How Israel's Socialist Retreats for Workers Turned Into Luxury Hotels

There was a time when most Israelis were entitled to an annual R&R break.

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The Elma when it was a retreat for workers in the 1960s.
The Elma when it was a retreat for workers in the 1960s.Credit: Rechter Architects
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

“How was the sanatorium,” my Romanian-born grandmother would ask every time we returned from a family vacation in Eilat or Tiberias. It was the early 1990s, at least a decade after there were no more of those facilities – certainly not in their original form. We would return from a stay at a hotel with pools, fitness rooms, shows and various activities, but to my grandmother vacation meant a sanatorium.

Once a year, she and my grandfather, a plasterer for Solel Boneh, went on vacation to the sanatorium, paid for by his employer. Thus was born the concept of “sanatorium pay,” which Israeli workers still receive annually. The amounts people get today are relatively minuscule, but then it did the job. In 1969, according to Haaretz, such a vacation cost 25 lira per adult and 20 lira per child per night (184 and 146 shekels, respectively, today). The sanatorium pay often covered it.

The purpose of these vacations was to allow people to enjoy some rest and recreation – what was then literally referred to in Hebrew as “exchanging air.” They usually involved little activity. The fact that this was the most accepted kind of vacation at one time created a shared and complete experience, which in its most beautiful moments expedited the process of becoming part of the country’s melting pot.

Journalist Shabtai Tevet, an Israel Prize winner, once wrote in Haaretz about a week spend at a sanatorium at the Shavei Tzion moshav in northern Israel.

“It is a world created by the arrangements of sanatorium payment from the workplace, as part of which a huge public enjoys the same values and the same joys,” Tevet wrote.

From Left: Palace of Emir Fa'or in 1954. Hagoshrim hotel.Credit: Courtesy of Hotel HaGoshrim, Adi Perez

“The most wonderful thing there is the ‘ethnic’ evening. It is the first time I lived with people from Morocco, Tunis, Tripoli, Iraq, Yemen, Israel, Poland, Romania, Germany, Russia and the United States, all according to the same rules,” he added. “For the first time I saw such a public eat at one table, play together the same games, sing as one audience and enjoy the company of Arabs.”

Times have changed, however. The sanatorium at Kibbutz Beit Oron near Haifa has since become the Yaarot Hacarmel boutique hotel. The Carmel sanatorium, called Beit Mivtahim, is now the Elma Hotel, boasting a sign that reads “luxury hotel.” Guests stay in beautiful suites, actually two small rooms that have been put together, and deluxe items have replaced the Spartan furniture. Construction workers like my grandfather no longer vacation at such a place. Nor does it serve anymore as a place for bringing the nation together. It only offers escapism for couples, sometimes families. Midweek prices start at 1,500 shekels ($396) per couple, including breakfast. About as far as it gets from a sanatorium.

‘Quiet partners’

From the winding road at the entrance of what was the Kibbutz Ma’aleh Hahamisha hotel, outside Jerusalem, it is impossible today to catch a glimpse of the wonderful view of the adjacent mountains or the neighboring Arab village of Abu Ghosh. Such views would probably warm the hearts of vacationers arriving at its gates, but the road here was paved long ago, before anyone took into account the economic value the panorama might have had. The hotel, founded in the early 1940s, has operated continuously since the day it opened, but has long stopped being a sanatorium. It is now two hotels, Ye’arim and Gordonia.

The eclectic construction of the modern facility reveals, like an archaeological dig, the cultural changes the place has undergone over time. It was founded as a sanatorium, was converted into a convalescent home, later changed its name to a guesthouse – and in the end became a hotel complex. It expanded with every metamorphosis, adding a building replete with spa in the 1990s, and now spreads over 100 dunams (25 acres).

The Elma Arts Complex Luxury Hotel in Zichron Yaakov.Credit: Rechter Architects

Like on many other kibbutzim, the original Ma’aleh Hahamisha sanatorium was built for financial reasons, according to a book about the kibbutz provided by its archivist, Tamar Levy. Before the kibbutzniks erected buildings for visitors, the latter would use the residents’ homes: Kibbutz members would sleep in tents. The kibbutz raised 20,000 Palestinian lira in the middle of World War II to construct three buildings and a dining hall, which were dedicated in 1945.

At present Ma’aleh Hahamisha remains a 26-percent shareholder in the complex, along with its latest owner, Kerem. It is considered a “quiet partner,” according to kibbutz member Momi Ron, who ran the hotel in the 1980s and ‘90s. It was Kerem that divided the facility into two separate hotels. Most of the premises belong to Ye’arim (where a stay for one night costs between 600-800 shekels).

The lower buildings, the oldest, were renovated and rebranded as the five-star Gordonia – named after the pioneering youth movement leader who advocated labor values, A.D. Gordon. It’s pretty ironic if you consider the fact that a couple has to pay at least 2,400 shekels per night for a half-board, midweek stay at Gordonia in May. The entrance to this luxury facility is separate from that of the other hotel, of course. The buildings there that once had six or eight rooms now contain four rooms. Every two rooms share a private pool.

