Return to the Community

It's already a little cool outside on the mat, in this late summer's twilight hour in Jerusalem. You really feel like wrapping yourself in one of the inviting blankets strewn about. Two girls huddled together under a furry pink blanket have long since created a world of their own. We also grab one. Suddenly it's so pleasant in the garden that one might even forget why we have gathered here, to relax from the week's stresses. But the Kabbalat Shabbat ("welcoming the Shabbat") ceremony in the Ahvat Beit Hakerem kehila (community/congregation) is about to begin, and they'll soon be lighting candles.

The candle lighters, a young couple with a toddler, stand somewhat hesitant before an audience of 25 adults and several children. As is customary at every Kabbalat Shabbat, it's their turn to introduce themselves to those present immediately after the candle lighting ceremony, making them this week's "candle-lighting family." Fortunately for them, the moment of embarrassment dissipates with the help of a tall bespectacled young man who begins with the melody of the prayer "Lekha Dodi" on an electric organ. After the singing the tension seems to have declined, and the introduction flows easily.

Kabbalat Shabbat is an opportunity to make new acquaintances. But the really strong relationships are formed during work in the community garden, after which parents and children eat an improvised supper that more often than not includes a few grains of sand, while studying together or planning various neighborhood projects, such as collecting rainwater or organizing holiday events.

The person who brought these ideas to Beit Hakerem is neighborhood resident Tamir Nir. Nir, 44, who conducts nature and environment activities for children and teens, is the guiding spirit behind the group of people who call themselves a kehila. For a while he dreamt about establishing an environmental school together with the neighborhood parents. Although there were discussions, the initiative encountered several bureaucratic snags. About a year and a half ago Nir first spoke in the parents' forum about the different kehilot that are cropping up in every neighborhood and city. The parents reacted enthusiastically and immediately began assigning tasks.

"I reached the conclusion that working with children is important, but in order to promote ideas and to deal with education you have to involve the adults," he says. A kehila, according to Nir, is supposed to provide the neighborhood residents with a virtual-physical meeting place where they can shape their lifestyle. Nir himself was raised in the religious community of Alon Shvut in Gush Etzion; when he grew up he chose to abandon religion. "I still miss the more rural life," he says. "But today I know that I won't leave the city, and that I will never realize the fantasy of having a wonderful house in the hills." The city is a place for social mobility, says Nir, but he would like to do something about urban alienation. "I want to get out of the materialistic game and to arouse memories of a society where there was concern for the other and caring."

Neighbors who are not strangers

In the past year some 40 families have joined the Beit Hakerem kehila. Its members were allocated an uncultivated area on the outskirts of the public park and began to work on it energetically. Aside from the Kabbalat Shabbat ceremonies that take place in the garden once a month, they hold various other events. The end-of-summer party was also attended by women and children from the shelter for battered women, located in the neighboorhood's center - "a transparent place," according to Nir, that nobody pays attention to.

It seems to have been the need for a meaningful encounter with others that prompted people to leave the daily rat race and invest their time and energy in such an initiative. "At first I was captivated by the very idea of growing vegetables in a garden inside a city," says Osnat Bavli, the coordinator of educational activities at the city's science museum, "but for us as a family it's also a way of connecting with people who live next door but are strangers to us."

Gil Carmi, a psychologist, says that seeing a familiar face in the grocery store is a superficial acquaintance in his opinion. "We're tired of everyone being closed up in their own house. I remember a much more communal life in my childhood. We were groups of children who climbed trees together." Carmi believes that a community provides a place for parents and children to recreate togetherness, and participate in "significant creation," as he puts it. As for himself, Carmi volunteered to deepen the kehila's connection to Jewish heritage, a subject that is also dear to Nir's heart. His wife, Anna Carmi, says that nowadays, people suffer from an excess of urbanity. "Communal life, land - these are things that exist in our collective memory even if we live on the eighth floor. And when an opportunity is offered to return to that, it's hypnotic." The kehila shatters the image of the city as a place where people shut themselves in behind walls and everyone lives for himself and tends to his own private space, adds Nir.

The marvelous missing spice

Nir will talk about his community at the festival of Jewish culture, to be held on Sukkot in Jerusalem's Beit Avi Chai, at an event introducing the phenomenon of secular kehilot. Ahvat Beit Hakerem definitely considers itself part of the trend of congregations that have cropped up in Israeli lifestyle in recent years. Roughly 30 of these congregations are concentrated mainly in the north of the country and in rural communities, focusing mainly on the Jewish experience: ceremonies and the study of Jewish culture. Naama Azulai, a doctoral student from Bar-Ilan University who is studying the phenomenon of kehilot, says "a kehila needs a topic, a moving force, and Jewish ritual provides such a purpose, enabling people to connect."

