To most travelers headed for Israel, the image of a kibbutz is a communal farm populated by free-spirited, hard-working young people whose children are raised as a group. On most itineraries, these communities are just a stop on a day tour.
But these days, many kibbutzim offer visitors something extra: lodging with amenities that include swimming pools, playgrounds and summer camp activities for children. There's also tennis, basketball, sailing and river rafting, camel and Jeep tours. And they're great starting points for touring the holy sites.
With accommodations ranging from Spartan to elegant, most are reasonably priced under $100, a bargain compared to big-city Israeli hotels.
And they're conveniently located, as well.
There are about 25 kibbutzim with inns throughout Israel, situated everywhere from the green hills in the north to the arid desert in the south, near the major holy sites and overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee.
Kibbutz in Hebrew means a collection or community (members are called kibbutzniks). The first was started by eight Socialist pioneers in 1909. Today more than 100,000 people live in 250 kibbutz villages in Israel.
The summertime, when it never rains, is prime time to visit Israel. And, of course, summertime is when pilgrims and visitors find their way to the holy sites connected with Abraham, Muhammad and Jesus. Summer is when you'll find a group of born-again Christians from Tennessee passing a group of Jewish teen-agers from Manhattan who just passed some Israeli Arabs, all on their way to visit holy sites.
For travelers planning a trip to Israel this summer, it's worth considering a stay at one or more of the kibbutz inns as an adventure. During a recent visit, I sampled three kibbutz guest houses and found them to be places where I could relax and find the soul of Israel at the same time.
On the way back from Eilat, Israel's headquarters for coral reef scuba diving on the Red Sea, I made my first kibbutz stopover at Ein Gedi. Located in the Judean Desert, the lowest spot on Earth (where King Solomon is said to have composed the Song of Songs), the kibbutz is reached by driving along a winding mountain road.
On the shores of the Dead Sea, guests immerse themselves in the spa's sulfur pools (you can go nude in the segregated pools), slathering on the mineral-rich black mud from head to toe. In the Dead Sea itself, bathers can sit up in the super-salty water and read a newspaper. Just beyond lie the mountains of Jordan.
The kibbutz here is built on a freshwater oasis. The paths leading to the 120 guest cabins and the rest of the kibbutz are crammed with different kinds of tropical trees--rosebushes, jacarandas, even a baobab tree of "Little Prince" fame, a gift from Africa. Ein Gedi guests were lounging around the large swimming pool, set right into the mountain with a sea view, while nearby, others played basketball, miniature golf and soccer.
The air-conditioned rooms, which range from $66 a night for a single in the low season to about $100 a night per couple in the high season, have bathrooms, a coffee machine and patio area. Guests eat in their own kosher dining room.
The bulletin board in the main lobby offered musical evenings, spa massages and a visit to "Zalman's Cactus Garden--1,000 varieties."
Among the area's other attractions are the cable car to Masada (the mountaintop fortress where Jewish Zealots revolted against Rome in AD 66); Nahal David desert canyon, where mountain goats roam within reach and David's Waterfall awaits to refresh at the end; the cliffs of Metzoke Dragot, run by Kibbutz Mitzpeh Shalem, and ancient Jericho.
Next, I visited Mitzpeh Rachel, the hotel located at Kibbutz Ramat Rachel. Overlooking the grave site of the biblical Rachel, the kibbutz was once on the outskirts of Jerusalem, marking the pre-1967 border with Jordan. Today, the city's residential neighborhoods have nearly reached the kibbutz gates, and Ramat Rachel is an easy 20-minute bus trip from Jerusalem's central station.
Sweeping his hand across the panoramic view from one of the guest rooms, hotel marketing manager Hillel Fine boasted, "This is the only hotel in Israel and in the world with views of Bethlehem and the Dome of the Rock." Indeed, thousands of years of history lie within view of the kibbutz--Jesus' birthplace of Bethlehem, Mt. Scopus and the area of the Old City, with its Jewish, Arab and Christian quarters that draw visitors from around the world.
