Given Israel’s tight quarters, it’s not unusual to hear about people leaving small city apartments for the more pastoral, spacious setting offered on a moshav. But given the recent changes in Israeli kibbutzim and the move toward privatizing these socialist communities, it’s somewhat unusual to find more than 20 families migrating to a northern kibbutz, particularly one that’s had as many ups and downs as Conservative Kibbutz Hanaton, in the Jezreel Valley.
Hanaton was the movement’s first, now only kibbutz, founded in 1984 by American immigrants. By the late 1990s, there were just 11 members left and the kibbutz underwent a period of great upheaval, as it endeavored to figure out what was next for the ailing community, which was facing possible bankruptcy.
Enter Rabbi Yoav Ende, a young, Israeli-born, newly-ordained Conservative rabbi who had spent time living on Hanaton before the army and has always been drawn by the concept of creating a spiritual and educational center that would help create a Jewish identity for society and individuals. He and his wife, Shira, helped gather several families interested in renewing the kibbutz, just under three years ago. Within eight months, there were 18 families who put their money down to join the kibbutz, and a few months later, seven of the families moved up to Hanaton. Now, two years later, there are 26 families at Hanaton and while everyone’s adjusting, the mood is positive.
“We’re an interesting and diverse community, a model for Masorti Judaism in Israel,” says Yoav, using the official Israeli term for the Conservative Judaism movement. “I didn’t think we’d already have 26 families and be building a new neighborhood, but it’s exciting to be here, to be part of the dialogue. I see a lot of meaning in the framework of a renewed kibbutz, where people are responsible for one another but not dependent.”
The renewed Kibbutz Hanaton is vastly different than the traditional kibbutz, lacking most of the traditional trappings such as a communal dining room or kibbutz occupations, but new members do have to ‘buy in’ to the kibbutz. They mostly work in their own professions, although many participate in the Hanaton educational center, given the number of rabbis and educators who are part of the renewed community.
One of the new families is the Chesir-Terans, who first spent a year in Jerusalem before making aliyah last summer, officially from South Orange, New Jersey. Ian Chesir-Teran is an attorney who will be earning a rabbinical degree from HUC, while Daniel is a community psychologist who has spent much of the last two years smoothing things over for the family, which includes Eli, 9, Yonah, 7 and Tamar, 5.
“The change to kibbutz doesn’t feel all that dramatic to me,” says Daniel. “In terms of day to day life, it’s not so different from modern suburban life, there isn’t a sense of being isolated.”
Then again, as the first gay,mixed race family on the kibbutz, Daniel is aware of being a “pioneer” in a certain sense, of bringing a certain kind of diversity to the kibbutz and the region.
“Ian and I have often been involved in places where we’ve helped create a change or building something,” says Daniel. “In our suburban synagogue, we were the first actively involved family that was gay and then there were many more who came. That part feels comfortable to us. It’s different here from Jerusalem, but not so different from the small community that we were involved in Jerusalem. Emek Yizrael is less open in that way than Jerusalem, and we’re hopeful that there will be more diversity in the future and we’ll help bring that in.”
For Debbie Perla and her husband Ezra Kopelowitz, as well as their four children ages 15, 13, 10 and 4, the move to Hanaton was from Jerusalem, where they lived for more than 20 years.
As the owners of their own business, a research firm for non-profits, they can work from any location, and they often set up shop in the cafes or library of Zichron Yaakov, the historical community that is a short drive from Hanaton, and where two of their children now attend school. That hasn’t been the biggest adjustment, says Debbie, it’s more of a change of “mindset.”
“It’s very different up north,” says Debbie. “There’s space and air and you’re outdoors in a different way. People are not as tense, more accepting, and they’re more available, they want this sense of [kibbutz] community, to help each other and be part of something. Because it’s a small community, you see everybody every day, you can stop by and have coffee and talk about what’s the next thing. If you have an idea, you can implement it.”
That said, there are the frustrations after having lived an urban life for 20 years. There’s the ease of city life that Debbie misses, as well as the friends that she’s had for many years. She and Ezra, in their mid-40s, are one of the older families in this renewing kibbutz, and that can be tough, particularly in terms of a social life for their teenage kids.
That said, for all these families, the move to kibbutz, even a millenium-style one, is about sowing change in their lives and the life of the community. It’s a switch, and one that requires adjustment, whether it’s the move from city to country, or country to country.
“Sometimes I’m surprised because my vision of life in Israel was Jerusalem,” says Debbie. “So this is a big change. Jerusalem is like the center in so many ways, so you have to make a switch and say it doesn’t happen on the same scale. It’s a different kind of Israel.”