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Jewish Intentional Communities Tour of Israel: Day Three (March 16, 2016)

by Gulienne Rollins-Rishon
Work at Home Mom & Pop: Brooklyn, NY

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Wow. I’ll start with wow. This trip has been incredible so far. I’m beyond exhausted but in the best possible way. Today we switched gears a little bit. We’ve been experiencing non-Orthodox Jewish intentional communities so far, some of them more Jewish because they’re Israeli and composed at least mostly of people who are of Ashkenazi Jewish ancestry, and some of people who are intentionally intricately weaving Jewish practice, spirituality, and identity into their communal lives. I’ve loved everything I’ve seen so far, but was wondering where I, as a person who values adherence to halakha as a part of my manifestation of my Jewish identity, could fit into a community so warm, trusting, and intentional. Maybe not me myself exactly, but someone like me at least. Where was this level of intentionality, trust, and ability to be authentically and fully onesself and discuss that self with what’s basically an extended warm, unconditionally loving and accepting family, in a space where if that self also wanted to keep kosher and be shomer Shabbat, it would be fully integrated with the community life?

Today, I got some answers. We began the day by packing up from our hostel in Tzfat, a vibrantly artistic, kabbalistic city that I wish there had been time to explore during daylight hours on this trip. On the bus, we were briefed on the gear switch, and then headed to Afula for a non-Orthodox, incredible community that filled the hole I felt from not being able to take in the artwork in the Artist Marketplace in Tzfat. Tarbut is a kibbutz comprised of artists, and we were fortunate enough to speak with a kefutzah (group) in their communal workspace. We explored their carpentry space, where not only do they build sets for performance artists and teach carpentry workshops to local Afula youth, but also build furniture to sell and support the kibbutz and create a livelihood. The props for their mobile plays, which they bring out to expose community members, who are often impoverished, to the performing arts were gorgeously constructed. I was gratified to hear about the plays they put on, which are based on folk stories from the immigrant community members’ backgrounds of origin and often are a great way to connect the youth to the stories of their elders by making them not only relevant and fun in their Israeli life but also bolstering that identity by showing that it’s of interest to the “normative” Ashkenazi Israeli population. I plan to bring that into my eventual work with interracial families—it’s a great idea! A few other projects mentioned were a festival in which they coordinate with the municipality of Afula to bring arts to the streets, and even create a bit of a cultural shift through art, and bringing a piece of the LGBT scene to Afula and creating an alternative to the divisive LGBT scene of Tel Aviv—in Afula, they’ve managed to create more Queer spaces, rather than spaces where “each individual letter of LGBT” has a space of its own. The most impressive piece for me was their level of professionalism. Often, artists are either inspiring and on the street, or professional and high-end. The work that Tarbut puts out is high quality design, colorful, popular art and fun performance art, and their presentation is extremely professional, compatible to working with a municipality, and highly polished. I learned a lot about how to keep the raw spark and add professionalism to it from Hadas of Tarbut.

Next, we traveled to Elad to visit a Nettiot community. As we transitioned to Orthodox space, I was really looking forward to seeing how these hyper-close, small, and completely not insular community models might translate to an Orthodox environment, especially a Haredi one. Orthodox communities around the world in general are pretty intentional; people need to live close together in order to be in walking distance from their synagogue, at least 10 men need to be a part of the community so that there’s the ability to have a minyan on Shabbat at the very least and there are often lots of children so the community grows quickly and organically, and most communities offer some level of social support and are more inter-individually reliant than non-religious communities that aren’t intentionally socialist. But this community is listed on this trip for a reason, so it can’t just be the same as every other, and I was wondering what their “USP” (unique selling proposition) was. To be honest, I walked away not entirely sure. Visiting was warm and beautiful and we had a great, honest discussion of the beauty of how close knit an Ultra-Orthodox community could be, and some of the problems that come from trying to keep it close knit by keeping every individual within certain lines. They’re intentionally and specifically forming organizations to address some of those problems in a really novel, appropriate way, and that was my second biggest takeaway. The biggest takeaway is that it’s okay that I left a little bit confused. In the other places we’d visited so far, the model was explicit and complicated but organized and easily replicable. Nettiot is still working on the ground, figuring out how they’re doing what they’re doing. It seems like they know what they’re doing themselves, and can explain it to people who are familiar with all or most of the parts already, but don’t quite have an “elevator pitch” ready to feed to people who are hungry to learn what they’re doing—they’re too busy doing and addressing the needs within they’re community! At least that’s what I’ll take away from this visit, since I’m not the only one who left a bit confused about their singular mission statement.

To end the tour portion of our day, we traveled to Jerusalem and were fortunate enough to meet with a representative who answered one of the lingering questions I’d been having this whole trip so far—if some groups are building spirituality and exploration of Jewish identity into their practice, and Israel is a mixed (if somewhat segregated) society overall, could an intentional community include people who were halakhically observant AND those who aren’t? At Kibbutz Beit Yisrael, I found that the answer was yes. We saw the community come together to build a beautiful landscape out of what was once an unauthorized garbage dump in memory of a fallen young member. We learned that the community learns Torah and Gemara together in a truly pluralist way. We were privileged to hear stories of community that covers so many segments of Israeli society and removes the segmentation, creating common linkages. It was encouraging to know that it can happen, even if like in the States, it’s uncommon.

Today ended with many of us being picked up by friends and family, and separating from this community we’ve begun to really solidify for ourselves. It was a necessary break from this camp-like intensity, since adults don’t usually experience that for a week straight, but also sad. Community is beautiful, and the practice of retaining individuality within the group helped reinforce the lessons we’ve been learning.