Israel’s Kibbutz Dining Rooms Are Bringing Back That Old Time Collective Spirit

After hard years of paying down debt, kibbutzim are relearning the joy of the dinnertime schmooze

The dining room at Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov Ihud, in northern Israel, September 2019.
Gil Eliyahu

After more than 70 years on the kibbutz, Rina Peleg, 89, the oldest woman on Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’akov Ihud – according to her friends – never thought she would see the communal dining room open again on a Friday night.

Peleg, a member of the Palmach pre-state underground, founded Kibbutz Erez near Gaza. She saw breakfasts, weeknight dinners and Friday night dinners all disappear (though people still showed up for lunch).

That is, until one “crazy guy” as she puts it, Yishai Yehieli, brought back the institution. He decided to do so two years ago when he was a guest with his family at Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael in the north, which still operates its dining room as all the kibbutzim once did.

The dining room at Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov Ihud, in northern Israel, September 2019.
Gil Eliyahu

“What I liked was what happened after the meal, when everybody went down for coffee and the young people took turns operating the espresso machine,” he says. “I was charmed by the meeting more than the meal, and then I asked myself, why shouldn’t we do it?”

When he turned the lights back on in the communal dining room he thought 60 or 70 people would come, but 100 came, and later even more.

“People want this,” he says. “They don’t come for the food. People sit together for another hour and a half, with the kids on the lawn. It’s the center of the kibbutz.”

This has been happening more and more in recent years at privatized kibbutzim. After hard years of paying down debt and securing the most basic needs, members and other residents want to bring back the spirit of the old-time kibbutz through initiatives that in the past were part of the community’s basic identity.

Among kibbutzim, Kfar Hahoresh has revived its pub, Dalia its sport competitions, and Eilon its communal sukkah and preschools. Nir Meir, secretary general of the Kibbutz movement, says many of these projects wouldn’t be possible if the kibbutz population hadn’t grown in recent years.

“It doesn’t just bring back the kibbutz’s DNA, it builds a community,” he says.

Many kibbutzim get nostalgic after observing others. Kibbutz Mevo Hama in the Golan Heights brought back communal Passover seder night thanks to a winning combination of nostalgia and jealousy.

A kindergarten at kibbutz Neveh Eitan, September 2019.
Gil Eliyahu

Meirav Tzeri, who was the kibbutz’s community director, spent Passover night at Kibbutz Kfar Giladi four years ago and it sparked her longing for the seder tradition. “It looks like a family holiday but bigger,” she says.

Kibbutz Netzer Sireni brought back a tradition with its own twist. “Fifteen percent of the places around the table go to single mothers from all over Israel, making a statement that seder night at the kibbutz is intended for us to look outward,” says Lior Simha, Netzer Sireni’s chairman.

“At first the members weren’t sure but before the event lots of people signed up and it was wild. Everybody came dressed in white.”

The Haggadah, the work rotation, the organization and the songs came back to the dining room as if they had never been taken away. The food, on the other hand, came from outside because of kashrut rules.

Neveh Eitan in the Beit She’an Valley brought back the communal preschools after a 23-year hiatus, and they’re filling up slowly but surely. After the children’s houses at Neveh Eitan closed down, the kibbutz shared preschools with nearby Kibbutz Ma’oz Haim, says community director Tamar Kedmi-Dagan.

Tamar Kedmi-Dagan and Itai Eylon at kibbutz Neveh Eitan, in northern Israel, September 2019.
Gil Eliyahu

But three years ago the community began to flourish. As Itai Eylon, coordinator of demographic growth at Neveh Eitan, puts it, “If there are no preschools, they won’t come. If there are, they will. People are looking for the kibbutz education, and without it families won’t come. If we want to revive the community, we need a young and energetic core.”

The Leopard Head, Kibbutz Ein Gedi’s pub, has also come back to life. Tam Geva, who reopened the place, only heard about its glory days from others. Simon Spanir, the kibbutz culture coordinator, started the pub in 1992, naming it after the local exotic wildlife.

A year and a half ago, a community event there was very successful, Geva says.

“There was a volunteer spirit that I hadn’t seen for a long time and I thought about reopening the pub,” he says. “The community director said to forget it, that after a month I’d be sick of it. But that just encouraged me. Every Thursday the chairs and the bottles come out, along with music and lectures, meetings with the new families and even political events ahead of the election.”

It’s not so simple keeping the dining room going at Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’akov Ihud on Friday nights. Over the summer the numbers fell because many people went on vacation, and the renewed tradition took a month and a half off. Yehieli hopes it will come back soon.

“There’s a lot of pressure on me, and that’s good,” he says. “That says there’s good energy for bringing back the dining room.”

It seems that Ashdot Ya’akov’s members, especially the old-timers, are hanging a lot of hopes on the dining room. “It’s the pulse of togetherness. You can see this changing over time, as long as it keeps beating,” says Shaul Yannai, a veteran member who first came to the kibbutz as a volunteer.

Yannai and another longtime member, Hedva Melamed, say the members of nearby Kibbutz Ashdot Ya’akov Meuhad have been coming to their kibbutz Friday nights. Meuhad hasn’t had a dining room for years, and Ashdot Ya’akov Ihud fears the same fate. “A kibbutz without a communal dining room is a dead kibbutz,” Melamed says.