately, the original Hanaton was formed just in time for the general economic collapse of the kibbutz movement. Hanaton's original community did not take root and almost all the original members left. The kibbutz was saved from total collapse by an influx of members from other parts of the kibbutz movement. However, becoming a secular, socialist kibbutz was not what the founders had in mind.

And so began a tug of war that, after some litigation, an economic reorganization, and a renewal of support from the Masorti Movement, has led to a revival of the kibbutz along its original spiritual lines. This time around, however, Hanaton is a kibbutz mitchadesh instead of a kibbutz sh'tufee. A kibbutz sh'tufee is the old socialist model (from each according to his or her ability and to each according to his or her needs) where all property and income is shared. A kibbutz mitchadesh, literally a renewed kibbutz, involves some level of privatization depending upon the organizational structure adopted by the kibbutz members. These kibbutzim run the gamut from mainly socialist with some private property or earnings allowed to a capitalist style cooperative, indistinguishable from a moshav. Hanaton is going to fall somewhere in the middle with members owning their own homes, keeping income from their own jobs and becoming shareholders in the kibbutz businesses (dairy and chickens). Income from the businesses will first be used to maintain community property, like the swimming pool, education center and synagogue, and then be put into a fund to assist kibbutz members who have lost jobs or become disabled. The kibbutz is also looking into setting up an independent living facility for older members and perhaps, as has been done by other kibbutzim, opening it up to outsiders.

What initially attracted Liz' attention and gave me the chance for a road trip was Kibbutz Hanaton's solicitation for funds in Mercaz, the Masorti newsletter, offering a voucher for a stay at the kibbutz guesthouse correlated to the amount of the donation. So Liz contacted Yoav, Hanaton's newly appointed Rabbi, and made a date. When we arrived, Yoav was in a meeting and, as he had warned in advance, was to leave soon for more meetings in Jerusalem. Yoav is a 30-something Rabbi, married with children, who agreed last summer to take on the task of rebuilding Hanaton. He has succeeded in increasing the membership from about 11 to about 55, most of whom will be moving to the kibbutz starting next summer, as housing becomes available.

So Yoav suggested that we walk around to see the kibbutz for ourselves and he would call us on a cell phone when the kibbutz meeting broke up. The kibbutz consists mostly of one story homes with high loft ceilings, the requisite dining hall, administration building, an education center next to a hostel/dormitory and that rarity among kibbutzim, a synagogue. When our cell phone went off we returned to the education center where Yoav excused himself for another meeting but left us in the able hands of Steve, one of the few kibbutz members from our age cohort. Steve, a CPA from Boston, made aliyah 25 years ago and works in-house for Intel. His attachment to the kibbutz? His daughter married Yoav and his grandchildren are leaving Jerusalem to live at Hanaton. Having reached a point where he was considering career and lifestyle changes anyway, and clearly a professional married man who knows life is easier if his wife gets to live near the grandchildren, Steve decided to join the kibbutz.

Steve spent the better part of two hours telling us about the kibbutz, answering our questions and talking about his own journey from Boston to this hilltop. We sat in the sun on community meeting benches facing toward the reservoir. While we were speaking, a herd of sheep accompanied by a single, Arab shepherd came by. After a brief conversation with the friendly shepherd, Steve informed us that our visitors were from the village just north of Hanaton. The kibbutz members welcome the local shepherds' flocks, as the sheep keep the grass and shrubs nicely trimmed and everyone enjoys a day off much more without the noise of lawn mowers. At our urging, Steve hazarded a guess as to how much it would cost to join Hanaton. The guesstimate is about $250,000 since you have to buy and fix up a house plus buy into the kibbutz' jointly held property and businesses. If you're making aliyah, the benefits bundle will defray some of this, particularly by helping you get a low cost mortgage and the initial income tax breaks. (I later learned that the aliyah agencies are offering enhanced benefits for immigrants to agree to live in the north, which could make Hanaton an even better deal. Try getting something with two or three bedrooms, a nice view and quiet surroundings in Tel Aviv for $250,000.)

