Educational Park Moving to U.S. After Owners Say Kibbutz Ran Center Out of Town

The owners of a Jewish-themed educational park in central Israel are relocating the popular attraction to Kansas City. Pinat Shorashim, located in Kibbutz Gezer, closed its doors last month after taking in more than 100,000 visitors from all over the world.

Created in 1991, Pinat Shorashim had run into trouble with the kibbutz administration more than a decade ago, according to David Leichman, the park's founder and director.

But in recent months, the kibbutz placed too many "obstacles" in the park's way, sending a message it was no longer welcome, he explained.

The kibbutz says it "deeply regrets" Pinat Shorashim's departure but that a failure to obtain certain permits made it unavoidable.

"It's depressing but I don't want to be depressed," Leichman, who was born in New York, told Anglo File this week. "I don't want to cry over spilled milk. I am grateful for 18 great years in which I made many friends and had some unbelievable experiences."

Attracting legions of student and tourist groups from all over the globe, especially the United States, Pinat Shorashim, which translates to roots corner, aimed to teach visitors the importance of the land of Israel to Jewish life.

The idea behind the park was to "transfer text into texture," as Leichman called it, by having visitors create with their own hands buildings and sculptures that would make abstract religious concepts concrete.

Many mosaics, a tent and other items are currently being shipped to Kansas City, whose Jewish community has been the park's main sponsor.

Pinat Shorashim was originally operated by a nonprofit founded by the kibbutz but after a falling-out in 1998, Leichman founded his own nonprofit organization, which has since run the park.

In a farewell letter sent to friends of the park, Leichman last month wrote the kibbutz gave Pinat Shorashim "too many 'take it or leave it' ultimatums" for the park to continue to operate.

"We just couldn't stand up to the things that they constantly put in our way," Leichman, who moved to Gezer in 1976, told Anglo File. "Finally, after a number of years, Pinat Shorashim's board said: Let's face it - they don't want us."

Park board members cited continual rent increases and a debate over zoning laws as the final straws.

The kibbutz administration says Pinat Shorashim is located on land zoned for agricultural activity, and that it was therefore illegal to use the area for any non-agricultural activity.

Gezer's secretary general, Marcos Ben Elias, told Anglo File the kibbutz "deeply regrets the departure" of Pinat Shorashim from its property and that it had invested "much effort" in assisting the park in receiving all required permits.

"But alas, despite all our best intentions, those permits were not all granted," Ben Elias said. "Since all Pinat Shorashim activity has taken place on kibbutz property, and [it] has not succeeded in resolving its activities according to the law, the kibbutz was unfortunately forced to demand that [the park] cease its activity, painful as that decision may be."

Pinat Shorashim board members argue it was the kibbutz's responsibility to apply for a variance on the plot where the park is located, but that the administration showed no desire to do that.

Furthermore, they say the kibbutz administration unfairly singled out the park, hinting that other institutions in the area operate without proper permits.

"We're are absolutely puzzled as to why the kibbutz, over all of these years, for different reasons, has put pressure on this incredible piece of programming," said Pinat Shorashim treasurer Jonathan Ross, of Ramat Hasharon.

Upon hearing the news of the park's demise, hundreds of people from all over the world called and e-mailed to express their regret, Leichman said.

"Whatever differences existed between Kibbutz Gezer and Pinat Shorashim, there is no way that this result can possibly be justified," wrote Mike Rosenberg of nearby Kibbutz Ma'ale Hahamisha, in response to a post on the eJewish Philanthropy blog about the park's closing. "This was a wonderful project which put Kibbutz Gezer 'on the map' as a first rate location for informal Jewish education in Israel - something which will be missed by all, including Kibbutz Gezer in time." Clive Lessem, a private consultant to Jewish philanthropies, implied Leichman was doing the right in operating the park even without the proper zoning.

"Projects like Pinat Shorashim flourish because of visionaries and dreamers like David," Lessem told Anglo File. "In order for a dreamer to achieve something, he has to sometimes bend the rules a bit. Could the issue have been handled differently? Sure, but when dreamers and the surrounding community work together, great things come to being and can succeed. When the community and the dreamer don't get along, it ends like this. It is certainly very sad."

Leichman, who is married to Rabbi Miri Gold, will continue living on Kibbutz Gezer. He says he will now look for "something new and challenging" in the world of Diaspora-Israel relations and Jewish education.

Currently, he's helping the Temple Congregation of B'nai Jehudah in Kansas City suburb Overland Park create "Pinat Shorashim West," which is going to be located on a 90-acre plot of land they own. The synagogue is currently raising money for the project and intends it to be shared with several local congregations and their Jewish schools.

"I'm in very deep pain," Leichman said, "but I want to look toward the future."