The urban kibbutz

The kibbutz overlooks Bethlehem – only four kilometers away – and has a stunning panorama of the Old City.

Yosef Avi Yair Engel, or Jucha, with his wife Yonit and children of kibbutz Ramat Rahel (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yosef Avi Yair Engel, or Jucha, with his wife Yonit and children of kibbutz Ramat Rahel
(photo credit: Courtesy)
From its very beginnings in 1926, Kibbutz Ramat Rahel was intended as an urban kibbutz.
Several of its founders were skilled craftsman with various professions in construction who contributed greatly to the building of Jerusalem, says chairman Yosef Avi Yair Engel, whose grandchildren are fourth-generation kibbutzniks.
Ramat Rahel is probably best known as a destination for weddings, a stopover on the way to Rachel’s Tomb or a relaxing getaway. Foreign tourism makes up about 60 percent of its business, and Engel can be seen as one of the major players in promoting tourism to kibbutzim.
Elected head of the kibbutz earlier this year, Engel had previously worked for Shimon Peres, stepping down when the president ended his tenure.
The son of Holocaust survivors, Engel was born in Yokne’am in the North. He arrived at Ramat Rahel with a nucleus of young army conscripts in 1964 with his wife, Yonit; the two had five children. Today, they have 10 grandchildren.
In 1970, he became manager of the kibbutz hotel, which led him to begin studying hotel management in 1972.
Engel was keen to encourage youth to settle on kibbutzim or moshavim; to promote this idea, he went to work for then-tourism minister Uzi Baram.
It was there that Engel worked with other kibbutzim to persuade them to develop guest rooms and restaurants approved by the Tourism Ministry.
Sitting high on a Jerusalem hilltop, Ramat Rahel stands like an oasis at the terminal of the No. 7 bus route.
The kibbutz overlooks Bethlehem – only four kilometers away – and has a stunning panorama of the Old City.
This observation point was built in memory of Engel’s son Yair, who died in a diving accident at age 19 while serving in the IDF. Engel, commonly known as Jucha, has memorialized him in many ways, including adding his name to his own.
“This was all desert,” Engel says proudly, as he surveys the complex of buildings surrounded by gardens with their carefully tended, colorful variety of flowers, shrubs and trees.
On the kibbutz, Engel has worked in almost every position and can recite its history by heart. He is an avid photographer and boasts an impressive album of the kibbutz’s antiquities.
These include ancient irrigation networks, ritual baths, remains of a third-century Byzantine church and a centuries-old factory which used to produce a honey beverage similar to mead. Famous archeologists, including the late Yigael Yadin, visited and worked on the site, which has had six seasons of digs with hundreds of volunteers.
Its pioneers from the Gdud Ha’avoda workers’ battalion started out in 1921 in a different site at Givat Shaul, then moved to Ratisbonne, and in 1925 purchased eight hectares (about 20 acres) of land from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate on a then desolate site where the kibbutz stands today.
The original nucleus put up the first tent in time for Shavuot 1926.
The original name of the kibbutz? Hahityashvut, or The Settlement.
A year later, those who had remained in Ratisbonne moved to the kibbutz, which was then officially inaugurated and given a change of name by Zionist leader Menachem Ussishkin. Ramat Rahel was taken from the prophecy of Rachel – whose tomb, as mentioned, is nearby – that she need not cry for her children because they will return to their borders.
The goal of the kibbutz, says Engel, was to build foundations not only for itself but for the future growth of Jerusalem. Its construction workers were engaged in building the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University, and the first house on King George Avenue.
However, during the Arab riots of 1929, the kibbutz was destroyed. The members returned a year later and rebuilt what was burnt down. In 1931, it opened what is believed to be the first kibbutz guest house for summer vacation groups.
During the War of Independence, the kibbutz was again under attack and conquest, with the Egyptians on one side and the Jordanians on the other. After two days of heavy fighting, Israeli forces succeeded in regaining control over the area. A permanent reminder of the war are the bullet holes that pockmark the original guest house.
Amid construction to enlarge the hotel, weapons from the British Mandate period were found in an extensive underground cache. Today, it is covered by a glass floor panel so that visitors can see part of the history of the state and the role played by the kibbutz.
Although it falls under the jurisdiction of the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council, Ramat Rahel is considered part of greater Jerusalem, especially since 1967. From the 1949 cease-fire until the end of the Six Day War, says Engel, the kibbutz was situated on the Green Line and was an IDF enclave.
Throughout that period, the pre-state members of the kibbutz were not permitted to return to their original homes; 36 families then built new accommodations on the lower part of the hill. Massive development began only after the 1967 victory.
For ideological reasons, the original 8 hectares purchased were given to Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund so that the kibbutz would not have private assets. Because of the traumatic events to which it has been subjected, the kibbutz does not have a written record of the transaction, and attempts to get one from other sources have been consistently stonewalled.
Kibbutz members do not have to buy their homes, and many work outside.
Their salaries are paid to the kibbutz, and Engel explains that while people are expected to give to the best of his ability, everyone has equal entitlement to what the kibbutz dispenses – including the use of a car, of which there is a fleet.
Ramat Rahel has a communal dining hall, infant and toddler day-care centers, and a 400-member senior citizens’ home. There is no on-site school; instead, children attend local schools in Talpiot. One problem on the horizon is housing for young people.
Land designated for agriculture but never utilized could theoretically be reassigned for residential purposes, but the decision is not purely in the hands of the kibbutz and needs to go through the government.
Ramat Rahel is, today, a most interesting blend of ancient and modern that has developed dramatically since its founding.