“Before the renovation, the rooms had been designed to be as simple as can be,” says Ron. “Simplicity was good enough, even at the level of a hostel. Hotel workers slept in these rooms for a time when there were no kibbutz rooms.”

All sanatoria in the country, like that at Ma’aleh Hahamisha, were designed in a no-frills style. The sterile interior design was borderline monastic; such was the case, for example, at the original Ye’arot Hacarmel sanatorium, which architect Tamar de Shalit designed.

“It was designed in a period in which she also designed Eichman’s cell in the Supreme Court,” says Dr. Zvi Alhayani, director of the Israel Architecture Archive, noting with a wink that both had sterile designs.

No sanatorium could be described as luxurious or ostentatious, Alhayani continues: “Architectural restraint and clarity characterized these facilities. The sanatorium genre reached certain architectural heights in the mid-20th century. Luckily, despite the liquidation of Histadrut [labor federation] properties as well as those belonging to sanitoria, most of the facilities were saved from demolition. Some of them have even been revived, even if in a most anti-social sense.”

Sanatoria were “meant to provide a different kind of vacation, and what stands out in the archival material is that the quietness in their visual design was a main part of their ideology,” says Alhayani. He adds that the fact that the facilities have been reinvented as boutique hotels is proof of their architectural quality, and they have withstood the test of time, even if there is no longer any connection between what they represent, as demonstrated by the deluxe coffee machine in the lobby that costs tens of thousands of shekels – and the old-time Histadrut-run sanatorium.

Medieval origins

The concept of the sanatorium is not an Israeli invention. Hospice and convalescence facilities have existed in Europe since the 11th century, hosting the sick, the dying, the wounded – and pilgrims, too. The sanatoria that began springing up in earnest during the British Mandate period were local Jewish versions of the hospice-like facilities that operated here during the Ottoman period – for example, the Austrian hospice in Jerusalem’s Old City.

In a 2011 book about guest hotels in the country, Amos Carmel tells the story of the establishment of sanatoria. The first one, Arza, near Motza in the Jerusalem hills, was built in the 1920s. The first kibbutz sanatorium was founded on Kibbutz Givat Brenner in 1938, thanks to two members who had become members there in 1934: Poet Jessie Sampter, who dreamed of building a vegetarian retreat, and her friend Leah Berlin. It closed in the 1980s. Today, part of it has been abandoned and part has been rented out.

Kiryat Anavim, also outside Jerusaelm, opened the second kibbutz sanatorium, arousing a dispute among members who feared that the need to operate it would divert attention from working the land; economic problems that erupted in the early war years, however, led to its founding in 1940. It is now the Kramim boutique hotel, part of the Isrotel chain. By the end of the 1940s, similar facilities on kibbutzim had opened in Kfar Etzion, Massuot Yitzhak, Kfar Hahoresh, Kfar Giladi, Hanita, Neve Yam, Shefayim and Ein Gev. At their peak, there were estimated to be dozens of sanatoria in Israel.

The 1990s were a turning point, when the Hagoshrim facility rebranded itself from a sanatorium to a “hotel in nature.” It has maintained its rustic, rural character, in contrast to luxury hotels like Elma and Kramim. The sanatorium in Ma’alot and others soon followed suit.

“The penetration of spa services into all of the hotels mainly brought about the change,” says Romi Gorodisky, the deputy director-general of the Israel Hotel Association. “However, it is their spaciousness that has set them apart until today from the hotels in the big cities.”

The stylistic and branding changes are, of course, a result of changes in consumerism. At Ma’ale Hahamisha, for example, the convalescent home operated only nine months a year and was closed during the winter. It targeted mainly workers from the large unions, like the Israel Electric Corporation, Solel Boneh and the HMOs, or Holocaust survivors who received restitution from Germany. In those days, vacations mostly consisted of rest.

For example, Yair Kotler describes in a Haaretz article in 1964 the construction of the Mitzpe Hayamim sanatorium between Rosh Pina and Safed, in the north.

“The place is 300 meters above sea level,” Kotler told his interviewee, Dr. A.Y. Yarus, “protected from strong westerly winds and suitable for recuperation year-round.” Kotler wrote: “The doctor believes there is a need for a sanatorium in the mountains, because most of the population lives in the plains and needs to exchange air to get healthy and rest.”

Back then, not many Israelis had cars, and people went on long vacations once a year, according to Dr. Alon Goldman of the Kinneret Academic College. “Today people work at all kinds of jobs, most of which do not entail menial labor but rather sitting at computers, in an atmosphere that can be pressured and intense – so we need short vacations. Because people have cars, they look for all kinds of vacations, mostly not at quiet, passive places that was once the norm.”

Still, Goldman believes the higher-class, rural type of sanitaria existing today offer added value that you can’t find in other facilities and hotels. “These places maintain a rural character and the atmosphere of days gone by. Mostly people from the center of the country got there,” he says. “They come for the qualities of the original product, with different activities in the vicinity like tours.” Some of the relatively deluxe places are not so extravagant.

“A place like Mitzpe Yamim also maintains a modest, pleasant look,” he says. “There are no glass walls, and the hotel spaces blend in with nature. That is the value of these places.”

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