Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

16 Tammuz 5766 - July 12, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Kibbutz Goluyos

by Yechiel Sever

The last bastion of the Israeli elite has been destroyed through a slow, but ongoing process. Today, synagogues have been erected and Torah classes have been formed in the very kibbutzim that were founded with a desire to forget Judaism.

Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin, the director of Lev L'Achim: "It only takes one spark of Judaism in a kibbutz to cause a revolution." Rav Michoel Lasri, one of the top Arachim lecturers: "Today kibbutz members request that Arachim should conduct seminars on their kibbutz."


A piece of news that would have previously caused a world- wide sensation found its place in the margins of the written media recently, and thus another point was scored for the penetration of the most difficult anti-religious fortress of the Ashkenazi elite in Israel. The article discussed the orthodox synagogue built in Kibbutz Deganya in the North.

Anyone who is even a little familiar with the kibbutz system will immediately understand the impact of this story. A mere few years ago, chareidim couldn't set foot in this anti- religious kibbutz. Now a synagogue has been erected there, and a chareidi one no less.

Today even the following scenario is not rare in the kibbutzim: ever so often you can see the Second Generation, the adult children of kibbutz members, coming to the kibbutz with a small truck, and replacing or kashering their parents' kitchens. The children do this and other things in order to be able to visit their parents for Shabbos. Since they have an adjacent synagogue with a minyan, visiting is a real possibility. Don't forget that the Second Generation doesn't have any childhood memories of Shabbos services in the synagogue or of candle lighting since many kibbutzim didn't have synagogues and even if they did, they were locked and deserted. No one observed Shabbos, either.

A short survey of the various kibbutzim in Israel, including the most radically anti-religious kibbutzim, uncovers a gaping hole in their former blockade against Judaism. Not one of the many activists who have been asked to come and quench the spiritual thirst rampant in these forlorn places can explain the change. While we must emphasize that we are still far from announcing a complete turnaround on the anti- religious kibbutzim, we are on the way.

"It only takes one spark of Judaism on a kibbutz, one of its members who becomes religious, to cause a revolution," Rav Eliezer Sorotzkin, the director of Lev L'Achim, told Yated Ne'eman.

Lev L'Achim assisted a family with whom it was extremely difficult to work. The family had relatives living on a kibbutz and one evening the family attended a celebration there. When the family noticed that one of the children of another kibbutz family had become religious, they got a shock. They simply couldn't believe it. The blow was so strong that it accomplished what the Lev L'Achim outreach workers had tried unsuccessfully to accomplish for some time. "Nowadays in the kibbutzim it's already a matter of cultivating the spark in order for it to light others . . ."

The penetration of the kibbutz stronghold began a number of years ago. Today, numerous Lev L'Achim outreach workers lead groups in people's houses and teach classes on the kibbutzim. Though it's hard to believe, Arachim presents seminars on the kibbutzim, the bastion of secularity, all the time. Rav Michoel Lasri, one of the senior Arachim lecturers, told Yated Ne'eman that the kibbutzim were previously impenetrable, but now one kibbutz encourages another to take the initiative and become interested in Judaism.

"Arachim receives requests to hold seminars on kibbutzim!" he says excitedly. "Just this week I was in kibbutz Sde Yoav for Arachim activities. Suddenly one of the kibbutz members noticed me. He saw me with a hat and jacket and got such a shock. I said to him, `I've decided to leave the ghetto, to start to explore the world, to see, to open up and expand my horizons.' [Rav Lasri smiles] The kibbutz member started to recover from the sight and said, `Um, good, great. Join us.' So we sat for two full hours! And that's not the only time. What's amazing is that just about whenever we meet someone on a kibbutz and start to talk, the conversation lasts hours. It's because of the utter ignorance that is found on the kibbutzim in connection to anything Jewish. In the beginning it was hard for us to digest ignorance of such a magnitude."

The Club that Became a Synagogue

Rav Moshe Zeibler, the coordinator of Lev L'Achim in the North, presented facts about kibbutzim and settlements that cast off the yoke of religious life and today have members moving closer to Torah. In order to define the movement, he presents the following radical example: to have thought 15 years ago that a Jew from Jerusalem's Meah Shearim neighborhood would enter a kibbutz is like imagining today that a Jew would enter Gaza. Really.

