Every shul has its history. Some, however, have more twists and turns than others. How was a shul ever built in Kibbutz Gvat, a secular kibbutz in the Yizrael Valley (Emek Yizrael) in northern Israel, a short distance from the cities of Afula and Natzeret? How did this tiny, derelict shul become an extension of the Museum of Pioneer Settlement that draws thousands of visitors annually? And how can the Museum Synagogue simultaneously pay homage to the past and serve the future?
Between 1911 and 1951 tens of thousands of immigrants, many of them survivors of the horrors of World War II, arrived in Israel with the dream of resettling their ancient homeland. Many of these young, secular pioneers established kibbutzim. Kibbutz Gvat was founded in 1926 by young secular pioneers with a new vision for traditional values. When these pioneers were followed by their parents, a conflict arose. Were they going to uphold their own, new vision of Judaism, or would they bow to the view of their parents who were determined to uphold traditional Jewish values? Despite their idealism, the pioneers’ desire to honor their parents won out – both a shul and a kosher dining hall were built. In 1954, former residents of Gvat established Kibbutz Yifat, but ties between the two kibbutzim remained close. During the 1960’s, as the older generation passed away, the shul fell into disuse and was even used as a storage area. It was only in the 1990’s that the idea of restoring it began to bloom.
The Museum Embraces the Shul
Rabbi Shlomo Raanan, director of Ayelet Hashachar, a non-profit organization set up in 1997 that works to bridge the gap between religious and non-religious Jews in Israel, has become an expert at assessing the buildings and converting them into places where G-d can enter. The organization has established shuls all over Israel: Kibbutz Manara and Kibbutz Sde Nechemyah in the north and Kibbutz Gvar’am and Kibbutz Ruchama in the south are all witness to the tireless efforts of Ayelet Hashachar. But when I spoke with Rabbi Raanan, I was eager to hear about his work in the Yizrael Valley.
“The restoration of Givat’s shul began on an international airline flight!” says Rabbi Raanan. “Years ago, on one of my many flights overseas, I got to know one of the flight attendants. Gilad Stukelman wasn’t only a charming young man; he was also a cousin of my accountant. Our developing relationship came to a tragic end: in August 2006, Captain Gilad Stukelman was killed in the Second Lebanon War. He was twenty-six years old. When visiting his bereaved family who live on Timrat, a yishuv in the Yizrael Valley, I suggested that since there wasn’t a shul on Timrat, we build and dedicate a shul in his memory.” The suggestion was taken up.
When the secretary of Timrat heard that neighboring Kibbutz Yifat was considering renovating the derelict shul in Kibbutz Gvat, it didn’t take long for her to put Avner Galili, treasurer and project manager, in touch with Rav Raanan. Ties between Kibbutz Gvat and Kibbutz Yifat had remained strong. Rav Raanan decided to strengthen them.
The Museum of Pioneer Settlement on Kibbutz Yifat, established in 1972, draws thousands of visitors annually. The museum tells the story of the chalutzim, the pioneers, who settled in the Yizrael Valley between the years 1911 and 1951. These pioneers dried swamps, dug ditches, worked as stone-cutters, built roads and laid the foundation for what would later become Israel’s world-renowned agricultural accomplishments. The children’s home, dining hall and pharmacy have all been restored. There are photos, clothes and tools, including the first oil-generated water pump that was imported from Germany at the end of the 1920s, to document the past. But there wasn’t a vestige of tradition left.