The Christian Zionists Who Brought an Israeli Agricultural Community Back to Life

Thanks in good part to the influx of members of the industrious Beth El Christian community, who created their own kibbutz in its midst, Moshav Magan Shaul has in the last decade been able to write off debts, offer gainful employment and draw former members who left to come home.

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Just over a decade ago, Moshav Magen Shaul, near Mount Gilboa, was an agricultural community whose most common crop was despair. Its residents, owners of large plots of land, much of it used for hothouses where they grew roses, were mired in tremendous debt caused by the period’s latest financial crisis, and many didn’t know how they would be able to keep feeding their families.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and thus it was that, some dozen years ago, Danny Atar, the head of the Gilboa Regional Council, found himself traveling all the way to Canada to meet members of its Beth El community. These Christian Zionists believe that Jews are the chosen people and that salvation will come from them. Some German-born members of the group had immigrated to Israel several decades ago, setting communities and businesses that employed locals.

“I heard about a Canadian community that wanted to come to Israel,” recalls Atar. “Because they always ask to come to the most difficult places, I thought that we needed them here. I traveled to Canada and spent four days with them. I found a community of enthusiastic Zionists, and I was impressed by their genuine love for the Jewish people and Israel. They had just received a special project from NASA and had to expand the plant [where they were working], which specialized in [computer] processing chips. I suggested they move it to Israel, in the realization that a high-tech plant is exactly what we need here for our livelihood, and that this could brand the Gilboa as a progressive place where it’s good to live.”

What would happen as a result of the immigration of 18 families from the Beth El community, who established what they call a “kibbutz” of their own within the moshav, as well as the Gilboa Tooling Industries factory there − Atar didn’t even dare to predict. “I thought that if they provided work for 10-15 Israeli families, that would be a big success,” he says today. “Who thought that within a few years they would employ 100 people and continue growing?”

Whether due to the employment provided by the Beth El group’s enterprise ‏(today 20 percent of the moshav members work in the factory‏), the high-tech image that has emerged, the fact that moshav children grew up and started families there or developments in the realm of local real estate − within 10 years Magen Shaul was transformed from a place from which people fled to a locale to which people are returning.

Thanks to both an arrangement with its bank creditors and the new communal prosperity, the moshav finished paying off its debts this year. A new expansion project is attracting former members who now want to return, who number 45 families to date, and the price of real estate has risen accordingly. If five years ago, the price of half a dunam ‏(1/8 acre‏) on the moshav was NIS 100,000, today it ranges from NIS 120,000 to NIS 200,000; currently, rent for a private home there ranges from NIS 2,500 to NIS 3,000 a month.

It looks as though Magen Shaul hasn’t yet caught up with itself. The iron gate at the entrance is locked, so that visitors can enter only by advance coordination with their hosts. Among the large plots of land belonging to members, you see houses placed sparsely here and there, and in the public areas innumerable abandoned greenhouses − ruined iron corpses, in memory of the agriculture that once took place here and has died. The Blue Eye, as the moshav swimming pool is called, stands deserted and surrounded by thorns, although the temperature is 37 degrees Celsius in the shade.

There isn’t a grocery store here yet, but Mark Ben Ezra, the Israeli moshav secretary, is optimistic: “Another 40 families − and there will be one here, too.” He notes that “the children of the moshav are returning for two reasons: There’s a place to work, and there’s an opportunity to build a house. It’s a combined process.” When asked if they would have returned if the Beth El community hadn’t built their factory on the moshav, he replies: “Yes, but to less of a degree.”

Some of the workers at the Gilboa Tooling Industries plant, which specializes in plastic injection molding and precision machine components for the medical and aerospace markets ‏(with clients such as Boeing and Airbus, as well as NASA‏), are blond-haired and blue-eyed. They include women with long braids and long skirts, and in addition to their native English or German, they speak a heavily accented Hebrew. Working alongside them are Israeli sabras, who have long since stopped being surprised by the way their colleagues look.

In the modest office of the CEO sits Arnold Kurucz, 40, a pleasant and smiling man. “We aren’t looking for publicity,” he says, “we came to work.”

Even when you come prepared for a meeting with the Beth El community here, of which Kurucz is a member, and know about their views about the Jewish people and Israel, they still manage to surprise you. “You’re the root of the tree,” says Kurucz when I ask him why the community chose to establish itself in Israel. “We’re the branches, but branches will never become the root.”

