Coming up on the end of a lovely Shabbat with my friends in Hanaton. Hanaton is basically heaven. It’s a pluralistic, egalitarian Conservative kibbutz set a bit southwest of Haifa. Avi picked me up sometime before Shabbat—Nurit was at a birthday party with kids. The kibbutz is set in the country—smell of cows included, but not bad. Lots of new and very nice houses. Nurit and Avi’s is on a hill—as is the whole place, and has three levels. All made of stone and tile. Kids are below, Nurit and Avi are above, and the main living space is between—along with Nurit’s office, which is also the guest room.
Nurit and her family went to the US for a couple of years, which is where I met her, at Berkeley. Her family speaks English and is Conservative in practice; her husband is a Conservative rabbi. Which is a rare thing in Israel. The community, though, is exceptional.
I have long envied the strong community and values of the Orthodox—as when I go to Detroit and see my cousins’ families. The way family, community, and Judaism as a way of life are valued is simply lovely. But there’s a price to pay for that: the conformity to a Judaism to which I don’t subscribe. I am egalitarian in practice. Period. I can appreciate a non-egalitarian Judaism—but a lot less after this weekend. Because these people have managed to have their cake and eat it too.
First of all, this is an intentional community. People choose to live here and choose to be part of the kibbutz. How are you part of the kibbutz? You buy property on it, which is held in common is some way or other. It’s not a place for anyone who isn’t willing to negotiate community values sort of constantly. And, like many communities, some people care more and do more than others. I got enough of the politics to understand that this is hardly perfect—after all, it is an organization run by people.
But every place has problems. My sense is that those problems are over-ridden by some powerful commitments and values—which I can best describe through telling about Shabbat services. Which were your basic liberal services. They were Conservative, not Reform, in content, but I don’t care about that—traditional or not, mostly I look for active engagement in egalitarian practice. So Friday night, Avi and I started off for the service (Nurit came later). On the way, Avi and I ran into a couple with about five kids, one in a stroller. Not clear how many of the kids were theirs, but the kids had an air of being well-loved and completely comfortable in the environment. After a conversation I couldn’t follow, but which apparently was about kibbutz politics, we continued up the hill to the lawn where mats were still being laid on the lawn for an outdoors “Israeli” service. This was a place for young families. There were a few gray (or dyed) heads like mine, but not many. There were kids from two months to fifteen years (the fifteen year old had that lovely sullen air they get…). There were kids running around the service area, sitting for a few minutes and getting up again, and generally being part of things without being expected to sit through this adult activity.
A couple of highlights: the two year old in a fancy dress with gold shoes and no underpants. The two toddler boys who both removed their pants and had a pissing contest. The three boys who ran in circles around and through the service, tussling like bear cubs. The six-month old who was crawling all over me, trying to get my siddur. I just picked him up (oh did it feel good to hold a baby!) and held him while we prayed. His mom was fine with it—all these kids went to one adult or another without any qualms (most wouldn’t have come to me—this one was just young), but the culture was that kids played and adults let them do so, and the nearest adult intervened as necessary. Nurit told me later that most families have about four kids. I don’t think that’s easy—parents work outside the kibbutz and there is childcare, although in many cases, one parent stays home—but there’s clearly a strong commitment to family and children and mutual support for both.
It’s also a mixed community in other ways: LGBT families are welcome. So are intermarried families. So are interracial families. And there is respect for different levels of religious observance, with there being negotiation within families and in the community space. In other words, Jewish observance is taken seriously and individually.
So…the service was in two parts. The first welcomed Shabbat with seven songs and was led by two young adults, one with a guitar. As that concluded, there was a brief drash given by the resident sociologist of religion (later had dinner with him and his family) on the difference between the practice of religion as a symphony, with a score and carefully scripted parts, and as jazz, where the practice is suggested, but then there are riffs. There’s a tension between the two with regard to memory, because it is easier to preserve the memory of the carefully choreographed symphony, while that is more difficult to do with jazz. I think that’s more complicated—both have problems—but it would be interesting and productive to play with the narrative a bit more. The service continued with a fairly straightforward Friday evening service. No rush for any of it. But it was long—the service began at 6:45 and ended around 8:15. My sense is that the songs, which were an experiment, went longer than intended, but no one complained—pretty much a sense of being in the moment. And if a kid needed to eat, there was food.
We continued with Shabbat dinner back at Nurit and Avi’s. A meal that began with lots of little Israeli salads, was followed with two kinds of soup (lentil and corn), and continued with fish and lasagna and I can’t even remember what else—but it was good. The kids of various ages jumped about, more or less participating. The two five-year-old boys had spilikes until they were released from the table, upon which they vanished from sight and sound. The teenagers of the visiting family participated in the conversation appropriately. Adam described his experiences working with the kibbutz cows, Rachel talked about her experiences as a tri-athlete as an example of how competition works. And somewhere in there, we had an education and sociology academic discussion. We didn’t finish dinner until 10:30—and were all relaxed and exhausted.
This morning, I headed back to services with Avi, who was leading (this isn’t his congregation—he goes there every other week). The pattern of arrival was typical: at 9 AM, but for the presence of 20 or 30 USY teens, there would not have been a minyan. As it was, Avi led the service using Sim Shalom, with which I’m quite familiar (although on Friday we used the Conservative Israeli Siddur and I’m a fan). It felt completely familiar, but for the Hebrew. There was a break for study before the Torah service—and I followed almost none of it (I started to go with the teens, but really—that just didn’t work). By the beginning of the Torah service, the place was full and there was a buzz of children’s voices from outside.
During the discussion, I got into a conversation with the man next to me, who turned out to be Yitzhak Santis, an advocate for Zionism in the Bay Area (here’s a link to an article on him from when he moved to Israel: http://www.timesofisrael.com/spotlight/change-of-scenery-from-san-francisco-to-northern-israel/). But the really funny thing is that his wife and I knew each other. We looked at each other and looked at each other and finally realized that we had both taught at Beth Torah the same year.
So then they came over for lunch, which was plentiful and pleasant. And the rest of the day continued with relaxation until the sun went down and Nurit drove me home…