ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 143

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Inside story

Exiled from greener pastures, southerners cram kibbutz life into two Tel Aviv towers

Evacuated Kibbutz Re’im residents work to acclimatize in two newly built high rises in a bid to reinvent the coziness of their former home

Shoshanna Solomon

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Banners and Israeli flag welcome the Kibbutz Re’im members to their new home in Tel Aviv, January 2024. (Shoshanna Solomon)
Banners and Israeli flag welcome the Kibbutz Re’im members to their new home in Tel Aviv, January 2024. (Shoshanna Solomon)

On a warm sunny day in early January, toddlers rode their tricycles in a paved courtyard while adults watched over them, eagle-eyed. A large Israeli flag hung on one side of the courtyard, while opposite a banner read: “Re’im is on its way home.”

At the entrance to the courtyard, another banner carried a welcome message from the Tel Aviv municipality: “There is no place like home, but in the meantime, feel at home.”

Passersby stopped in front of the complex, took photographs and moved on. In the courtyard, Eli Banay was on the phone with suppliers, taking pictures of what he said was a safety hazard.

When he finally turned to the reporter waiting nearby he did so with a hug. “We hug a lot here,” he said.

Banay, a business development and innovation manager at California-based multinational Cisco, was appointed by Oren Sagi, who runs Cisco’s Israel branch, to oversee a project helping evacuees from Kibbutz Re’im find a suitable temporary home.

Nearly four months ago, residents of the once-placid community had huddled in protective rooms as Hamas terrorists rampaged through the kibbutz and surrounding fields, where the Nova music festival was being held.

Approximately 1,200 people were killed across southern Israel in the unprecedented bloodletting of October 7, and 253 were abducted. The toll included members of the kibbutz and some 360 victims at the outdoor music festival and the surrounding area.

By the time residents were able to leave their protected spaces a day later, the kibbutz, like most communities around it, had been rendered largely uninhabitable by the massacre and ensuing war.

Part of the destruction in Kibbutz Re’im, wreaked by Hamas terrorists on October 7. (Facebook/ Our Kibbutz Re’im)

The entire community, over 400 members, was evacuated to Eilat, where they spent over 10 weeks in hotel limbo.

For the last month, they have been  living in less temporary quarters, though it’s hard to imagine a place more starkly different from the pastoral setting they left behind than the pair of south Tel Aviv high-rises they now call home.

While they were still in Eilat, where they had been sent by the government, kibbutz members turned for help to the Brothers in Arms grassroots movement. The organization was originally formed to fight the government’s judicial overhaul effort, but following the October 7 Hamas attack, it pivoted to helping the war and recovery effort, utilizing its large network of reservists, business leaders, volunteers and others.

The group connected Re’im’s refugees to Cisco, which worked together with an alliance of private companies from the business sector and in coordination with the Tel Aviv Municipality to tackle the challenge.

“We went to Eilat to meet them and find out what their needs were,” said Banay. The community they met was “lost, without direction, hope or a future,” he said.

Eli Banay speaks on the phone at the Re’im project in Tel Aviv, January 2024. (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

The consortium first met the immediate needs of the community, providing them with clothes, laptops, and games at the hotel, said Banay. Then it turned its focus to their medium-term needs, which was to find them a home until the kibbutz is rebuilt. A key condition was that the kibbutz members stay together as a community.

They looked at a variety of options, some in the south, in Beersheba and Eilat, and then heard about two Tel Aviv towers that might be an option, the Theodor project in the hip Florentin neighborhood.

The 12- and 13-story buildings were in the final stages of completion but had not yet received the final regulatory occupancy permits. The two towers have 160 residential units and some commercial space, according to developer company Etz HaShaked, which worked with the Yuvalim Group on the project together with architect Ilan Pivko.

One building, earmarked for long-term rentals, has 2.5-room (1.5 bedrooms) apartments, while the second tower has larger apartments sold by the contractor to private individuals.

The kibbutzniks were bused in to visit the site. “We all needed to wear hard hats because there was still a lot of work going on,” said Banay.

A noisier, unfamiliar new home

Initially, kibbutz members rejected the Tel Aviv option.