The central purpose of Kibbutz Hanaton is not the dairy business but a Conservative spiritual life joined to an educational program open to all. So joining is not just a matter of money. Members are selected based upon their compatibility with the Kibbutz' mission. This will also make it harder to sell your house since the Kibbutz has to approve any buyer as a member, which, in turn, could dissuade some banks from funding a mortgage. Among Hanaton's new members are six or seven Rabbis. Interestingly enough, three Rabbis are Orthodox and one of them is married to a woman who is about to become a Reform Rabbi. Just what form Kibbutz religious life will take is still not set in concrete. And that, I think, is the point. Yoav, who joined us at the end of our stay, is looking for people who want to engage in the search, who understand that, in classic Judaism, it’s not the final destination but the quality of the journey that matters. Back in the States we talk a lot about Jewish identity – what it is and, if you can figure that out, how to keep it or even pass it on to your children. The same sort of search is going on among Israelis. Secular Jews want to get more in touch with their roots. There's not a significant shift toward becoming religious; but there is a real desire to become more knowledgeable about, and incorporate more of the traditions into, Israeli culture. Yoav sees Hanaton as playing a role in this search. He envisions bringing in groups from Israel and the diaspora to learn and explore. Yoav also believes that many Israelis reject religion because the only religion they know is Orthodoxy or Hasidism. Teaching people about Conservative or Reform Judaism gives Israelis options long familiar to American Jews but very new to most Israelis.

All of which is very exciting. If we were twenty-somethings, Hanaton would be very attractive to us. If they ever get the guest house/retreat business going we will most definitely be back.

With the romance of kibbutz life restored to us, we left Hanaton and drove the 20 minutes to Kibbutz Yagur to meet my cousin, Avia, in the dining hall for lunch. Yagur, tucked into the north side of the Carmel Mountain a short distance southeast of Haifa, was founded in 1922. While maintaining much of its socialist heritage, Yagur members can have private cars, kitchens in their apartments and jobs outside the kibbutz. Avia's youngest daughter, Nili, who is thirty-something, was among the last children raised in the children's house. At the age of 10 she went to live with her parents.

The kibbutz dining hall has the feel of a college or summer camp cafeteria. It’s as much a social gathering hall as a place to get fed. Just in case you don't know who set up this establishment, there are soda fountain spigots dispensing freshly made seltzer. We were joined at lunch by Nili's father-in-law, Yagur's chief electrician, who didn't just know about Hanaton but helped install its new electrical system. After watching videos of Avia's recent trip to Vietnam and Cambodia and enjoying her most recent grandchild (Nili's first baby), we drove back to Tel Aviv.

The ride between Tel Aviv and Yagur is now easy and scenic. You don't have to go through Haifa any more: Route 70 runs southeast from Yagur Junction, through the valleys between the Carmel Mountains and out to the sea: Route 2 runs along the sea and becomes Namir Street in north Tel Aviv. To top off a fun day, I got to park a car in the private, underground space that comes with our apartment. Have I told you that we've rented the apartment for next winter? Did I mention the part about the beach?


Chaim said...

By far & away the best update on Hanaton that I've seen. And as someone who harbors a desire to move there sight unseen and to drag a family along with me, I just may have to give you a call! Thanks for the post.

David Stolow said...

You are welcome.

Shira said...

As someone who just made aliyah (August 2009) with a husband and 3 kids Directly to Hannaton, I'd say that your blog post was excellent! Thanks for writing about it! (P.S., if you'd like to write to me, please, use another address:

Jonny said...

Hi David,great article. Thanks. I've only just seen it but moved to Hannaton 5 months ago as one of the new families that moved here with Rabbi Yoav Ende. I'm also actually the Director of the Community now as well. Hope you don't mind if I send it round for other people to read. Thanks again. Jonny Whine

The Gray Line said...

Why did it take me so long to see this. You present a very faithful rendition of what i remember our discussion was about. The good news is that we are now in the midst of planning a new neighborhood on the kibbutz with new construction. Make sure you come and see us again on your next visit to see the progress we are making. By the way, Great blog!


Sue said...


Would like to learn more about the new construction. We are coming to check things out in February. All 5 of us.

Susan Asahkenazi

I have been in touch with Shira and Jacob.