And here are some facts:

In Nechemia, a formerly anti-religious settlement near the Beit Shean Valley, there's been a real revolution. After Shimon Rosenberg, a local resident, became religious through Lev L'Achim, he began a whirlwind of activities. The settlement had a deserted synagogue; Rosenberg brought it to life. First there were Shabbos services and a sefer Torah was acquired, then a group of young people moved in, a minyan was formed and more prayer services were added. Today there are services all week long and Torah classes are conducted twice each week.

Kibbutz Ayelet HaShachar, which is affiliated with the anti- religious HaShomer Hatzair, didn't even have a synagogue. A number of years ago two members of the kibbutz became religious and chose to continue to live there. Through their hard work, they managed to bring fellow kibbutz members closer to the warmth of Judaism. The process was slow and took five years.

In the beginning they led a single group in the kibbutz's social club building as they had no building more fit to be a synagogue. As they were members of the kibbutz, they were allowed to request to use the club for their activities.

One group led to another. Shabbos services and lectures about religion followed. When the other members of the kibbutz came to terms with the change, they even let them repair the building. Nowadays, the club functions as a synagogue throughout most of the day and club activities are relatively infrequent. None of the founders of the kibbutz could have ever imagined that the club would turn into a place of Torah and that the synagogue would be filled with kibbutz members.

Kfar HaVradim is another example. It was founded on the premise that it wouldn't have any connection to religion. Eleven years ago Lev L'Achim began a small group in someone's home there which was led by an avreich from the neighboring city of Carmiel. Today, the city boasts a beautiful synagogue and nearly thirty families have become religious and are sending their children to a private religious school in Carmiel. Transportation is provided.

A similar thing happened in Kibbutz Ha'on, once one of the most vehemently anti-religious places. The kibbutz even had a group of Christians active in a large building rented on the premises. One of the kibbutz members became religious and convinced a friend. Together, the two men founded a synagogue in the kibbutz parking lot. After a number of residents joined them, they managed to evict the Christian activists.

Why do people choose to remain living on the kibbutz after they become religious?

They got used to kibbutz life and they're happy there.

How do you explain the religious revival?

There's no explanation. There's only one thing that can shed some light on what's happening. HaRav Shteinman said at one of the Lev L'Achim seminars, `This is an opportune time which obligates everyone, and who knows if, G-d forbid, this opportune moment will [cease to] exist tomorrow. We have to seize the opportunity.' There's no other explanation.

Rav Zeibler, how do the older kibbutz members react as they watch their life's work fall to pieces?

The reaction often differs from various groups: the 60- to 80- year-olds take it hard. They feel betrayed. But what goes around comes around. Their children are betraying them in the same way they betrayed their own parents. The elderly above the age of 80 are surprisingly pleased. Some of them are even reliving their childhood memories from cheder, and they tell our volunteers, "Keep up the good work."

In general the kibbutzim are already falling apart, ideologically speaking. The vision on which the kibbutzim were founded went sour and you can hear the older people discussing it. They say that maybe their parents were right, maybe their children were, but they definitely weren't. Among the `young' elderly, however, there are those that are simply unwilling to admit failure.

Do they try to spoil your activities on the kibbutzim?

No. They're not dominant any more. They don't have anything to offer. They see the failure of the education that their grandchildren received, there's no education and no culture. Everything's Western culture with earrings in the ears (of the men), something that definitely wasn't characteristic of Zionism and they definitely didn't wish for. Everything that's happening really fits, "Veheishiv lev ovos al bonim."

Do you meet people who acknowledge their mistakes and therefore feel even more hatred?

Arrogant people really cannot acknowledge their mistakes, and the teshuvoh movement really hurts them. Others say, "No matter how you look at it, today the kibbutz isn't a kibbutz and the country isn't a country . . ."

The Revolution in the Settlements

Rav Zeibler speaks about the revolution in the agricultural settlements (moshavim). It is similar to the one on the kibbutzim, only slower. As a rule, he says, the process is more gradual for Ashkenazim, but it is also thorough — which has its good aspects. Since Ashkenazim don't follow their hearts as quickly and are further removed from tradition, they must be convinced rationally. Some of them are adamant. But once they are convinced, they take becoming religious very seriously.

There's a different kind of problem in the settlements whose population is mostly Sephardi. They have positive feelings towards tradition, which makes it easy to establish a connection with them, but they are spiritually nearsighted.