How could a pastoral kibbutz move to the metropolis of Tel Aviv, they wondered, how would they be able to keep their community together? When probing deeper, Banay said, they realized there were two main issues: school for the children and safety concerns, as the buildings were right near the busy, rundown, and commercial Herzl Street, which is peppered by furniture and motorbike stores and low-tech metalworks and other workshops.

The school issue was soon resolved. The Theodor project is a short walk away from the high-demand Tel Aviv Teva elementary school, which focuses on the environment and social responsibility. They soon got municipality permission for the children to attend.

The courtyard between the two Tel Aviv towers Kibbutz Re’im members currently call home, January 2024. (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

To safeguard children from street traffic and provide a sense of independence and cohesion, the municipality also agreed to the construction of a low fence around the complex, which was supplemented by potted plants bearing shrubs and herbs.

What helped clinch the deal, however, was a historic building, “Beit HaBe’er” or the Well House, preserved and nestled between the two towers. The group quickly realized this could become the heart of the community.

With its beautifully restored arched windows and tiled floors, the Well House could be home to all the communal needs of the kibbutz: it just needed to be transformed into a place for shared activities, with a dining room for joint meals and recreation space for the teenagers and adults.

The Well House “was empty and would have probably been turned into a restaurant or an art gallery,” said Irit Balas, an architect who volunteered to help make the project happen for the Re’im evacuees. The restored building and the surrounding fence were key to getting the residents to agree to move to Tel Aviv, she said.

The Well House currently houses three kindergartens for toddlers.

On the day of our visit in early January, two of the kibbutz kindergarten teachers were playing with four toddlers, preparing them for a walk down the city street in a large green-metal four-wheel stroller.

Ifat Estlien, in charge of education at Kibbutz Re’im, sits in the Tel Aviv courtyard of the temporary accommodation facilities, January 2024. (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

One of the tiny chairs inside had a wreath of flowers around it, indicating there had been a birthday celebration. Neatly stacked on shelves were toys and books. There was a play kitchen corner and colorful children’s bags hanging from a stand.

In the kitchen on the floor above, a group of four- and five-year-olds were sitting around the table chattering and laughing as they squeezed oranges for juice.

One of the rooms was converted into a large workspace for adults, another hosts the kibbutz management offices. Yet another is now a recreation room for teenagers. On the top floor, with a large balcony, is a comfortable seating area for members to hang out.

“Someone still has to bring us a coffee machine,” said Banay, the Cisco manager, as he promptly called up the supplier.

A banner welcomes Kibbutz Re’im members to their new home in Tel Aviv, January 2024. (Shoshanna Solomon)

Throughout the visit, the new residents came up to Banay to give him a slap on the back or a hug, and to ask for items to be fixed in their apartment. He said the developers had had their permits fast-tracked within three weeks as part of the rehousing effort. In the rental building, the government signed three-year contracts with the developers at market prices, and negotiations were held separately with each of the homeowners in the second building, Banay said.

Building a ‘whole kibbutz’

Before the residents moved into their new homes, volunteers outfitted the units with the necessary furniture and accessories. Larger families got two units, one to sleep in and the other for living, explained Banay. The families also got a complimentary basket of food items they could use to prepare a simple meal, something they missed doing while living in the hotels.

In one of the commercial spaces, the Clalit HMO has set up a medical clinic for the residents. Meanwhile, builders were still working on the walls of two other ground-floor rooms. “These will host two mental health clinics,” one for the youth and one for adults, Banay said.

A recreation room at the Re’im project in Tel Aviv, January 2024. (Shoshanna Solomon)

On the other side of the building, there are plans for a bakery. There will also be a playscape for the children and a music room for the young adults.

“We are building a whole kibbutz here,” Banay said.

An older couple came up to Banay to talk to him about something that needed fixing in their apartment. “I am managing here but my husband feels he is in a cage,” she told him. His bike and motorbike, which he loved to ride, were still in the kibbutz, she explained, while their car was idle in the parking lot of the complex in Tel Aviv.

Ifat Estlien, a 66-year-old who oversees education at the kibbutz, said that the housing arrangements were “a good start” — though nothing like life in the kibbutz.

“It will be ok,” she said. “I see the children and their eyes are happy and energetic.”

The older children find it harder to adapt because there is less space and there are no open fields like in the kibbutz, she said. Most members want to return to Re’im once it is rebuilt, she said. But it also needs to be safe.

“It will take us a long time to recover, if at all.”

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