In former chicken coop, kibbutz helps young violinists come out of their shells

Kibbutz Eilon serves as a temporary home for string whizzes with a festival and summer school

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Master classes and seminars are held at Keshet Eilon in the Western Galilee twice a year (Courtesy: Sarit Uzieli)
Master classes and seminars are held at Keshet Eilon in the Western Galilee twice a year (Courtesy: Sarit Uzieli)

With a chicken coop and former wheat silo turned into a world-class music auditorium and music library, Kibbutz Eilon in the Western Galilee has turned the making of music into a kibbutz industry.

It’s entirely appropriate. This community of classical music lovers was founded in 1938 by European immigrants who ate only hard-boiled eggs and olives in order to afford their first piano.

“They brought their culture with them, and we grew up with that, learning instruments in our tents,” said musician Gilad Sheba, 73, whose parents helped found the kibbutz and who lives there himself.

Sheba has kept that tradition alive at Eilon, running the Keshet Eilon strings festival and summer school. This year there’s a hybrid edition, online and in-person, from July 25 through August 11.

“One of our goals is that music should never stop,” said Sheba. “Whether it’s war in Lebanon or with Gaza, or the coronavirus, the only year we didn’t celebrate was last year, and this year we’ll hold it however we can.”

In fact, though there are dozens of participants locally and worldwide, only a small number of Israeli students are taking part in person.

Most of the masterclasses and concerts will be streamed on the Keshet Eilon YouTube channel, its Facebook page, and The Violin Channel from the Bar-Uryan Auditorium at Eilon. The August 1 concert in memory of violinist Ivry Gitlis, who died last year, will be in person.

A strings concert at Keshet Eilon in the Western Galilee, where the making of music has become the kibbutz industry. (Courtesy: Sarit Uzieli)

Sheba’s hope is to be able to carry out other live performances planned for early August, including the August 6 concert of chamber music performed by teachers and students, and in-person activities with members of the kibbutz.

It’s a continuation of Sheba’s own musical life, which started at the kibbutz and continued with formal studies after his army service.

“Everyone played an instrument,” recalled Sheba. “If you were really good, you did strings, but everyone played something and sang in the choir.”

Today’s Kibbutz Eilon children are less immersed in musical studies but they hear chamber music on a regular basis from the Keshet Eilon performances, he said.

Gilad Sheba, the founder of Keshet Eilon, the strings music program at the Western Galilee kibbutz. (Courtesy: Sarit Uzieli)

“We want our kids and grandkids to learn about this kind of music,” he said. “It’s the place I was born, and I could’ve lived somewhere else, but it’s important to me that it happens here.”

It wasn’t until the Russian immigration in the early 1990s, with its plethora of classical musicians and string artists, that the kibbutz took another step and created the Keshet Eilon music center. Sheba was among the founders.

“Naturally we brought them here. We plucked them from the plane,” said Sheba.

He described that period as a kind of “euphoria” in Israel, putting Israel on the global musical map with its wonderful violinists and ability to produce chamber music.

Eventually that high receded, and Sheba with his fellow Keshet Eilon founders witnessed the gap that exists for Israeli string players, with a lack of regularly held masterclasses in Israel. They created the program, held twice a year with 60 young musicians from all over the country, from all kinds of backgrounds.

The program is funded mostly by donations, which also paid for renovating the chicken coop into an auditorium and turning the silo into a library. A defunct cowshed is awaiting refurbishment.

A concert at Keshet Eilon in the Western Galilee, where the making of music has become the kibbutz industry (Courtesy: Sarit Uzieli)

Over the years, Sheba says he’s met talented young violinists who have sought to make music their career. He’s been fundraising for a boarding school for young musicians at Eilon.

“The Western Galilee isn’t an obvious spot,” he said. “But people in the periphery also deserve this.”

There are already dormitories for the planned school, which would be for 10th, 11th and 12th grades, but classrooms are still in the works.

“Every cent we raise goes to this,” said Sheba. “Keshet Eilon is a message, it’s a bridge among people. I feel so pleased when performers in the Israel Philharmonic retire and their seats are filled with graduates from Keshet Eilon.”

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