Once Left for Dead, Conservative Kibbutz Now Thrives

By Josh Tapper

Yaniv Gliksman stands at the site of new housing project at Hanaton (Lim Wui Liang/Journey to Jerusalem)

Nazareth, Israel – Just four years after Kibbutz Hanaton’s population dwindled to 11 and the kibbutz faced bankruptcy, a most unexpected revival has occurred, symbolized by a small tractor clearing a verdant bluff overlooking the Lower Galilee for the construction of 34 houses.

Hanaton, Israel’s only Masorti kibbutz, is back from the brink and thriving, said Yaniv Gliksman, director of operations at Hanaton Educational Center, which offers programming and lodging to local Israelis and tourists. Spurred by the increase in recent years of likeminded native-born Masorti Jews and a shift away from the traditional socialist model, almost 20 new member families will relocate to Hanaton in the coming year.

More familiarly known as Conservative Judaism in North America, Masorti, which means “traditional” in Hebrew, was largely developed by American immigrants in the early 1960s. A pluralistic Jewish movement that emphasizes religious inclusion rather than difference, Masorti as of late has garnered popularity among a more homegrown crowd – at Hanaton, for example, around 75 percent of residents are native-born Israeli.

In a country divided by the religious Orthodox status quo and a vast secular population, the Masorti movement is a blip on a national religious grid that pushes non-Orthodox strains of Judaism to the margins. Even still, Masorti’s egalitarian brand of Judaism is alive and well at Hanaton, which began as an outpost for Conservative American Jews in 1983 and is currently becoming a so-called “renewed kibbutz” – meaning Hanaton is diverging from the kibbutz movement’s traditional economic model of collective subsistence toward a more privatized system.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Israel’s Kibbutz Movement tried and failed to keep Hanaton afloat under the collective model. By 2008, Masorti families began to buy into the kibbutz. Now, for example, Hanaton members own their homes and keep their salaries, but pay dues and collectively own public land and buildings. The kibbutz, once supported by raising sheep and a small rug business, now generates most income from its educational center.

Seventy people live at Hanaton, and while not all identify as Masorti, all alternative forms of Jewish practice are accepted. “When you build an institution like a Conservative kibbutz,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, chief Israel affairs officer for United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, “you help bring it away from the margins and into the center.” Mentioned in the Book of Joshua, Hanaton was one of the first cities encountered by the Israelites when they entered Canaan.

Gliksman moved his wife, a clothing designer, and two-year-old triplets to Hanaton from Jerusalem in June 2009. A brawny and deeply tanned 30 year old, Gliksman believes Hanaton can do its part to undermine what many progressive religious Jews consider to be Israel’s ongoing “Haredization” – basically defined as the shift toward stringent Orthodox religious doctrine.

“I think it’s the best place for a Masorti Jew in Israel,” Gliksman, who was born in Jerusalem, said of Hanaton in an email. “It’s important to have Conservative, Reform, and other ways of expressing Judaism, so this diversity will reach all the Jewish citizens of Israel.”

Unlike the United States, where the Conservative and Reform movements dominate the religious landscape, Israel’s rabbinical authority is dogmatically Orthodox. With little political or religious capital, the kibbutz, Epstein said, can be a place for Masorti Jews to foster their own identity.

“When I look at the more dynamic Conservative communities in North America,” he said, “I see communities where there is a nucleus of people living as Conservative Jews, and that nucleus is able to attract others. It’s the same concept with the kibbutz; it can serve as a nucleus that will draw other people in.”

After success throughout the 1980s, the kibbutz began to nosedive financially. With a dwindling population and unable to even sustain a daily minyan, the kibbutz was forced to outsource food production and lease out its fields. By 2006, Hanaton, bruised and broken, was home to only 11 members.

“About three years ago, a decision was made to try and revive it,” said Andrew Sacks, a Jewish Theological Seminary-ordained rabbi and director of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel. In 2008, the United Kibbutz Movement “offered people the chance to buy homes on the kibbutz and become members for a low cost. All of a sudden, a bunch of committed Masorti Jews, who otherwise wouldn’t have enough money to buy beautiful homes, could try to create a Masorti community that won’t only serve our needs, but serve as a base. And that’s exactly what’s happening now.”

This year marks the 100th anniversary of Israel’s kibbutz movement, which historically was a bastion of secularism, and served as the linchpin of Israel’s early socialist-Zionist movement. Now, according to Haifa University’s Institute for the Research on the Kibbutz, Hanaton is one of 192 kibbutzim – of 256 – that have semi- or fully privatized; collectivized living is becoming a thing of the past.

While Hanaton might be a beacon for liberal-minded, progressive Israeli Jews, it likely won’t prove to be transformational. “I don’t think Hanaton will lead the movement anywhere,” said Sacks, who also writes a Jerusalem Post blog called “Masorti Matters,” “but I have little doubt it has the potential to become well known for its educational offerings and ritual offerings.”

Many in the Masorti movement, Sacks said, are “refugees” from the Orthodox world, meaning their openness is still informed by a strong sense of religious expression and identification. Epstein, on the other hand, suggested many Jews that join the Masorti movement aren’t religiously affiliated and want an experience less demanding than Orthodoxy.

“It is important to us to be accepting and open,” said Rabbi Haviva Ner-David, who moved to Hanaton with her family in July and defines herself as post-denominational, in an email. “We have people who come to shul each week and are very active in that aspect of the community, and we have those who come irregularly. We have people who drive on Shabbat, and people who don’t. Some couples use the mikveh [ritual bath] and some don’t. But everyone agrees on the egalitarian tefillot [prayers] and the open and accepting attitude.”

While the Hanaton closes its gates to traffic for the Sabbath, some residents park their cars outside the kibbutz; and while the kibbutz follows kashrut, not everyone keeps kosher. “It’s a mix,” Ner-David said. “This is a blessing and a challenge. Diversity is good in my opinion. But it does require more tolerance and flexibility on the part of the community members.”

While disparate forms of Jewish observance can co-exist at Hanaton, non-Orthodox strains have a tougher time in the national arena. For example, only 16 kibbutzim are officially considered religious. Hanaton isn’t one of them.

With roughly 50 Masorti congregations nationwide, opportunities for organized practice are few and far between. The Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which regulates aspects of Jewish life – marriage, burial, kashrut – and only recognizes Orthodox conversions and rabbinical ordinations, doesn’t allocate state funds for the Masorti movement. And with a budget that runs around a meager $3 million – most of which comes from the Jewish Agency and congregation dues – it’s difficult for consolidated Masorti communities to take root.

As a result, “it’s much more costly and much less convenient to be Conservative or Reform,” Epstein said. “You can associate with the Orthodox without any expense at all.”

Even still, that Israelis, not Americans, instigated Hanaton’s reincarnation encourages Gliksman. The 200-member strong Be’er Sheva congregation is 75 percent native-born, South American and Russian, according to Sacks, who believes the “overwhelming majority outside of Jerusalem is non-Anglo.” Sacks said he’s the only American-born individual working in the Rabbinical Assembly’s Israel offices.

As Hanaton gets ready to break ground to accommodate its new member families, there’s reason to hope the kibbutz augurs well for the Masorti movement at large. Participating with Yediot Aronoth, a national newspaper, the movement published a Masorti prayer book last December, which, after reaching number four on Israel’s nonfiction bestseller list, is in its second printing.

“I feel the future is bright,” Gliksman said. “The kids of the new immigrants that established the Masorti movement are adults; it’s easier because they are more accepted by Israeli society. It’s important when you hear someone on the news talking about the movement and he does not have an English accent. It may seem right.”

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