I'll give you an example. When I come to speak with someone from a settlement in order to enroll his children in a religious school, he will resist much less than someone from a kibbutz. However when the time comes, the father will want to see his son follow in his footsteps and develop the farm. At that stage, a lot of convincing and explanations are necessary. To explain the contrast to the Ashkenazi kibbutzim we would say that for kibbutz members you need a lot of mental work, to convince them rationally. From the moment they're convinced, everything's fine, but it doesn't happen instantly.

Rav Zeibler chooses to raise another point which would have seemed far-fetched only a few years ago: A number of kibbutzim that previously forbade the religious from entering, are now opening motels and guest houses with glatt kosher certification.

Do they really want chareidim to vacation there?

Absolutely. Kibbutz Ha'on, which was formerly the most anti- religious kibbutz, is now running a year-round glatt hotel. This is proof that the opposition to religion in these places has decreased significantly. This is partially because some of their children are following the Jewish path.

Is it possible to announce a real revolution on the kibbutzim?

You still don't see religious life in full swing in these places. You can't yet say that there are tons of people becoming religious on the kibbutzim. But thank G-d, the opposition there has been eradicated and a chareidi can set foot there. They'll even talk to him, smile at him, and you won't believe it — but they'll even understand where he's coming from. The revolution usually occurs when one of the kibbutz members discovers the light of Judaism.

Rav Zeibler says that Lev L'Achim sees the breakthrough in the last and hardest bastion of anti-religious sentiment as a real success. Even so, it's still far from what may be called a real revolution.

The Religious Revival

Rabbi Eliezer Sorotzkin, the director of Lev L'Achim, still attempts to explain the reason for the revival on the kibbutzim. Above and beyond the fact that their ideology fell apart, or as Rav Michoel Lasri from Arachim so aptly portrays it, exploded like a bombshell that soars high and then crashes mightily to the ground when it becomes apparent that it has no future. Only the path to Torah has a future. Rabbi Sorotzkin also claims that the vehemence of the `recoil' [from chareidim] has also dramatically shrunk.

"Today there's an amazing phenomenon," he says, "of people becoming more observant. I live in Netanya and I see high school students in the street who have no connection to Judaism, yet they wear large white yarmulkes and tzitzis under their shirts. The cringing that has completely vanished is what is directly responsible for the breakthrough in the kibbutzim.

"There was a period when people felt that becoming religious was crossing a boundary. That's why there were very few people becoming religious from the kibbutzim because there the boundaries are deeper and stronger. The `anti' attitude is what created the large divide. But there has been a lot of crossing the line in the last two years — and we still have to explain it . . . Especially among the youth who are returning to Judaism, becoming religious is even fashionable, and there's no explanation for it. And if somebody doesn't come and guide and direct these youth, the whole thing will remain a passing fad.

"This situation, in which media stars are becoming religious, caused people, even on the kibbutzim, not to view becoming observant as something so strange and threatening. So the atmosphere becomes more open anyway, and many people go from the beginning stages of observance to learning with an avreich, to attending a yeshiva in Jerusalem, etc.

This is a phenomenon that you never saw in the past. You can also see buses full of non-religious people coming to Meiron to pray at the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, and they themselves don't know why they are so excited. It will take a while to understand this wave of sympathy and positive feelings for religion. This, of course, is not a return to religion, and we must therefore take advantage of this opportunity to guide people while they're interested.

There was a period of emptiness, during which many people traveled to the Far East. Some people still do, but not so many. The youth are much less attracted to it today. Kabboloh was also `in' until recently. Now the trend is to become more observant. This is amazing because the gates are open now and the youth are thirsting [for Torah] and it is even possible to convince a non-religious boy to sit down and learn gemora with you for an hour now. It's not unheard of.

The Wall of Disgust Has Fallen

"A number of months ago I spent an entire day in Be'er Sheva with a group of volunteers. It was already late at night in the Ramot neighborhood when the local coordinator informed me that we had a group waiting. The neighborhood is like a kibbutz. An avreich, who himself became religious, learns with this group. No sooner did we enter the auditorium when the group burst out singing . . . After the singing they requested a dvar Torah and then I asked the 40 teenagers sitting there, `Did any of you lay tefillin today?'

