Indebted Tel Aviv Vegan Cooperative Closes After 4 Years, Unbowed and Proud

Bar Kayma co-op was launched in wake of social protests of 2011, but eventually overreached after renting out expensive building in downtown Florentin.

Bar Kayma in the Florentin neighborhood of Tel Aviv, soon after its launch in 2012.
Daniel Bar-On

A Tel Aviv cooperative set up to provide affordable dining and entertainment following the social justice protests of 2011 announced last week that it’s closing its doors.

Despite having more than 400 members, the Bar Kayma co-op ran up debts of hundreds of thousands of shekels over the last four years.

Bar Kayma began as a vegan pub and restaurant in Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood. Each member paid 1,000 shekels ($267), which entitled him or her to meals at cost price plus a share of any profits.

Later, the co-op expanded into vegan catering, a shop, lecture and entertainment center, tourist hostel and demonstration center for urban agriculture. It served as a gathering place for social and environmental activists, and gave birth to many social projects, including other co-ops.

However, Bar Kayma decided to rent an entire building for its venture, which proved a major mistake. The building turned into a heavy drain on resources.

“We haven’t managed to be financially sustainable, so the responsible thing for us to do is close now, in order to do so in a controlled, orderly fashion, and to raise all the money needed for everyone to go home in peace and tranquillity,” said Dafna Brenkel, who runs the co-op’s lecture center.

But Bar Kayma’s closure doesn’t mean the co-op model has failed, Brenkel stated – it went under due to the same kind of business mistakes for-profit businesses often make. “This doesn’t say anything about the cooperative idea,” she stressed. “That would be like looking at a failed restaurant and saying the restaurant business is a failure.”

The fact that the co-op survived for four years in Tel Aviv, where the restaurant trade is fiercely competitive, actually shows that the cooperative model works, Brenkel argued. “The community gave a great deal to Bar Kayma, and without that it might have gone out of existence much sooner,” she said.

None of the co-op members could have afforded to open a business on their own, she noted, but together “they opened a business that realized all their dreams, which operated for four full years, and from which a plethora of initiatives, ideas and people emerged.”

Brenkel also noted that many smaller cooperatives opened in Bar Kayma’s wake and are doing well. These include Shelanu in Tel Aviv; Beshutaf in Jerusalem; and Havruta in Kiryat Shmona.

“I think we set an example that it is possible, and many businesses then chose a more ecological, more vegan, more social direction,” she said. “We didn’t open it to make money. We opened it as a home for the community and to show that a business can operate differently.”

Attorney Yifat Solel, a Bar Kayma member and head of the Cooperatives Alliance for Social, Economic and Environmental Justice, agreed with Brenkel.

“Throughout the country, people are organizing in various fields, and they’re all united in understanding that the only way to operate economically in the very tough environment we live in is cooperatively – through cooperation and realizing that economics isn’t just maximizing profits,” she said. “From this standpoint, I think Bar Kayma is an important symbol, and the nature of symbols is that they have a great deal of power beyond their own existence.”

Solel said many people had fought to keep Bar Kayma open because it was important to many communities, including the vegan and activist communities.

Brenkel said that when Bar Kayma opened in June 2012, “our dream was a paradise in which, within a year, it would change the entire world, in which every worker would get the median wage and a beer would cost 15 shekels. Admittedly, we realized that reality is a lot more complicated, but it’s still possible to achieve things that aren’t that far from the dream.

“The fact that dreams end doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dream them or realize them. We still believe in cooperatives with all our heart,” she concluded.