KIBBUTZ HANNATON, Israel (JTA) — Over the din of children playing, some 20 people crowded into the home of Aylon and Ravit Samson here on Saturday night for Kibbutz Hannaton’s biweekly communal Havdalah service.
While some of Israel’s kibbutzim are in steady decline, 10 mostly young families have arrived at Hannaton since the summer. They are part of a larger group of 20 families aiming to revitalize the country’s only official Conservative kibbutz.
"It’s like a dream," said Linda Samson, Aylon’s aunt and an American.
Samson, a 21-year veteran of Hannaton, is one of only a handful of remaining longtime residents. Aylon and Ravit arrived only in the last week.
Hannaton was founded in the mid-1980s by a group of Israelis and American immigrants.
It was an inauspicious moment to start a kibbutz. At kibbutzim throughout Israel, members were being lured away from the socialist enterprise by the promise of greater freedom and material prosperity, and the erosion of the economic and social underpinnings of the kibbutz movement was well under way.
By 2003, Hannaton had fallen into bankruptcy and receivership and was on the cusp of dissolution.
In an effort to save the kibbutz, the Masorti movement, the Israeli wing of the worldwide Conservative movement, turned to Yoav Ende, a charismatic young rabbi with a mop of auburn curls. A product of Masorti institutions, Ende saw an opportunity to create a new kind of community in Israel, and he began working his network of contacts to recruit 20 families to settle at Hannaton.
The first group began arriving this summer, and Ende hopes to attract as many as 50 more families within a few years.
"My vision is to have here a religious, pluralistic, Conservative community that will be on one hand very religious, very connected to its Judaism, and on the other hand very much connected to its society," Ende said. "We’re here to build a model that if it can be replicated, it can make a statement to Israeli society."
The objectives of the kibbutz’s new cohort are as diverse as their reasons for relocating there. Some have come to escape urban life, others for the chance to shape a tight-knit community from the ground up. Still others have come because the religious offerings elsewhere in Israel were seen as inadequate.
"I lived in a tight community [as a child], and I loved it," said Jonny Whine, 33, a Briton with roots in the Conservative and Reform movements who moved to Hannaton this summer with his Jerusalem-born wife and their two children. "I couldn’t see any community in Jerusalem that I wanted to be part of."
Hannaton sits atop a modest rise overlooking the Eshkol Reservoir in the Lower Galilee, some 20 miles east of Haifa. Its agricultural ventures include a dairy farm, a chicken coop and a grapefruit orchard. The kibbutz also is home to what members say is the only Israeli mikvah, or ritual bath, not under the control of the Orthodox rabbinate, and an educational center that focuses on spirituality, Jewish studies and ecology.
In its second incarnation, Hannaton’s various objectives are sometimes hard to pin down, but broadly speaking they encompass a desire to create a pluralistic community animated by a concern for social justice, the environment and Jewish spirituality; to strengthen the ties of Jewish peoplehood between Israel and the Diaspora; and to help shape Israel’s Jewish identity.
It is on that last point that the movement’s leadership in Israel has perhaps the most at stake. After laying dormant for some time, questions of religious pluralism in Israel are grabbing headlines again, sparked in large part by the recent arrest of a Conservative woman for wearing a tallit, or prayer shawl, at the Western Wall. Through its educational programming — Ende says he conceives of the educational center as something akin to a think tank — the kibbutz hopes to have a much broader impact on Israeli society and ultimately on freedom of non-Orthodox religious expression in Israel.
"It’s important for Masorti because Masorti is one, and only one, player advocating and working towards implementation of these same values — pluralism, acceptance of other views," said Emily Levy-Shochat, the recently elected chairwoman of the Masorti movement in Israel. "I think the potential damage for the entire society is so scary. I’m very worried about the base of democracy of this society."
Levy-Shochat sees Hannaton as an important prong of a larger effort to cultivate allies in the struggle for greater pluralism in Israel.
But Hannaton has faced challenges right in its own backyard that suggest its model of religious tolerance won’t be spread so easily.
Over the High Holidays, the secular community that abuts Hannaton asked a Chabad rabbi to lead its services rather than participate in the egalitarian prayers being held at Kibbutz Hannaton. At the same time, Ende’s suggestion that children in the kindergarten recite a blessing before eating was met with hostility from secular parents who feared religious indoctrination.
The conundrum of being seen as both too religious and not religious enough also has bedeviled Conservative Judaism in the United States.
But Ende, like many at Hannaton, sees the movement’s ability to juggle both tradition and modernity as a potent model of non-Orthodox Judaism more consonant with the values of Israel’s largely secular population. As a largely home-grown group, the Hannaton newcomers see themselves as uniquely poised to combat the stigma that Conservative Judaism is an American import.
"Now we see a second generation of people who grew up here, who are natives," said Ende, the product of an American father and an Iraqi mother. "It’s just easier for us. We have the culture, the networking. We can’t be delegitimized."