"You have to understand," Rav Sorotzkin says, "we're talking about a bunch of high school students. Ten of them said that they laid tefillin, one had been doing so since his bar mitzvah, another because his family is traditional, a third decided to start when he went to the Kosel on Hoshanna Rabba. The group clapped for all those that answered affirmatively.

"Then they pointed out one boy to me and told me to ask him if he lays tefillin. `To tell you the truth,' he answered, `I don't.'

"`Why not?' I asked.

"`The principal of our school is very particular about us arriving on time. If a kid comes late, he's thrown out. School starts at 8:00, I get up at 7:50, change my shirt, drink something on the way and show up at the last minute.'

"`Couldn't you get up ten minutes earlier?'

"`I can't do it.'

"`If I call you tomorrow at 7:30 will you get up?' I asked.

"He didn't answer. I wrote down his name and his number. I directed the question to everyone. 30 students signed up! I wrote down everyone's name and phone number, and the next morning I gave everyone a wake-up call . . . Everyone got up, except for two of the students. One of them was the tired kid. He didn't even answer the phone. Another student's father answered and hung up furiously. I think he broke the receiver . . . " Rav Sorotzkin laughed; he doesn't get worked up by cases like these any more.

"Friday afternoon the coordinator from Be'er Sheva called me and told me about the students' reaction. `What a great rabbi. He got us all up.' The coordinator called again two weeks later, this time to request permission to order a van. The students wanted to go visit a yeshiva in Jerusalem. Payment for the trip was approved. About two weeks after that he called again, this time to recommend visiting the dressing room in the students' high school. You see kids without yarmulkes wearing tzitzis under their shirts, davening Mincha.

"That's basically the religious revival in a nutshell, if you want to know. These students, thank G-d, have an avreich guiding them, and I hope that they'll make it, G-d willing, to yeshivas.

"Now the revival that's taking place on the kibbutzim is understandable. Everyone involved with it feels like something is happening. Of course, the revolution isn't complete yet."

Rav Sorotzkin believes that there's one other factor influencing the kibbutz members: now that so many of them work outside of the kibbutz, the kibbutz is no longer the sealed bubble that it used to be. When they go out into the big city they see real chareidim and get a positive impression of them, not like the way the media portrays them.

Rav Sorotzkin chooses to end our conversation with the rather rare and interesting case of a Lev L'Achim volunteer in the North, who himself is a former kibbutz member who now helps others become religious. "He's one of the core who became religious and he currently works to bring others back to Torah."

Academic Seminars for Kibbutz Members

Arachim has special academic seminars for kibbutz members. For more than eight years Arachim has been bringing academic lecturers to the kibbutzim or their vicinity. According to Rav Michoel Lasri, many kibbutz families have participated in this program and today these families even invite rabbis on their own to come speak at the kibbutzim.

The Arachim breakthrough occurred in one year, when the number of seminars they held increased from one hundred a year to two-hundred-and-fifty. Two hundred were held in Israel and fifty internationally. "The demand was so great," Rav Lasri recounts, "that we started to look all across the country for locations to conduct seminars. That's when the kibbutz barrier fell. At first the kibbutz members were skeptical. `What do you want to do?' they would ask suspiciously. In these cases we always tell them that we're making a retreat or that we're having educational lectures on the topics of family, personal development, the workings of the soul from a kabbalistic perspective . . . things that interest people. They were satisfied and that's how the revolution began."

Rav Lasri lectures for Arachim both in Israel and abroad. He is frequently requested to speak on kibbutzim because of the unique way in which he combines humor with deep messages presented delicately. Rav Lasri entertains his audience while he scoffs at the very world in which they live. The enraptured audience then realizes that, contrary to the way chareidim are portrayed in the media, in reality "chareidim don't scream and throw rocks." Only then does Rav Lasri encourage them to attend academic lectures and special seminars.

Rav Y. Yosefi, one of the senior Arachim lecturers, adapted Rav Lasri's style in a different situation: Once there was a sick boy who refused to take his much-needed medicine. The only way to get him to swallow the medicine was first to tickle him until he opened his mouth. "That's what Rav Lasri does," he said. That's why so many kibbutz members were fortunate to hear Rav Lasri. The initial meeting with kibbutz members is always difficult.