They maintain that their role in the world is to help Israel survive, to strengthen it as much as possible, and by doing so to hasten the coming of the Messiah. How do you do that? You forgo your more comfortable lifestyle abroad, move to Israel, establish a kibbutz-like collective within an existing community − and you also establish productive ways to make a living, which the country needs so badly.

Worldwide reputation

The international Beth El community has already established three kibbutzim, all of them in the north: Zichron Yaakov, Bnei Yehuda (in the Golan Heights) and Magen Shaul. It owns and runs seven plants in the north and employs a total of 1,100 people, making it one of the largest employers in the area. For the sake of comparison, the Iscar Metalworking Company in western Galilee has 2,500 employees.

The motto is productive and sophisticated manual labor. “We don’t send the children to university,” says Kurucz, a die-maker by profession. “There are enough lawyers in Israel and worldwide. We teach them precise and high-quality manual labor already in high school, and computerized technological skills, for which there is a tremendous demand − and from which many people can earn a living.”

This sort of livelihood, the CEO adds, dignifies its workers: “We have great respect for the production workers. That’s why, for example, on principle we don’t pay minimum wage [NIS 23 an hour]. The average hourly wage for a production worker is NIS 40. It’s important to us that the workers be satisfied, just as it’s important to us to help expand the livelihood of the Jewish people.”

Israelis work in the tooling plant, Kurucz says, but don’t run it: “The factory belongs to the [Beth El] community, as does its management. This is a relatively young plant. It’s possible that eventually even someone who isn’t from the community will become a manager.”

The precise and high-quality work in Magen Shaul is gaining a worldwide reputation; most of the products manufactured there are designated for export, in order not to undermine local industry. Until recently, the annual rate of growth of the tooling concern, which opened in 2004, was about 30 percent, but recently it has slowed down. The problem is not demand, but production: With the retirement of older Israeli workers, many of them immigrants from the Former Soviet Union, the number of experienced, skilled employees is dwindling, and the number of Beth El members who are familiar with the work is not sufficient.

“We have no choice but to slow down the rate,” says Kurucz. “In principle, we could double the level of production, but there aren’t enough trained experts here. If we make products that are not of high quality, we will harm our reputation − and we can’t permit ourselves to do that.”

Magen Shaul’s Beth El community started a vocational school in the Wadi Ara region for residents, in the hope that it will produce trained workers for other community plants, as well. “We can’t wait until the government does something. We have to think about ourselves,” Kurucz says, “to act.”

If you were located in the center of the country, would your staffing situation be easier?

“Possibly. But the problem is a general one. Israel is lacking professionals.”

When Kurucz speaks about the shortage of professional workers and the absence of sufficient training in various professions, he mentions another, somewhat more famous northern industrialist, Stef Wertheimer, founder of
Iscar − the company whose sale to billionaire investor Warren Buffett was finalized in May. Wertheimer is familiar with the activity of the Beth El community in Israel.

Wertheimer notes that the community educates its young people for work in industry. “One of their boys even came to us for an eight-month course that we opened in Iscar, and he was very successful. A few years ago, I taught a course for engravers in Givat Hamoreh, and they helped me there. They’re good professionals and people who are always ready to help.”

Despite the shortage of professional manpower, Kurucz and his fellow Beth El members on Magen Shaul are not considering bringing more trained members from abroad to fill the slots. “That’s really not the idea. We want to give work to Israelis, not foreign workers. We’ll be patient for two to three years until those who are studying are ready, and meanwhile, we’ll grow by only 10 percent a year. The value of local work is more important than the rapid development of the tool factory. Our decisions are not only business-related, but ideological as well.”

Apropos ideology and your northern location, do you employ Arabs?

“We bless the Jewish people.”

Members of the Beth El community don’t like to talk about politics. They are gradually gaining Israeli citizenship, but they don’t participate in Knesset elections or even vote for the moshav’s committees. If they had to be positioned on the political map, they take literally God’s promise, in the Hebrew Bible, of the greater Land of Israel to the Jewish people. Still, politics is downplayed, but not Zionism. For his part, Kurucz says that other Israeli exporters use small “Made In Israel” stickers on their products, but Gilboa Tool Industries does just the opposite.

“We emphasize the sticker,” he says with pride. “Anyone who doesn’t like it doesn’t have to work with us. I’ve met several people who are skeptical about Israelis’ ability to do high-quality manual work, but when they encounter our ‘Swiss’ precision, even they prefer to work with us. Quality conquers all.”

