Why 'secular' kibbutzim are building own shuls

By Nathan Jeffay, June 23, 2011
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It is a common sight in Israel's religious neighbourhoods. But when a scribe wrote the final letters of a new Torah scroll on Kibbutz Kalia last week, it was something many of its members never dreamed they would see.

Kalia, located on the shore of the Dead Sea, is a secular kibbutz, which for the first three decades of its existence was like most others - it showed little interest in religion. In the past seven years, however, its dining room has come under rabbinic supervision, it has established a synagogue which opens for all Shabbat and Holy Day services, and this synagogue now has its own Torah.

Some other secular kibbutzim have set up synagogues in the last decade, but they tend differ from the one on Kalia in one of two respects. Often the synagogues are non-denominational, used for whatever form of prayer of spiritual expression kibbutzniks favour. Where they are Orthodox, they were usually established to meet demand of outsiders - either visitors in guesthouses or residents in new housing developments which kibbutzim have opened to non-members.

On Kalia, however, the synagogue is Orthodox and the impetus to establish it came from kibbutz member Amos Yinon. A typically secular member until 15 years ago, he then started becoming religious, and subsequently became fully Orthodox.

Dr Yinon, who is head of internal medicine at Jerusalem's Shaarei Zedek Medical Centre, almost single-handedly convinced kibbutzniks to kosher the kitchens and set up the shul, and he then purchased the Torah. But while his family is the only Orthodox one on the kibbutz, he normally manages to attract enough people to make a minyan and had about 80 per cent of members attending the Torah inauguration.

Dr Yinon realises that he is an exception. "I think that most people who became religious would have moved out," he said.

"Kibbutzim used to be the symbol of secular Judaism, of creating a new type of Judaism that was not religious, but most of that has disappeared now," said Shlomo Getz, head of the University of Haifa's Institute for the Research of the Kibbutz and the Co-operative Idea.

This has given rise to "a tendency in the kibbutz to be more open to differences and to not impose ideology". This growing openness has coincided with a curiosity about Jewish tradition.

Kalia member Udi Lugasi thinks that with the demise of the ideological secularism, kibbutzniks want the same thing as most Jewish communities worldwide - a shul they don't go to. "Even if people don't come, they are happy to know that it's there."

Last updated: 2:13pm, June 23 2011