It was only a matter of time before groups in well-to-do urban neighborhoods or suburbs would adopt the idea, too, and adapt the model to their own needs. That is what happened with the kehila established by high-tech entrepreneur Eduardo Shoval of Ramat Hasharon, which now numbers 150 members aged 40-60. The kehila focuses on social differences in Israel, but also operates as a cultural club. Its activities include making contact with Sderot residents, adopting new immigrants and founding a Jewish film festival in Ramat Hasharon. In Tel Aviv there is Beit Tefila Israeli, whose approximately 500 members come every Friday to receive Shabbat at the Tel Aviv port, on the deck.

These kehilot are always established by a charismatic entrepreneur. As such, a kehila has been operating in a neighborhood of private homes in Gan Yavne for about a year. It was established by Orly Kenat, a veteran activist in the "return to the Jewish bookshelf" movement. Kenat says that following years of study she misses the experience. So far 25 families have joined her. But it seems that to them Judaism is only an excuse to add that wonderful missing spice - communal life.

Tal Abuhatzeira, a high school homeroom teacher, says that since leaving the kibbutz - she was raised in Givat Brenner - she has been missing communal life. Her children are grown-up. "I wanted to belong to a framework that gives content to Shabbat and festivals." However, Abuhatzeira says she had to get used to the blessings and prayers. Jacqueline Laibe, who works as a secretary at Ashdod port, says she joined the Kabbalat Shabbat services because of the emptiness she has felt since her divorce. "I grew up in a traditional family and rebelled," she says. "Now I am enjoying the return to roots without coercion."

The need to deal with urban alienation also comes up in the story of the founding of the Yahad kehila in Modi'in. This flourishing community, which already includes hundreds of families, was established nine years ago, around a school founded by religious and secular parents. "People who came here left established cities, without their extended family and without friends. It was a young city, without roots, and we felt that we needed a sense of belonging," says Danny Elazar, director of the non-profit organization that operates the kehila. "Such thinking was naive," says Yankie Elovitz, a skullcap-wearing lawyer. "The children might learn to live together. But what about the parents?" He says that since then the kehila has become his social circle: "It's related to hobbies and after-work activities, friendships I have formed."

The kehila is also a type of club: In return for a membership fee of NIS 600 annually (which also includes the cost of the school) the members of Yahad can purchase a discount membership in the pool of neighboring Kfar Daniel and participate in one of the subsidized activities, such as sports lessons and trips, a drama workshop or a film club. "In the end we'll open a senior citizens' home yet," laughs Rinat Kreuzer, the kehila's coordinator.

The various initiatives arise in accordance with the needs of the residents. For example, in Beit Hakerem they established a club in addition to a youth group. In Gan Yavne they are considering starting a loan fund for members who are experiencing financial problems.

Not the entire package

A kehila also means an e-mail list. You can buy apartments and sell a car more easily within this social network. There are also early signs indicating that a kehila can act as an interest group with the power to influence. In Beit Hakerem, for example, they have held meetings with some of the candidates for municipal elections. Similarly, the members of Yahad are also thinking about exercising more influence on the city. One of the kehila's founders was appointed to head the education portfolio in the Modi'in municipality and is now running on a list for the city council with the help of the community's members, although the official position is that politics is kept separate from the kehila.

Sociologist Oz Almog says these associations, based on a hobby or a common ideology - whether it is a reading club, a motorcycle gang or a kehila - are typical of the middle and upper classes. But they also reflect a process of searching. "After the big bang of Zionism there's a vacuum, there is no longer any ideological glue in Israeli society," says Almog, "there's no meta-goal. People who were in youth groups in their younger years have a longing and a deep desire to fill their lives with meaningful content. At a certain age they realize that work and material wealth are not enough. The children have grown and they see the limits of life, so they are looking for something extra. The rat race causes pressure, anxiety and a sense of isolation. A person is searching for a place to vent, an environment in which the person next to you is not your competitor."

People are also tired of cynicism, adds Almog. Corruption has spread everywhere, "nothing is sacred, there are no exalted meanings. The chaos of life scares us, causing a lack of stability. That's why people suddenly attend group singing, prayer, Kabbalat Shabbat ceremonies. At that moment you feel very alive, as though you are receiving a real anchor. The trend is to return to simplicity, to the age of innocence. Let's not question everything, because if we question everything we won't be able to fall in love either. Love after all is a certain type of illusion and blindness."

The kehilot are also part of a global trend, and they are developing parallel to virtual communities and social networks on the Internet. So there may also be something fashionable about them, which is evident in the superficial involvement with Judaism. "We don't want the entire package," says one of the members of the Beit Hakerem community, "but an adapted one." "I want to zap back and forth," says another member, "to take what I need, to come when I feel like it." There is no question that this is a contemporary solution to a certain existential state. But will they last over time? "It's essential that there not be high expectations of the kehila," says Anna Carmi. "You need a little of it, because if it takes over your life it will exact a price and that will be the end of it. After all, we have lots of activity in any case. Too many of these ideas are not healthy."