Since 1963

The residents of Magen Shaul constitute the second wave of immigration to Israel by members of the international Beth El movement. The first ones arrived in 1963 with their leader, Emma Berger, a German nurse who survived cancer and vowed to live in the Holy Land; they settled in Zichron Yaakov. Today, the country’s Beth El community numbers some 1,000 people who live on the three kibbutzim they have established. The leaders in each locale, usually men, are elected and are the ones who maintain contact with government institutions. All the members work, women and men alike, some run the kibbutz institutions and some work in the community’s seven factories. All the members share the means of production and the profit. As in a classical Israeli kibbutz of yore, each family receives a monthly budget, and the community runs its own kindergartens and schools ‏(under the supervision of the Education Ministry‏).

Generally, Beth El people lead a religious lifestyle. The women dress modestly, and the men don’t wear shorts or flip-flops; there is no television in their homes. They are not affiliated with a particular Christian church, but define themselves as an independent Evangelical group. There are no external religious signs − such as crosses or even a church − at Magen Shaul, and almost no religious ceremonies, and by definition the Beth El communities refrain from missionary activity. There is no Christmas tree in the center of the factory or kibbutz, and Jewish and Israeli holidays, including the fast on Yom Kippur, are observed.

In the past three years, young men from the larger community have begun enlisting in the army, mainly to intelligence ‏(rather than combat‏) units, and return home every day. On the issue of military service for the girls, there are discussions about alternative service.

As for Magen Shaul, 18 Beth El families live there at present, “some of whom rent homes [on the older part of the moshav], while the rest live in three houses that we built as part of the expansion,” says Kurucz. “We live and work together. We have a kindergarten, and the older ones travel to a vocational school run by the community in Zichron. We eat together in the factory dining room − everything is shared. I’m proud to describe myself as a kibbutznik.”

You know what happened to kibbutzim in Israel.

“Yes, but the cooperative model suits us. God doesn’t think about himself. If he were to think about himself, we would die. He thinks about giving, and that’s the basis for every healthy kibbutz. The kibbutzim fell apart because they lost the way, the ideology. I hope we won’t get lost.”

Don’t you get tired of each other? After all, it’s a small place.

“Yes, but we talk about it. The most important thing is to solve problems when they’re small. There’s also a wider community. If you have to see different faces, you travel to Zichron Yaakov.”

While the members of Beth El in Zichron suffered at first from the opposition of local residents, in the form of hate graffiti and so on, those of Magen Shaul slipped more easily into life there: “There are a few people who don’t approve of our kibbutz, although we’re 18 families out of 105. But the majority is actually pleased,” Kurucz explains. “We feel that we were accepted here with open hearts and a lot of love,” he adds.

“This is a very closed community,” says moshav secretary Ben Ezra, “and there were a few ultra-Orthodox and traditional families here who were worried at first, but they soon realized that it’s also important to the members of Beth El not to mingle. Recently, I spoke to Kurucz about expanding the factory, which also means absorbing additional families from the community − and we’ll gladly accept all of them. I think that the correct description of our situation would be that there are two communities living here side by side in harmony.”

Kurucz also seems to accept that description: “We all participate in memorial days, our children play music at moshav ceremonies, and one of the first things we did when we arrived was to rebuild the local swimming pool and to contribute to the operation of the synagogue. Recently, we also took it upon ourselves to cultivate an olive orchard that was abandoned along the roadside. We produce olive oil and sell it. We reinforce the local firefighting service, because our sons volunteer there, and of course some of the members of the moshav work in the factory, to our delight. We feel that we’re an integral part of the place.”

Your community, kibbutzim, factories − these are concentrated in the north at present. Is that a matter of principle?

“At the suggestion of the government, we are now examining the option of establishing a kibbutz, and of course another factory, in the south, near Sderot. But it’s still too early to discuss it.”

If the secretaries of communities in the south want to take the lead, they would probably do well to compete for the establishment of a new Christian kibbutz on their land, Kurucz observes: “If a community has an opportunity to absorb the Beth El community, it should grab it.”

In the Gilboa Tooling Industries. Clients include Boeing, and Airbus, as well as NASA.Credit: Eyal Toueg
Members of the Beth El community at their "kibbutz' on Magen Shaul.Credit: Eyal Toueg
Kurucz: 'I've met several people whoe are skeptical about Israelis' ability to do high-quality manual work, but when they encounter our 'Swiss' precision, even they prefer to work with us.'Credit: Eyal Toueg
Ben Ezra: 'Expanding the factory means absorbing additional families from the community - and we'll gladly accept all of them.'Credit: Eyal Toueg

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