Israeli kibbutz tries to accommodate religious and secular members

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

KIBBUTZ KETURA, Israel _ Two years ago Sharon Ben-Haim found her spiritual home in Israel, one far from the stone monuments and synagogues of Jerusalem. She came instead to this remote desert kibbutz near the Red Sea where young Israelis are trying to hammer out new patterns of cooperation between Jew and Jew.

Fifty years after the founding of the state, relations between Israel’s Jewish secular and religiously observant populations remain almost as complex as those between Jew and Arab. Many sociologists worry that Israel’s Jews are evolving into two parallel societies, each with its own values and codes, and separated from the other.

In such a setting the experiment in living underway at Ketura _ a green oasis in the Arava desert _ stands as a model and ideal. Indeed it is virtually Israel’s only kibbutz where Jews seeking a traditionally religious lifestyle live with those who are not.

Only some 20 percent of the community’s about 120 adult members are religiously observant. Yet Ben-Haim asserts life in this mixed community is spiritually richer than what she has experienced elsewhere.”There is something about being out here away from everything, in the midst of nature, that makes you feel spiritual _ a sense of awe and inspiration,”said the 28-year-old mother of three and administrator of the kibbutz’ world renowned school of desert ecology.”I lived in Jerusalem for three years, and I never felt connected to any particular community,”she continued.”Here, there is a special feeling when you pray on the Sabbath with the people who you live and work the rest of the week as well.” Still, sharing comes with a price tag for both religious and secular kibbutz members in rules and habits that might seem odd to most outsiders.

At Ketura, for instance, secular kibbutz members must agree to observe strict Jewish laws regarding the Sabbath in all public areas. That means even in this isolated setting there are no kibbutz films or parties on Friday evenings or Saturday.

Kibbutz institutions cook meals for the weekend ahead of time, electricity is placed on a timer, and no kibbutz buses leave the grounds from sundown Friday until nightfall Saturday _ all in observance of Jewish law.

Yet while the few dozen observant members of the kibbutz spend their one-day weekend at synagogue, studying Talmud, and in quiet meetings with family and friends, their secular neighbors are just as likely to be found cooking, watching videos or driving to the restaurants and beaches of the nearby Red Sea resort of Eilat.

Elsewhere in Israel, such diversity might quickly unravel into disputes, with secular neighbors balking at the religious restrictions or religious residents being disturbed by the Sabbath violations.

But while there are plenty of debates at Ketura over the religious”status quo,”the 25-year-old kibbutz is as close as Israelis have been able to come to reconciling the bewildering rainbow of ideologies and ideals existing today in the Jewish state.”There are very few places in this country that I could feel comfortable as a Jew, and here I do,”said Tzvi Muznikow, a former New Yorker who has lived on Ketura for 20 years, and considers himself traditional, though not strictly observant.”I can count on one hand the times that I was in a synagogue as a child,”said Udi Gat, a secular Israeli member of the kibbutz.”Still when I pass by the synagogue here at Ketura I feel something. I’m pleased with the fact that my children are learning more than me about the tradition and the liturgy, not necessarily as religion, but as culture.” Ketura’s unique lifestyle is admittedly an imported phenomenon. The kibbutz was founded as an agricultural settlement on the site of a former army base in November 1973 by members of the U.S.-based Young Judea, a youth movement which sought to embrace Jews of all religious affiliations.

Today, most of the younger members are Israeli-born.

The ethic of tolerance also is reflected in kibbutz synagogue services _ where women participate equally with men, although the kibbutz uses an Orthodox prayer book, where men usually lead the service.

Mike Salloway, one of Ketura’s original founders, said the Ketura lifestyle was merely an extension of the Young Judea ethic.”One of the first things we did when we took over was kosher the kitchen,”he chuckled, recalling how the traditional separation of meat and milk, foods and dishes had been totally garbled in a big army party staged by departing soldiers the night before the kibbutz was”born.” Salloway said the kibbutz’ religious life has become richer over the years. But founders also face a dilemma in conveying their sense of Jewish tradition _ as well as the value of compromise _ to native-born kibbutz children.”Ketura’s children are `Israeli’ in every respect and their connection to Jewish tradition is often artificial. It won’t continue in the way their parents brought it from the diaspora,”said Shmuelik Bezalel, one of the new generation of Israel-born kibbutz members and a teacher of Bible from a non-religious perspective at the kibbutz high school.

Bezalel believes part of the solution lies in education that strives to acquaint secular Israeli students with classical Jewish literature and law _ without any particular theological line.

But Cecil Rimer, an observant Jew whose passion is the study of Talmud, the library of Jewish law, is doubtful educational changes will happen soon. He says parents in the overwhelmingly secular kibbutz regional school system would balk at the addition of more Jewish studies to its curriculum, given the prevalent fear of religious coercion.”I’d like my daughter to study Talmud,”said the father of two young children.”But I don’t have that option.” Such dilemmas have made Rimer, an immigrant from South Africa who has lived on the kibbutz since 1981, weary of the constant compromises required in a mixed community _ despite Ketura’s noble goals.”I would prefer to live without the struggle, in a community where the majority of people thought the way I did,”he said bluntly.”But I stay here because there are a lot of other very good things on the kibbutz _ mainly the people.”


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