The Acropolis of Mishmar Ha'emek

What was once a highly reputed school is now an abandoned shell. The kibbutz has to decide whether to renovate the building, and what to do with it then.

Rafi Ramon, a member of the "Eshel" group at Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'emek's educational institution, has vivid and meaningful memories of his days as a student there. He came to the school as fourth-grader and stayed there until the end of 12th grade. During those eight years, he says, his system of values was shaped.

"I have no doubt the education I received at the school played a very significant part in every step I've taken in my life to this day," he says. "The educational method there was unique and the educators were handpicked. My friends and I have never forgotten these people."

Aviad Barnes

The educational institution at Mishmar Ha'emek is a fascinating educational and social experiment infused with the socialist ideology of the Hashomer Hatzair movement. It was established in 1930 and housed on a hill above the kibbutz in a splendid Modernist building designed by architect Joseph Neufeld. Generations of students passed through the place and some of them, like actor Shlomo Bar-Shavit (who was in Ramon's class ), former MK Imri Ron (Mapam, a predecessor of today's Meretz ) and composer Dubi Seltzer later became part of Israel's cultural and political elite.

The buildings of the educational institution have been listed for preservation, but a raging dispute about their future role and they way they will be preserved is delaying the necessary restoration. In the meantime their condition is deteriorating - and so is its splendid heritage.

The educational institution was intended to provide an exclusive and quality education to five kibbutzim that were built in the Jezreel Valley: Beit Alfa, Mishmar Ha'emek, Sarid, Mizra and Merhavia (which were later joined by children from Gan Shmuel and young people from Youth Aliyah).

The idea behind its establishment was the building of an independent "children's society" that would be responsible for all its own needs, apart from security and education. The institution operated as a multi-age boarding school and the children were able to see their parents only during vacations or in a small number of visits during the course of the year.

Mornings were devoted to studies, afternoons to work in the kibbutz economy and evenings to various cultural activities. At the outset the educational institution was housed in a number of rickety cabins, but within a short time the Kibbutz Haartzi movement's executive decided to erect a dignified building and to that end enlisted Neufeld (1899-1980 ).

Neufeld, who planned a number of well-known buildings in the country like the Assouta Medical Center in Tel Aviv and Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem, had previously worked in the firms of two prominent Modernist architects: Erich Mendelsohn in Berlin and Bruno Taut in Moscow. Along with his familiarity with the avant-garde ideas of the early days of Modernist architecture, he was also connected ideologically and personally to the Hashomer Hatzair leadership.

Reflecting an educational philosophy

Neufeld received the first request to plan the premises when he was in Moscow at Taut's firm. Later, when he immigrated to Palestine, he settled at Mishmar Ha'emek and studied everything he thought an architect should know before starting to draw up a plan: the wind and sun directions, the topography, the ideological baggage of the kibbutzim and the educational philosophy it wished to institute. The first proposal was formulated in 1931, but the construction was delayed for six years until the necessary funds were raised. The plan was for the building to be constructed by the members of the kibbutzim in order to reduce the overall costs. Men and women participated equally in the construction, and each of them donated a day and a half of work.

The institution was positioned on a small hill overlooking Mishmar Ha'emek, like the position of the Greek temples on the Acropolis (in Greek: upper city ). The master plan included a number of buildings surrounding a shared courtyard and functioning as an independent community external to the kibbutz. This location, of course, had symbolic value and made a definite statement about the importance of education to the kibbutz settlement movement.

The first two buildings were completed in 1937 after huge efforts, and were tenanted immediately. They are characterized by unadorned rectangular masses, white plaster, narrow ribbon windows that filter the sunlight and a profound relationship to the local climate by means of the orientation of the buildings in comfortable directions. Neufeld's planning emphasizes the practical values of the building and derives its form from these. This is an economic and aesthetic outlook that also appears subsequently in others of his buildings in this country.

The actual construction of the buildings was slightly different from Neufeld's original plan. He, for example, wanted to install European-made windows and door frames but had to make do with doors and windows manufactured here or received through donations. As a result, the building's windows are somewhat different. He also had planned to lay gray linoleum flooring, but in the end the building was floored with terrazzo tiles.

In 1938 Neufeld planned the school's dining hall and introduced additional adaptations to the master plan. For example, he chose to split the westernmost building into several smaller pavilions in order to afford a varied space for activities for the different age groups.

