Privatization Killed the Kibbutz Culture Center

Kibbutz Gvat's community building was once the envy of the region, but with few funds and residents who have turned inward, Beit Herschel will likely not regain its past glory.

Beit Herschel, the legendary community building on Kibbutz Gvat in the Jezreel Valley, is one of Israel's largest such structures. But after more than 70 years of serving the kibbutz dwellers and residents from the surrounding area, hosting countless films, plays and performances, the building has fallen into disrepair, and is today used just a couple nights a year for high school students' end-of-year plays.

The rest of the time the building lies desolate.

gvat - Aviad Bar-Ness - November 23 2011
Aviad Bar-Ness

In the absence of the necessary funds for renovations, it is likely to soon be abandoned altogether and become a silent, forgotten monument to the socialist ethos on which the kibbutz, itself a monument to a group of Jews from Pinsk massacred by the Polish army, was founded.

"The state of Beit Herschel is a reflection of the long privatization process Gvat has undergone," says Naaman Cohen, a history teacher and former kibbutz resident. "The moment a kibbutz is privatized there is no collective that can take care of the building and renovate it."

Cohen has recently self-published a book, "Al Ha-utopia - Aliyata unefilata shel Kvutzat Kedoshei Pinsk" (On The Utopia - the Rise and Fall of the Martyrs of Pinsk Group, ) which touches on the story of the building's construction. The saga starts with a pogrom against a group of young Jews in Poland, and ends with the severe financial and social crisis that afflicted the kibbutz movement.

Cohen presents kibbutz members' recollections of the numerous activities that took place at the community center and its significant contribution to the cohesion of the locals.

Kibbutz Gvat was established in memory of 35 young Jews murdered by the Polish army in 1919 after they attended a Zionist gathering in Pinsk, now part of Belarus. One of the young people there, Herschel Pinski, happened to leave the hall in the middle and was therefore spared. After the murders, he headed a group of friends and proteges of the victims that decide to honor their memory by establishing a socialist kibbutz in Palestine. In 1926, the first settlers arrived in the Jezreel Valley. Pinski himself became an active member of political party Mapai and was appointed the party's Haifa secretary.

In the mid-1930s, on the way from Haifa to Gvat, Pinski drowned in a river and his body was swept away by the current. Mapai leaders issued a moving eulogy and called for the construction of a major cultural institution in his memory.

A large number of workers responded to the call and donated a day of work; the donations collected totaled 1,000 liras, which made it possible to commence work on the building.

A scroll placed in the cornerstone which was laid on January 10, 1937 contains an ardent labor screed stating that Beit Herschel will serve as "a meeting place for large gatherings on weekdays and holidays, joyous days and somber days. It will be the tent of meeting for the fraternity of working men and women thirsting for a suitable musical and lyrical venue for their lives. It will be a small sanctuary for the spirit of the working person who desires to be uplifted and for the spirit of the coming generations for ever after."

Backstage barracks

The person chosen to design Beit Herschel was Architect Yohanan Ratner, a prominent figure in the Hebrew settlement movement who nurtured both a military and architectural career simultaneously.

Before the establishment of the state, he was the national commander of the Haganah militia and of the Palmach underground and combined these two parts of his life.

He was the man behind the idea of "tower and stockade" settlements, which were based onguerrilla architecture and establishing facts on the ground. The overwhelming majority of his projects were for Zionist organizations and Mapai institutions, such as the building housing the national institutions in Jerusalem, Beit Berl, and the Zamenhoff Health Maintenance Organization building in Tel Aviv. He studied architecture at the Technion and was even the dean of the faculty of architecture there and acting deputy director of the Technion.

Ratner modeled Beit Herschel on a fortress with narrow windows, sort of like gun slits, for protection against attacks by Arab gangs.

The building is located in the center of the kibbutz, near the dining hall and consists of two square masses that include a 600-seat auditorium and a large stage.

Ratner chose to express the building's monumental role in the kibbutz as well as its humble socialist spirit, and used modern functional language devoid of unnecessary flourishes. At the same time, Ratner also designed the kibbutz's water tower, where it is also possible to see an architectural expression of the socialist ethos through tough functional language and the use of exposed concrete.

The rear facade of Beit Herschel faces a gentle slope, where Ratner designed a small natural amphitheatre, which has since been lost to time. Due to the height variations created by the topography, this side also has a small row of pillars that imbue the building with refined grandeur.

Apart from the large auditorium, Beit Herschel also had reading rooms and music rooms and an office for the kibbutz administration. In the cellar, a library was built and behind it, under the large stage, was secret Haganah arms stockpile.

In the 1940s, the backstage area housed Palmach commanders in the area.

"Mula Cohen, the commander of the Yiftah Brigade, and the company commander, poet Haim Guri, lived there, among others," noted Cohen, the historian.

Right after its opening, Kibbutz Gvat's community center became a regional cultural center. It hosted productions by the Habima Theater and the Workers' Theater, Ohel. In September 1950, when the poet, author and kibbutz member Fania Bergstein died, her coffin lay in Beit Herschel and a honor guard was posted beside it.

During the divisive time among the kibbutzim, Gvat's property was split up between Hakibbutz Hameuchad members and Mapai people, who moved away and established Yifat. The leaders of the two kibbutzim determined that the only things that would remain jointly owned would be a memorial grove, the cemetery and Beit Herschel.

No audience, no money

The story of the rise and fall of Gvat's community building is unfortunately typical of no less than 150 such cultural centers that were built in nearly every Jewish settlement across the country during the 20th century. The centers were places instilled with the vision of the new, Hebrew culture, the gathering place before the arrival of the era of television and malls.

Leading pre-state architects, including Richard Kaufmann, Aryeh Sharon, David Resnick and others added their own personal interpretations to the design of cultural centers and just like with Beit Herschel in Gvat, in every place it is possible to identify the architectural reflection of the surrounding community and environment.

Rafi Tzur, the administrative head of Kibbutz Gvat, explains that the community center is not in use today due to the lack of resources needed to renovate it.

"People want good air conditioning, good heating, comfortable seats. For example, we need to invest a very large amount of money to address fire safety issues," he explained.

When the kibbutz underwent privatization, there were attempts to entice a developer to take over renovation and operation of the building, but no deal went through. Now, the kibbutz is trying to convert the lobby of the auditorium into a multi-purpose space.

Tzur added that the auditorium's location near other large venues makes it hard for attract interest.

"It's just a half-hour drive to Afula or Haifa, and nearby Kibbutz Yifat has a regional auditorium that is well-maintained," he said.

There is concern that with the kibbutz unable to invest resources into saving the building, and with interest in using it fleeting, Beit Herschel will deteriorate rapidly.

Kibbutzim all over the country are home to public buildings with no use. Because most of them are not protected by any preservation plans, there is no guarantee for their future.

The question naturally arises as to whether the cultural centers' activities are relevant today, in the era of the almost total privatization of culture on the kibbutz.

"It is relevant and irrelevant," said Tzur, "but I'm convinced that if there were functions, people would come."

Cohen, though, is not so sure, saying the center is a victim of the wider privatization trend: "It may be that we are just nostalgic."

קראו כתבה זו בעברית: הרשל שאין לו הופכין