Rav Lasri's description follows:

They usually come and sit in the back of the hall, close to the exit or they stand and sort of look. Laughter is something that really brings people closer together. "By the way," he says, "it's also been found to heal. When the kibbutz member facing me smiles, an unconscious connection is formed between us. I weave humor into my lecture, and in the middle of the speech, all those people that were standing in order to be able to make a quick exit, sit down. When does it happen? When I present a scenario that occurs in every home, Polish, Hungarian or Sephardi."

Rav Lasri also offers a solution to the problem and touches on other similar points. The ice melts slowly.

Does it always work? Does your smile always win them over?

"I daven before every lecture for the siyata deShmaya to help those people standing in the back, and that G-d forbid not even one of them should leave the hall, but that they should come closer to Judaism. Everything depends on tefilloh and they need a lot of tefillos.

Since they are the ideological ones, they initiate the questions. I always bring Arachim brochures about academic and spiritual lectures with me, and when I see someone who is sincere and is looking to expand his horizons, I give him one. If he refuses to come to a seminar, I invite him to one of the special workshops that Arachim conducts around the country. That's how we maintain a connection with them.

Tears in Their Eyes

Today Arachim receives requests to send lecturers to kibbutzim. The lectures, of course, are academically appropriate for the audience. One kibbutz brings another, he says, and one friend brings another. That's how more and more kibbutz members are hearing about Judaism.

Arachim is frequently asked to speak to large non-religious crowds. The participants later tell their families, some of whom live on kibbutzim. Other kibbutz members hear the lectures firsthand while at work, outside of the kibbutz. That's how the word spreads so quickly.

"You see a bald man or someone with white hair, `someone from the old days,' who calls you aside and asks you to come speak at the kibbutz. It's amazing. At first they say that they noticed that we don't talk straight about Judaism and that's why they've invited us. I go everywhere with my hat and jacket. People are frequently shocked just by my appearance. They stare at me and try to digest it. They start to listen slowly, and after a few minutes, they begin to smile. Then you see that they really become interested. In the past people posed questions as a challenge. Now they ask questions in order to understand and not to be defiant."

Do you encounter opposition today?

"Arachim organized seminars for young men on a kibbutz in a building located a short distance from the rest of the kibbutz buildings. In the evening while we were singing together, two kibbutz members walked all the way over to us in order to complain about the singing. They yelled about the noise and other things. Another lecturer and I went out to them and told them that we were responsible for the evening's events and it was good that they informed us [that we were disturbing] and that we would make sure to control the noise level. Suddenly they saw that `those people' don't bite and they began to ask us questions. We stayed to speak with them. As a result, one of the two men came to an academic seminar, became completely religious and left the kibbutz!"

Why is it that some people become religious but then continue to live on a kibbutz?

"Because they built the kibbutz and they've already lived there for many years, but frequently their kids leave. They go out and build Jewish lives outside of the kibbutz."

"What's amazing about the kibbutzim," Rav Lasri says in admiration, "is that families drag their relatives to the seminars. The stir caused by the member that comes to Arachim is something special.

You won't believe it, but today many people listen to Rav Lasri's CDs and tapes, as well as to Torah classes and other lectures. The many kibbutz members that want to obtain the CDs, which are sold at cost, can testify to that.

How do you explain that kibbutz members listen to Jewish tapes?

"Everything is done hesitantly at first, just like the lectures and seminars. They listen quietly, in a closed part of the house. But eventually the humor breaks all the barriers and then they're not afraid to listen, even in public."

Today Arachim runs seminars in the heart of the kibbutzim. "One of the things that breaks them and that caused another breakthrough in the kibbutzim," Rav Lasri says, "is the singing on Friday nights in the communal dining hall. You can see the kibbutz members, the workers that live on the kibbutz, the residents that hear the singing, all approach to watch. They see the amazing family unity, notice the beautiful atmosphere [and] when they see all of this you can see the tears in their eyes. It's a beautiful sight."

It is for this reason that Arachim invests so much into its kibbutz programs. There is also another reason: kibbutzim are particularly dear to the director of Arachim, Rav Yosef Valis. Rav Valis therefore decided that additional resources should be directed to the kibbutzim as he himself became religious many years earlier. Rav Valis therefore appreciates the significance of the movement occurring on the kibbutzim now, "veheishiv lev ovos al bonim," which results, many times in "veleiv bonim al avosom."


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