The Human Spirit: Over the tractor din

Yom Kippur on kibbutzim ain’t what it used to be – thanks to Shlomo Ra’anan, who dispatches friendly families and singles to hold prayer services, even if a tiny cadre requests them.

October 1, 2010 16:07
Shlomo Ra'anan at Kibbutz Geva for Yom Kippur

311_Kibbutz geva shul. (photo credit: Courtesy)

I can barely hear Shlomo Ra’anan over the din of the diesel engine. It’s the day after Yom Kippur and Ra’anan, who lives with his family in Rehovot, is phoning from one of the fields of the recently rocket-attacked kibbutzim close to Gaza. “You have to hear this,” he says. The tractor driver, 32, shouts out that his first ever Yom Kippur prayer service was “terrific.”

Ra’anan is ebullient, and is in the same effervescent mood when we meet at a Jerusalem café a few days later. He’s brought a video camera to show clips from before and after the Yom Kippur services he has organized at several nonreligious kibbutzim. One shows his own son Areleh, 12, teaching a new friend at Kibbutz Geva how to touch his eyes with havdala wine.

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Not that Yom Kippur services are unknown on socalled nonreligious kibbutzim. The student/soldiers of the hesder yeshiva of Kiryat Shmona have been leading services in Kibbutz Neot Mordechai for a dozen years. The exquisite melody used in many synagogues for the powerful Unetaneh Tokef prayer was written for Beit Hashita 20 years ago by Yair Rosenblum because the kibbutz members had a need to pray after 11 of their sons died in the Yom Kippur War. But although kibbutzim no longer flaunt Yom Kippur barbecues, many have no prayer services on the holiest day of the Jewish year.

TO RA’ANAN, that’s unfortunate. Ra’anan, 48, grew up in Haifa, attended a high-school yeshiva and served in the IDF. His own life changed when he was recruited for a kollel, a community of religious students imported to a California community to strengthen its religious identity. By the time he and his wife, Shalhevet, returned to Israel six years later, they had four children, but Ra’anan was restless and eager to continue working for the Jewish people. In California he had experienced a different model of identifying with Judaism.

“In Israel, when someone becomes religious, he first takes on the outer trappings, and then conforms to the rules of the group he identifies with,” says Ra’anan. “Often he’s encouraged to leave his job, force his change on his wife, break off from his family. In America, the community is central, and study is an open-ended process enjoyed simply because it’s uplifting.”

In 1996, Ra’anan founded Ayelet Hashahar, an outreach organization, which is best known for linking more than 7,000 pairs of telephone study partners of more religiously observant and less religiously observant Jews.

For Yom Kippur services he’s willing to dispatch friendly families and singles to hold prayers, even if a tiny cadre requests them.

Sometimes the interested kibbutznik is overruled by hostile members. Other times last-minute requests can’t be fulfilled. Despite the challenges, Ra’anan arranged services this year at 46 different kibbutzim.

They included Gvat, a wheat-growing, milk-producing, drip-irrigation-developing veteran kibbutz up on a hill in the Jezreel Valley.

Ron Izraely, 38, a third-generation kibbutznik and married father of three, was in charge. He’s on the kibbutz cultural committee. Izraely’s grandfather was among the kibbutz founders, who, in 1926, settled the land in memory of their fellow Pinsk townsfolk who were massacred by the Polish army.

Although the kibbutz had a small synagogue back then, his grandfather and his generation “went to Arab villages and ate pork on Yom Kippur.”

Said Izraely, “The synagogue was converted to a storage shed before I was born and even that is gone.”

But in recent years, attitudes have been changing.

Izraely and his wife along with dozens of others now fast on Yom Kippur. Some members go to neighboring Kibbutz Yifat to pray.

Izraely now works as a security executive, but years ago in Chile, he was protecting the Israeli ambassador going to synagogue. “The local guard pulled out a kippa from his pocket with the name of an Israeli soccer team. I was stunned. I didn’t have a kippa from a rival team, or a kippa at all. I realized how little I knew of Judaism and it felt awful.”

He hasn’t become “religious,” he says, but a few years ago he began fasting on Yom Kippur. “When I publicized the upcoming kibbutz prayer sessions, I had my share of phone calls accusing me of tearing down the last standing bastions that protect secular society from the coercion of religion,” said Izraely. “But I had even more calls that were curious about the program.”

Still he was worried. In addition to the logistics of hosting the religious guests who were to help lead the prayers, he was worried that no one would show up. Ra’anan assured him that the numbers didn’t matter. Izraely was also concerned that his fellow kibbutznikim might insult the guests. “It was a gamble.”

CAME FRIDAY of Yom Kippur eve and the visitors arrived, a mix of national religious and black-hatted religious. Chairs were set up in the kibbutz museum. About 15 kibbutznikim joined the visitors for Kol Nidre, the opening of the Yom Kippur service, but the number doubled as the evening went on. When Izraely dropped by a few times to check morning service, it was uncrowded but pleasant. There’s a bike-riding tradition on the kibbutz each Yom Kippur that most folks don’t want to miss. By Ne’ila, the closing service that ends with a blast of the shofar, nearly a hundred people had gathered.

“It was a remarkable success,” said Izraely. “I felt good not only because I’d organized it, but because it was an emotional experience for me.”

The mix of age groups, from teens through people in their seventies, was rare for a Gvat program with religious content, he said. “Each person who came in received a holiday prayer book and someone showed him or her where we were. Everyone participated.” Then came the surprise.

In preparing for the services, the need for a Torah scroll came up. It turned out that Kibbutz Gvat had one abandoned for 40 years in the kibbutz archives. “When it was brought out, wearing the original deep red velvet cover, embroidered with the name of the kibbutz, even the skeptical were moved. We owned our very own Torah.”

Although fellow kibbutznikim rib him for being on his way to becoming a ba’al tshuva, returnee to the faith, Izraely doesn’t see that happening. “I’m looking for more religious knowledge, not because I’m empty, but because I’m interested.”

Back at the café, Ra’anan’s phone is ringing with more reports from far-flung settlements. He’s not in the business of making ba’alei tshuva, he insists. He just wants to give back the Torah to all the people of Israel. Not because they’re empty, but because its theirs.

To contact Shlomo Ra’anan: [email protected]

The author is a Jerusalem writer who concentrates on the wondrous stories of modern Israel and its people.

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