A tractor in the fields of Kibbutz Sa’ad.

Torah V’Avoda: The Religious Farmers of Sa’ad and Alumim

25% of Israel’s grain and 30% of its vegetables are grown in the Region of Revival. Among the many agricultural kibbutzim and moshavim in the region are several religious kibbutzim. Rabbi Aron White spoke with Eric Isaacson from Kibbutz Alumim and Rabbi Eliav Lazar of Kibbutz Sa’ad to learn more about these Religious Zionist communities.

When Eric Isaacson made Aliyah from Manchester in 1972, Kibbutz Alumim was only a few years old. “We had grown up on the Bnei Akiva ethos of Torah v’Avoda, and a garin of us organized to move to Alumim to work on the new religious kibbutz. Alumim was founded by Bnei Akiva in Israel, and groups of young people from Bnei Akiva in England and South America made Aliyah to settle it and to work the land growing crops and vegetables, to cultivate milk and more.” Despite being less than four kilometers from the Gaza Strip, the security situation was different than it is now. “Back in the ’70s, it was quite common for people from Alumim to go to the beach in Gaza. The main reminders of war were when we worked the fields and would find unexploded bombs from the Six Day War, and sometimes even from World War I!”

Kibbutz Sa’ad is a religious kibbutz that was founded decades earlier, before the founding of the State of Israel. “In 1948, Sa’ad faced relentless attacks from the Egyptians, who destroyed most of the kibbutz, so in 1950 Sa’ad was re-established in its current location,” explains Rav Eliav, a rabbi and farmer from Sa’ad. “There is one building still standing from the original kibbutz, which has been turned into a museum that tells the story of the religious kibbutzim in the War of Independence. Today, you can see on that building both the bullet marks from the War of Independence in 1948, as well the bullet holes from the fighting on Simchat Torah.”

The agricultural processes of a religious kibbutz are tied to numerous halachic questions. “Already when Rav Kook was Chief Rabbi, before the establishment of the State, there were numerous agricultural questions presented to him. For example, is there a way to milk cows on Shabbat?” says Eric. “When I worked the machinery that would harvest the grains, we would make sure to clean it very carefully when changing from the barley to the wheat, to ensure there wouldn’t be problems with kilayim (forbidden mixtures). And I have been here long enough to have seen seven shemitah years, and the different halachic approaches that have been employed each time. There have been many changes, many of them with new technology, such as Tzomet equipment that can be pre-programmed and which uses the halachic principle of grama. Other changes are more political. There is also something indescribable about one’s connection to the Land in an agricultural community. Before Shavuot, the children in the kindergarten go out to the fields to bring in sheaves of wheat to decorate the shul – it’s very special.”

Rav Eliav in the fields of Kibbutz Sa’ad.

For Rav Eliav, the religious nature of kibbutz life is deeply spiritual too. “As a farmer, there are things you see in the Torah that you just wouldn’t see otherwise. Take Sefer Bereishit – when I look at the stories of Yosef and his brothers, I see a story of tension between the brothers, who are shepherds, and Yosef, who is dreaming about wheat, namely being a farmer. This continues when Yosef takes control of the agriculture in Egypt, and then when the brothers move to Goshen so they can continue being shepherds. When I do shemira in a dark field by myself, I understand why Ya’akov was so scared when he was fleeing from Eisav. We are also literally continuing on the path of Nechemya, who describes how the farmers would hold their tools with one hand and their weapons with the other. For me, Torah v’Avoda doesn’t mean someone who keeps the Torah and who also works. The Torah infuses our Avoda, but in fact when you work the Land of Israel, your Avoda also infuses your Torah!” 

Alumim and Sa’ad are part of the first line of kibbutzim across from the Gaza border, situated between Be’eri and Kfar Aza, two of the communities most devastated on October 7. “In Alumim, there were dozens of terrorists who broke into the kibbutz, into the area where the foreign workers from Nepal and Thailand were living. They murdered 23 of the workers, and kidnapped another 8. Our kitat konenut (security team), together with 3 off-duty soldiers, fought with them for hours, and three defenders were killed at the gates – the Slotki brothers* who drove from Be’er Sheva to join the defense, and a member of the elite Yahalom engineering unit. The 13 people on the security team saved the lives of hundreds of members of the kibbutz.” 

Kibbutz Sa’ad was miraculously almost entirely saved. “People have tried to give all sorts of explanations, but we really don’t have a logical explanation for why dozens of terrorists caused such destruction in Kfar Aza up the road, but didn’t come in to Sa’ad.” However, in November, Rose Lubin, an olah from Atlanta who had been adopted by a family in Sa’ad, was killed in Yerushalayim while on duty as a policewoman. She was 20 years old. 

Flowers being grown in Kibbutz Sa’ad.

Together with some 250,000 Israelis, the residents of Sa’ad and Alumim had to leave their homes a few days after the war began. “When we left our homes on October 8th, I literally had two squads of soldiers protecting me, as we were still scared of Hamas terrorists being in the area.” 

Today, the residents of Kibbutz Sa’ad are living in a hotel near the Dead Sea, and the residents of Alumim are in two hotels in Netanya. “In a funny way, the kibbutz is being pushed back to the ’60s, into a real collective of everyone eating together and living together,” says Eliav. There are also animated discussions relating to returning back home. It is unclear when the residents will be able to return to their homes, and in the meantime, there are different opinions about whether to stay at the hotel or to move to a city, where it is harder to maintain the close-knit community. 

Eliav is serving in the army, and stayed in Sa’ad for military service, where his home has been transformed into a de facto army base. “For a few weeks I was here on military duty when everyone had left, and I didn’t see my wife and kids for a while. I am now also continuing to tend to the crops – I am tending to everything from wheat to potatoes to avocados. Each has its own season, and if we don’t water them and keep up with the seasons, we will lose a whole season of produce.”

Eric points out that religious kibbutzim have borne the brunt of war before. “In the War of Independence, 8% of all the religious kibbutz members were killed defending our country.” After the horrors of October 7th, we pray that Sa’ad and Alumim will flourish once again, continuing their vision of Torah v’Avoda, harvest by harvest. 

* Watch Mizrachi’s video telling the inspiring story of Yishai and Noam Slotki hy”d, the brothers who fought bravely before tragically falling in battle on October 7: youtube/6rTmPppLIhQ

 

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