Exclusive: No shuls, please, we're atheists

Kibbutz Ruhama founding members torpedo plan to build synagogue.

shul 88 (photo credit: )
shul 88
(photo credit: )
Yesterday's rebels have become today's reactionaries at Kibbutz Ruhama, where a group of elderly diehard Zionist ideologues have blocked an attempt by the younger, more liberal members to establish a synagogue. "We are atheists here," said Avri Ya'ari, a Holocaust survivor from Budapest who will turn 79 in two weeks. "I did not come here to set up synagogues, I came to build something new," added Ya'ari, as he sat in the kitchen of his tiny kibbutz flat expressing the basic secular Zionist belief that religion, like other trappings of the gullis [exile], are at the root of Jewish weakness. "I know that a man is in need of spiritual content. But choosing religion is the easy way out. Here at Ruhama people are rationalists. We take responsibility for our actions. We don't blame heavenly forces," Ya'ari explained. Bumek Levi, 86, one of the founders of the 62-year-old kibbutz, located in the western Negev, said Ruhama had absolutely no connection with the Jewish religion. "We believe in complete freedom and secularism," said Levi. "Jewish history, the Bible and Jewish thought are all important to us. But without religion." Ya'ari and Levi belong to a group of elderly, highly ideological members of Ruhama who recently voted down an initiative to establish a synagogue, complete with a Torah scroll, at the Hashomer Hatza'ir kibbutz. Many voiced concern that a synagogue would launch a chain of events that would eventually give the Orthodox Jewish establishment an inroad and lead to religious coercion. Ruhama, established in 1944, has one of the oldest populations in the kibbutz movement, with an average age of 63 and with 85 of the 192 members beyond retirement age. The kibbutz has been wooing residents from the outside, who will eventual receive certain voting rights. Many do not share Ruhama's virulently atheist sentiments. "For the old-timers, the fight against a synagogue proves that there are still kibbutz values left to stand for," said Yankele, 48, who grew up at Ruhama. "We've already compromised on almost every other kibbutz ideal, from private checking accounts and salaries to the disintegration of the communal dining and communal sleeping arrangements to the privatization of industry," said Yankele, 48, who voted in favor of a synagogue. "For me, supporting the synagogue symbolizes openness," said Yankele, who refrained from divulging his family name. "I don't want Ruhama to be some kind of anachronistic cultural reserve," added Yankele, who manages kibbutz's guest house. He said that from a business perspective, it was in the kibbutz's interest to have a synagogue since the guest house could then cater to a religious clientele. He's not alone in this assessment. In neighboring Revadim, another Hashomer Hatza'ir kibbutz, members are slated to vote on a proposal to build a synagogue for their guest house. Nitai Keren, secretary-general of Revadim, said the very fact that the kibbutz permitted the vote signaled a fundamental ideological change. "A few years ago no one would have even considered establishing a synagogue on the kibbutz, even for business reasons. I know that my father would have fought it." Keren believes the conflation of religion with the right-wing settlement movement, particularly over the past three decades, stoked opposition to any encroachment of religion on the kibbutz. Hashomer Hatza'ir kibbutzim have traditionally identified with the left-wing Meretz Party, which advocates a return to pre-1967 borders and the dismantling of all settlements. In contrast to Revadim, where the synagogue initiative is fueled by economic motives, on Ruhama the proposal was raised by several kibbutz members whose children had abandoned the Hashomer Hatza'ir ideology and embraced a religious life. Tamir Yemini, 30, is one of those children. "I have no complaints about the decision [against the synagogue]," said Yemini, a former drummer for the Israeli rock band Teapacks. "The kibbutz was always good to me. "People on the kibbutz received a certain type of education. God willing things will change in the future." Shachar Gabbai, CEO of the Ruhama brush factory, the kibbutz's largest industry, said he missed out on a lot of Jewish culture as a result of his strictly secular, atheist upbringing. Now, he said, "I want something different for my children."