At the time it was built, the educational institution was one of the largest structures in the Jezreel Valley and the surrounding area. The students even called it "the Big House."

"For us, as children, this building was enormous but it managed to contain everything we needed," recalls Ramon. "For example the living quarters were adjacent to the classrooms and you didn't feel as though you were going to school but rather that you were in the school."

Under the aegis of this absolute atmosphere an independent children's society was formed. It operated its own cultural program, work and sports activities. "We held the educational institution's general meetings in the dining hall - we discussed earth-shaking matters and it was the students who took the decisions. Nowadays they call this system "Democratic schools" and they are trying to imitate this model in all kinds of places," adds Ramon.

In April 1948, at the start of the War of Independence, Arab forces under the command of General Fawzi Kaukji attacked Mishmar Ha'emek. Kaukji's cannons took aim at the white school building that rose in isolation on the hill above the kibbutz, among other targets. Many shells hit the building and it was severely damaged. After the attack the damage was repaired and a concrete shelter was added to the building. Subsequently, a series of additions in that spirit, which did not match Neufeld's spirit or style, were built.

Cradle of cooperative education

After the establishment of the state similar educational institutions began to go up at kibbutzim around the country, and the uniqueness of the school at Mishmar Ha'emek - the only one of its kind in the Kibbutz Haartzi movement - faded. The building was used for dormitories and classes until the 1980s, when it was abandoned because of its condition.

Today the educational activity continues there as the Shomriya school, but the children sleep and study in buildings that were constructed in later years. The original building itself is almost entirely abandoned, apart from one office wing and a few classrooms.

About three years ago the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites approached the kibbutz with a proposal to renovate the building and open a permanent exhibition there for the benefit of the public, as is its policy at other heritage sites. The society enlisted exhibition designer Uri Abramson (who also designed exhibitions at the Children's Museum and the Yitzhak Rabin Museum ) to draw up a proposal for renewed use of the institution's spaces.

Ran Hedvati, the Sharon district director of the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, relates that members of Mishmar Ha'emek are concerned that the future museum would bring large numbers of visitors who "will be roaming around among their homes," as he defines it. "We are familiar with this dilemma from other places," he adds. "I remember that at home in Kibbutz Ein Shemer there was also a debate as to whether to renovate the old courtyard and open it to visitors. In the end we are hosting them gladly."

Idit Ophir, a member of Mishmar Ha'emek, has been busy in recent years with the issue of preserving the educational institution, as a member of a special committee established by the kibbutz. She admits that the building and the rich historical archive housed in it are "in a state of collapse." The question is how the kibbutz let such an important institution deteriorate into such a state.

"Renovating the institution requires millions and Mishmar Ha'emek has chosen to invest in other projects. For many years, for example, we have been trying to improve the members' living conditions. When we come and ask for so much money to be invested in one building the members ask why. This is a sign of our moral impoverishment, but the facts say we didn't do enough."

However, Ophir does stress Mishmar Ha'emek's commitment to preserving the educational institution: "It's the cradle of cooperative education and things happened there that didn't at any other place in the world," she says.

She relates that since the institution was transferred exclusively into the hands of the kibbutz (previously it had been owned by a number of kibbutzim ) it has flourished and the number of students there has increased. "The debate," she clarifies, "is what to do with the building after it is renovated. The kibbutz would like to use it for its own needs, but the preservation society wants to see a museum there in return for the money it will raise. The kibbutz is not interested in having organized tours coming here. Already there are buses coming here with tour guides and there's a big debate about this. This is people's home and they don't want a tourism site in their home."

Ophir raises another point concerning the costs of maintaining the future building. She explains that the preservation society can help fund its renovation, but not its operation. "The moment there isn't someone here to operate it, the business could simply die," she says.

In the meantime, the members of Mishmar Ha'emek have decided that the kibbutz building department will prepare a counterproposal for preserving the building without help from outside elements. Even though it is the kibbutz's property, it has to be asked whether the importance of the educational institution, as the cradle of cooperative education and a wonderful example of Modern architecture, justifies its transformation into a national site.

One can only hope that ultimately the members of Mishmar Ha'emek and the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites will succeed in resolving the disagreement and ensure the institution's future.