What Is a Religious-secular Kibbutz Doing Among the Homeless?

What sort of person chooses to live in the ugliest and most problematic place in a neighborhood that isn't even his?

What sort of person chooses to live in the ugliest and most problematic place in a neighborhood that isn't even his? It's hard to understand why Hoshea Friedman Ben Shalom went about 10 years ago to live in an abandoned absorption center in Jerualem's Gilo neighborhood, which had been invaded by the homeless, and there of all places, established a kibbutz. But that's exactly the point - Ben Shalom has an equal measure of righteousness and Zionist idealism.

It isn't easy to categorize someone who looks like a typical settler (a description provided by his students), with a large knitted skullcap, who considers himself a proud descendant of a line of Hasidic rabbis; and who's a kibbutznik, with sidelocks rolled above his ears.

Next week Ben Shalom, the expert at impossible combinations, will receive the Avi Hai Foundation prize for his work in bridging the gaps in Israeli society, including the establishment of the urban kibbutz Beit Yisrael and religious pre-army mechina or preparatory program [a Torah study institute combined with preparation for army service], which is the first designed for both religious and secular students.

Ben Shalom, 43 and the father of five, grew up in a pioneering Hasidic family, as he defines it. His parents, Tzippora and Yisrael Friedman, were born into families of Hasidic rabbis. His mother is the sister of the Vishnitz rabbi, Moshe Hagar, his father, a scion of a branch of the Roziner Hasidim, which developed in a small town in Romania, was designated to continue the rabbinic dynasty.

The two married during the Holocaust, and when their old world fell apart, they immigrated to Israel and founded Reshafim, a secular kibbutz in the Beit Shean Valley, belonging to the left-wing socialist Hashomer Hatzair movement. When their youngest son, Hoshea, was three years old, the family moved to the religious Kibbutz Saad in the Negev.

At the time, there were stories whispered about the children of the Hasidic rabbis who were caught up in socialist ideas, and afterward had a change of heart and became religious Zionists. Ben Shalom explains that "my father considered Zionism the saving of the Jews, just as Hasidism had once been. He really and truly believed that this, and not Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] Judaism was the true Hasidic way. He wanted to be connected to the Jewish people, an active partner in the building of the land."

While most of the pioneers of the Second Aliyah [the wave of immigration from 1904-1914] - many of whom were Hasidim - severed their ties with their religious-cultural heritage, for the Ben Shaloms (the name that his family adopted during their pioneer period), the connection was maintained. Five members of the family bore double names - of biblical heroes (Hoshea, Nehemiah, Yirmiyahu, et al), and of the rabbis of the dynasty. They internalized this double heritage, of Hasidism and pioneering Zionism, which deals with tikkun olam - improving the world - or a mental draining of the swamps, as Ben Shalom puts it.

All the members of the family are today involved in education and the teaching of Jewish culture, and they operate in social "frontier areas." For example, Yirmiyahu established the urban kibbutz Reishit in the Bukharan neighborhood of Jerusalem, the kibbutz that later gave rise to Beit Yisrael; that's where Sarah, Ben Shalom's only sister, lives and works. Another brother established an unconventional yeshiva in Netivot where his father teaches Hasidism. The only secular brother, Nehemiah, established a beit midrash [study institute] for Jewish culture called Ma'agal [Cycle].

Critical teen years

Ben Shalom says that he became permeated with his own personal recognition of religious belief only during his teen years, when he began to take in interest in Kabbala and Hasidism, with the encouragement and assistance of his father's uncle, the Admor [Hasidic rabbi] Rabbi Yitzhak. The rabbi, who lives at the corner of Sheinkin Street in Tel Aviv with a handful of his disciples, emerges as an exceptional personality who had a great influence on Ben Shalom's life. The interest in the draining of social swamps was aroused later on, when he served as a commander in the Golani Brigade, and the encounter with the various elements of Israeli society shook up his world.

"I came with a heroic view of my job, but the guys didn't want to carry out my orders," he says. That was the beginning of "difficult dynamics that slowly but surely created trust."

After he was demobilized, he joined Kibbutz Reishit, where they sponsored activities with youth from the Bukharan neighborhood. The murder of Emil Greenzweig [a peace activist who was murdered in a demonstration against the Lebanon War] in February 1983] sharpened his feeling of social purpose. The day after the murder, says Ben Shalom, the members of Reishit formed "a circle of rapprochement" with the groups of young people with whom they were working. The atmosphere that was created was so good that after a while Ben Shalom decided to re-enlist with them as a company commander, and established what is still known as the "Golani project": the drafting of consolidated leadership groups. In the early 1990s, when the Bukharan neighborhood became Haredi, the members of Reishit moved to the Ir Ganim neighborhood, and from there split into two groups. Ben Shalom, who founded Beit Yisrael, says that the split was painful, and attributes it to ideological reasons.