The kibbutz hotel has 100 rooms (from a $52 single in low season to $99 double in high season), a restaurant and a conference center. Its attractions are a swimming pool and a park with twisting slides of swooshing water. There is also a playground, tennis court and the archeological site of a 2,500-year-old Byzantine palace.
Further north, in Israel's Galilee region, I dropped in on Nof Ginnosar, situated on the Sea of Galilee. In contrast to the desert or stony Jerusalem, the Galilee is set among rolling green hills.
Kibbutz Ginnosar's 170 rooms, similar to the others in having all the basic comforts, cost from $55 for a single in the off-season to $88 per double in high season. Separately, it has a building with zimmerim , rooms for low-budget travelers. They cost about $50 per room for up to four people.
Although its pool is under construction, the kibbutz has its own private, grassy beach, with swimming, fishing, boat tours or water skiing on Galilee. On the opposite shore is the Golan Heights, with its wineries and hiking spots.
Using Ginnosar as a base, especially with a rented car, it is possible to see the entire region of Galilee, dubbed the Land of the Bible. Here Jesus preached and Jewish scholars wrote the Talmud, Mishna and cabala.
The kibbutz inns attract visitors from all over the world, Jews and non-Jews alike, who find no difference in their welcome from their hosts. Many Christian groups use them as bases for touring religious sites, with a large number of Germans coming each year.
In the land of milk and honey, the kibbutz inns overflow with welcome.
A Collection of Kibbutzim
Where to stay: All of the kibbutz hotels have air-conditioned rooms. Most have room phones, swimming pools and serve kosher food. Prices are quoted according to low and high seasons (the Jewish holidays and July and August). Top prices reach $115 per couple, plus a 15% service charge. There are discounts for children who stay in parents' rooms. There is also a discounted fly-and-drive program for staying in seven kibbutz hotels or more. Car rental is extra.
Among the recommended kibbutz hotels listed by the Israel Hotels Reservations Center, which runs the kibbutz inns:
Ein Gedi. Guest house at the foot of the Judean Mountains overlooking the Dead Sea; sulfur springs, spa, miniature golf, swimming, soccer; 120 rooms. Ein Gedi Holiday Village for campers on shore of Dead Sea; one- and two-bedroom portable homes, campgrounds.
Ein Gev. Eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee; private beach; lakeside fish restaurant specializes in the Galilee's own St. Peter's fish; the Kinnereth Sailing Co. leads sea tours; 114 holiday homes.
Gesher Haziv. On the northern Mediterranean Coast in the western Galilee, with access to its own beach, near the Rosh Hanikra cliffs; 48 rooms.
Ha'on. On the Sea of Galilee; water sports, private beach, ostrich farm; 14 holiday cottages.
Kalia. 30 minutes from Jerusalem on the northern part of the Dead Sea; five minutes from beach, water park, tourist center on the Qumran caves, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.
Metzoke Dragot. Desert tour village in the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea; courses in mountain climbing, rappelling; 44 rooms.
Mitzpeh Rachel. Overlooking the Judean Desert, Herodion, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Heated pool, water slide, sauna and fitness center, tennis, meeting rooms; 100 rooms.
Nachsholim. On the Mediterranean at the foothills of Mt. Carmel; on-site center for nautical and regional archeology; near Caesarea, Arab Druse villages and the wine cellars of Zichron Ya'akov; 80 rooms.
Nes Amim. International Christian village north of Acre in western Galilee; European non-kosher kitchen, pool, botanical gardens; 40 rooms.
Nof Ginnosar. Western shore of the Sea of Galilee outside Tiberias; lakeside beach, swimming, kayaking, sailing, fishing; Museum of the Galilee on site; 170 rooms.
For more information: Contact the Israel Hotels Reservation Center, 20 S. Van Brunt St., Englewood, N.J. 07631, (800) 552-0141 or (201) 816-0830. Call the Tel Aviv office locally at 03-523-0527.