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Why kibbutzim are thriving again

  • KibbutzDegania
If there was ever a quintessential symbol of the Jewish State’s founding pioneers, it is the kibbutz – a phenomenon found only in Israel, and as intrinsic to the fabric of society as the Israeli flag.
by TALI FEINBERG | Apr 19, 2018

These communal agricultural communities drained the swamps, made the desert bloom, defended Israel’s borders and hoped to build a utopia of equality. Yet in the 1980s, the kibbutz movement saw a downfall that almost obliterated it from society.

“The pioneering socialist and Zionist spirit that drove the movement in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s ran head-on into the consumerist, free-market 1980s and came off worse,” explains journalist Maayan Lubell.

“The kibbutzim were hit hard by a financial crisis that gripped Israel in the mid-1980s, and youngsters abandoned the communal dream and headed to cities. Kibbutzim found themselves failing,” she writes.

“But the last few years have seen a surprising turnaround, with young families seeking to escape the high cost of living and alienation they find in cities for a cheaper, rural lifestyle in a close-knit community.”

Indeed, Dotan Segal, a former shaliach to Cape Town, says these were some of the reasons he returned to Kibbutz Tzora – known as a “South African kibbutz” – three years ago: “I initially left for my studies and travels. The kibbutz was going through fundamental changes during those years and I guess that I was too, in a way. I lived in Sderot for a few years, and later on in Tel Aviv.

“When I met Shirly, my wife, we both knew we wanted to live in some sort of a community. Shirly was living in Midreshet Sde Boker at the time, near Kibbutz Sde Boker, but she is originally from Tel Aviv. Later, we moved to a moshav (communal village) near Tzora and realised we didn’t want to live in the city.

“When Shirly was pregnant with Nov (who is now three years old), we realised that Tzora is a community that consists of a lot of our core principles and is a great place to raise children. The fact that my family is living in Tzora was another incentive, of course.

“When I went to my first Asefa (kibbutz meeting) as a chaver (kibbutz member) three years ago, it was clear that we made the right choice. Chaverim were talking about mutual responsibility in the community, and it was obvious that the decision-making process of the community is still based on values and ideals, not only on money. This, in spite of all the changes the kibbutz has gone through, and still is going through.

“I am proud of the place and community we are part of today, and feel that it’s an amazing place for children to grow up in. We are still dealing with difficult changes and fundamental questions as a community, which is not always easy. But the ideal of social solidarity, as opposed to alienation, leads and unifies the chaverim.”

Estelle Geva, who made aliyah to Kibbutz Nir Eliyahu in 1975, has witnessed both the highs and lows of the movement. “Over the past 40 years, the kibbutz has changed a lot... We are a kibbutz where we have hired labour; we do not have refet (cows) or lul (chickens) any longer; our dining hall is run by a catering company and is open only on weekdays for lunch; and we are privatised.

“Yet there is still a feeling of communal life during the chagim and in the educational system of our children. However, there is a difference as most of the carers are not kibbutz members and, of late, there are those who come to take care of the children from the neighbouring Arab villages.

“It is wonderful to have one’s children and grandchildren part of the society. I have worked in the kibbutz plastics factory for 43 years and still enjoy going to work, passing green fields and the animal farm. Kibbutz life, no matter how it has changed, is my way of life.”

Just last month, The Jerusalem Post reported that Kibbutz Degania (Israel’s founding kibbutz) is enjoying a revival: “At 360 members, its population is the highest it has ever been. Once built on radical ideals, Israel’s roughly 260 kibbutzim have emerged from a century-long journey and crippling economic downturns. Yet they have emerged as strong institutions balancing collectivism and capitalism, as well as family and community.”

Meanwhile, in October last year, The Wall Street Journal also reported that “some young Israelis are now again drawn to the kibbutzim – some, to secure cheaper housing outside hot markets like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; others, to find a sense of community that can feel absent in impersonal cities. The population of the kibbutzim has increased by nearly 50 000 over the past 10 years, according to the Kibbutz Movement, and the average age of the movement’s members has started falling.

“Only about 40 kibbutzim still share resources and give equal allowances, as envisioned in the original model. Most of these communities had created successful businesses that helped them maintain the communal way of living,” reports the paper.

One such community is Kibbutz Sdot Yam, on Israel’s central coast between Tel Aviv and Haifa. Previously a struggling kibbutz, in the 1980s it opened a factory that constructed quartz surfaces and Caeser stone tiles, leading to great economic success.

Other kibbutzim are literally branching out into new forms of agriculture. Kibbutz Elifaz and Kibbutz Beit Ha’Emek have begun growing medical marijuana, after the government in February 2017 threw its support behind legislation that would allow the export of the herb for medical purposes.

Nir Lobel, 37, Elifaz’s secretary, told international news company the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the kibbutz voted to get into the medical cannabis business partly because it seemed like a natural way to update the traditional kibbutz ethos – and, hopefully, attract a new generation of members.

“We’re pioneers, and this is a new journey. We’re farmers, and this is agriculture. We care about values, and this is a way to help people who are suffering,” he said.

1 Comment

  1. 1 Alex bronkhorst 01 Jul
    I dreamt about a kibbutz setup for my family and a group of like minded people 28 years ago to become selfsufficient and to earn good money while this group live a healthy natural life with all products un-contaminated. Now I want this to become a reality. I am from South Africa and would  like to talk to a kibbutz expert about their business model/plan.

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