In 1994 the members of Beit Yisrael, both religious and secular, settled in the absorption center in Gilo. That was a short time after about 300 homeless had taken over the building, during the first Gulf War [1991], after having lived in the protest tent encampment of the homeless in the Jerusalem government complex. The building, which had previously belonged to the Jewish Agency and was long abandoned, was in shameful condition, and served as a meeting place for drug addicts. But Ben Shalom saw it as a venue for social activism: His enthusiasm infected about 20 additional families, who came to live, and today the community numbers 26 families.

Omer Levkowitz, 24, a member of the Hashomer Hatzair movement and a graduate of the first class of the mechina, who today lives in Beit Yisrael, says that life there demands a kind of self-sacrifice. At present, with residents of the absorption center and members of the kibbutz working together in an attempt to purchase the apartments from Amidar, there is an atmosphere of cooperation and brotherhood.

It wasn't always like that. The delicate and fragile fabric of relations between kibbutz members and the homeless was woven over the years with great effort.

"We often thought that we had achieved good neighborly relations, but then everything fell apart again," says one of the veteran members, Na'ama Bar-Ner. "The tensions exist below the surface all the time." Bar-Ner, a religious woman in her early thirties with three children, works as an assistant principal in a religious school in Jerusalem. Her husband, Yishai, a former member of the Hashomer Hatzair movement who became religious, teaches in the mechina. Like the other members of the community, they don't take an active part in the educational activities in the absorption center, because of their decision that "it's not healthy to work with your neighbors. There's something condescending about it," says Bar-Ner.

As long as Ben Shalom and his group were seen to be living in the absorption center out of choice, with a place to go back to, their neighbors, who had taken over the apartments for lack of choice, felt that there was no real shared destiny. Members of the kibbutz, who at first were sure that the veteran residents would be happy to join them, didn't understand why they weren't welcomed with open arms. After a crisis of confidence, they concluded that there was a need to create a separation: the educational activity, which includes a learning center, summer camps for the children, tutoring and ceremonies and parties on holidays and memorial days, is now carried out by the Reut association, established by the kibbutz, and run as a branch of the kibbutz. The fact that the kibbutz members joined the struggle to purchase the apartments, says Batya Ilouz, of the neighborhood committee, was what finally convinced the squatters that the kibbutz people were planning to stay.

The mechina they run usually attracts both right- and left-wingers, young people from kibbutzim and from settlements, religious and secular - about 30 in all. Most, it must be said, are Ashkenazim [of European descent]. To the claim that this is an elitist stronghold, Ben Shalom replies that this is the natural population attracted to the religious mechinot and to the one-year, pre-army volunteering projects, and he hopes in the future residents of the neighborhood will attend as well.

In any case, for the time being the mechina isn't attracting masses of students. Beit Yisrael is considered problematic by religious educational institutions, which fear that there is a danger in the encounter with secular students. On the other hand, few members of Hashomer Hatzair are interested in Judaism. Those who come bring with them a kind of seriousness and social commitment. The trek to the Far East is not a top priority for them. The young people at the mechina divide their lives between the study of Jewish culture and work in the neighborhood, mainly with children from the absorption center. "The period before the army is a window of opportunity between one demanding framework and the next," says Ben Shalom. "People are willing to open up and to listen."

The study program at the mechina, which is run in cooperation with the secular beit midrash of the kibbutz movement at the Efal Seminar, presents both the religious and the secular view of Jewish culture. This is not a high-pressured educational framework. Responsibility falls entirely on the students, who determine the content and the hours of activity. The encounter among young people with opposing beliefs requires the creation of a common culture, which is neither religious nor secular. On Shabbat, for example, they celebrate a secular kabbalat Shabbat [a festive welcoming of the Shabbat] with music, before the Sabbath begins; in the common dining room Shabbat is observed, but in the rooms, everyone does as he pleases. At first, they say, everyone sticks rigidly to his own views, but the defense mechanism quickly becomes a self-examination, and they emerge more flexible and more attentive. "The differences are an integral part this place," says Liran Stern, 22, who recently completed his army service after serving as a youth counselor in the mechina.

Field trips

An especially fascinating part of the program is the series of field trips and encounters chosen by the participants. Last year, in the context of the series dealing with the Jewish-Arab conflict, the participants slept in settlements, and met members of Tanzim [an organized Palestinian militia associated with Fatah] as well as the "hilltop youth" [young Israeli settlers considered right-wing extremists]. Sometimes these encounters tested the good relations among the students. Two years ago, Yair Melchior, the son of Rabbi Michael Melchior [a left-leaning religious leader], found himself in difficulty. His mechina classmate, Elkana Blumenthal of Kiryat Arba, demanded that in the context of the Judea and Samaria series, they visit his hometown. Blumenthal had spoken about the festive atmosphere in his home and his school in the wake of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Melchior refused to visit. But later in the year he changed his mind.