In Israel's Past Bastions of Secularism, Religious Debates Flare

In dozens of kibbutzim across the country members argue over questions such as whether to prohibit women from singing in synagogue.

Eli Ashkenazi
Eli Ashkenazi
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Eli Ashkenazi
Eli Ashkenazi

Three years ago, when Batya Safian was called up to the Torah at the synagogue of Kibbutz Matzuva, a Katyusha rocket landed on the main lawn of the kibbutz and exploded. "There was a siren outside but inside we continued with the bar mitzvah," she recalled last week. Safian, a social worker who serves as the cantor, seems to be more troubled by the recent controversy within the kibbutz over women singers than she was by the difficulties of the past.

"A meeting was convened, to which I was not invited. Some of the people said they were not willing to hear me chanting at holiday services," Safian related. "I was hurt, but if a woman's voice might affect their concentration during prayer then that's their problem."

Batya Safian, left, the cantor of Kibbutz Matzuva’s Conservative congregation, and Baruch Kadmon, one of its founders, in December 2011.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

Karni Am-Ad, a fellow kibbutz member, protested against the demands. In a letter to kibbutz members he wrote: "Matzuva was founded and and operated throughout the years as a secular-pluralist group, with no salient ethnic characteristics. As such, it it has welcomed into its heart the Other, the stranger. Segregation on the basis of gender will only cause a rift and separatism in other areas in which a consensus had been preserved up to now," Am-Ad wrote.

Yaniv Chen, a kibbutz member who supports worshipping in accordance with Orthodox tradition, says: "It upsets us when a woman is called up and reads from the Torah. We do not want war, or a rift," he says, adding, "We agreed not to have separate seating for men and women [in the synagogue], and now we expect them to compromise on nusah, the worship tradition," Chen said.

The disagreement over worship traditions at Matzuva is just one example of the conflicts that have developed in the past several years at dozens of kibbutzim around the country. In some the issue is which stream or tradition to follow, while at others the dispute is over whether to build a synagogue on the kibbutz and where to put it: at the center of the community, or off the beaten path. Economic issues are also involved: The Religious Services Ministry spends hundreds of thousands of shekels every year to build synagogues in kibbutzim that want it.

At Kibbutz Yifat, as at Matzuva, this year Yom Kippur services were held in two different places.

At Yifat it was the Orthodox worshippers who were given use of the synagogue, on account of their greater numbers due to "reinforcements" in the form of Chabad Hassidim from the neighboring town of Migdal Ha'emek. The other group, which identifies with the Jewish Renewal movement, used another space allocated to them by the kibbutz.

Dedication of Kibbutz Afikim’s second synagogue, in 1970.Credit: Reproduction: Gil Eliahu

This year Kibbutz Geva held traditional Yom Kippur services, in a departure from the Jewish-secular manner of previous years. One member complained in the kibbutz newsletter about the change, writing, "As a secular society, we view human beings as being in the center. Tchernichovsky wrote, in his poem 'Creed,' 'For still I do believe in man/ And in his spirit, strong and bold,' expressing the secular mood and idea," she wrote.

At Ashdot-Yaakov Ihud, during Simhat Torah a partition in the synagogue divided the men, who danced with the Torah, from the women.

"Kibbutz society championed equality as a value. And here, in honor of the kibbutz movement's centenary, we elected to erect a partition between men and women," wrote kibbutz member Bruria Sharon in the newsletter. "Get ready, the mikveh [ritual purification bath facility] is coming," she added.

At Kibbutz Merhavia, for example, after a three-year battle between some of the members and some residents of a neighborhood built for nonmembers over the location and character of a planned synagogue, a town-hall style meeting voted to build it.

A few members of Kibbutz Palmahim, meanwhile, recently signed a petition against a plan to convert the community's former dining hall into a synagogue.

There was a similar disagreement at Degania Alef about five years ago, when a synagogue was built in the Founders' Courtyard. Lifetime kibbutz member Amalia Ilan was quoted in Haaretz at at the time: "A synagogue here counters the entire outlook of the Degania pioneers and the essence of the Second Aliyah," she said.

Around 70 of Israel's 257 kibbutzim that are not explicitly religious have synagogues. Some were built decades ago for the parents of members, the "old folk" as they were once called. Sometimes a small kosher kitchen was built nearby.

Kibbutz Afikim's first synagogue dates from the mid-1940s; a second was built in 1970. Assaf Inbari, who was born and raised on Afikim, wrote about it in his book "Home": "As children, the founders of the kibbutz never visited a synagogue in Odessa, Moscow or Riga, because their parents never told them there was any such thing. They had no problem eating pork in its mother's milk, and even when the jubilee year approached it never dawned on them that the kibbutz needed a synagogue. But the kibbutz got soft," Inbari wrote.

Dr. Moti Zeira, director of Oranim College's HaMidrasha Educational Center for the Renewal of Jewish Life in Israel, ascribed the current conflict to increased religious observance in Israel and a change in the kibbutz population. He said kibbutzim were influenced by the move toward increasing religious observance that began in the 1980s. "Young kibbutz members who became observant and stayed on kibbutz demanded venues for worship, posing a challenge from within that strikes a sensitive nerve," Zeira said. At the same time, many kibbutzim are absorbing new members, or nonmember residents, who want religious services.

Economic issues are also a factor, he said. "Today there is a vacuum that various Orthodox groups are filling, and for its part the state is happy to spend on building synagogues in kibbutzim. Members must ask themselves about the public sphere of the kibbutz. When we gather together, how is it done, in what style? Is it organized by someone from outside who excludes women" and tries to teach the children that only Orthodox Judaism is real Judaism," Zeira said.

On Matzuva, at least, a traditional Jewish solution has been found. Baruch Kadmon, a kibbutz member and one of the founders of Matzuva's Conservative/Masorti congregation, explains: "The conflict seems to have been resolved through the decision that there is no choice but to build another synagogue for the new residents, an Orthodox synagogue with a women's section. It's a pity, but we're a pluralistic community and some people wanted a traditional synagogue," Kadmon said.



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