At One Kibbutz, Special Needs Meet Socialism

The community in northern Israel brings people with disorders like Down syndrome and autism together for labor, leisure and love.

Kibbutz life isn’t what it used to be. Gone are the communal dining rooms, the children’s houses, the Swedish volunteers getting chatted up in the pub and the committee working out which member’s turn it is to use the communal car. Gone too, arguably, is the dedication to mutual aid and social justice, the sense of shared purpose, the renunciation of private property and, well, the actual communal living that was the bedrock of the whole project to begin with.

But there are exceptions. And Kishorit, a small kibbutz of 150 members perched on the hills of the Western Galilee, is one of them.

Okay, there are no Swedish volunteers in sight, but this is a place of collective living in the true sense of the word. It's a place based on equality and cooperation in both production and consumption that aims to live by the idea that "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."

And, speaking of needs, there is another reason Kishorit is unique. Besides being a throwback to the long-gone days of the pioneers sweating it out together in the orange groves – this kibbutz also has an unusual membership requirement. All of Kishorit’s members are people with special needs – diagnosed with the likes of Asperger syndrome, schizophrenia, Down syndrome and autism.

The 'in crowd'

"I was living at home and I had no friends. I was different. I felt I had messed up my life," says Mark, a 25 year old new immigrant from New Jersey with clear brown eyes and a hint of a beard, who became a member of Kishorit three years ago. "I didn’t know if there was anywhere for me to go."

"You might not notice it right now," he says with a lopsided grin, "but trust me – I have trouble with my social skills."

Back home, Mark had rolled from regular education into special education and into trouble. He would, by his own admission, have fits of anger and was usually bored, falling fast asleep in school. He wanted friends and something to do, he says, but could not manage to find either. His parents were concerned. His sister, who lives in Herzliya, knew of Kishorit and helped find a place for Mark.

"He was shy when he first got here," says fellow kibbutz member Shiri, a 35 year old from Kfar Sava who has become Mark’s best friend. "But the thing about being here is that everyone has some of their own problems, so it's easier to get along. We accept each other."

"Even if you are an annoying person, you might make some friends here," says Mark, whose mobile phone keeps buzzing as he talks. It’s his "crowd" ringing, he explains. They are calling to tell him to stop lingering in the dining hall and come outside to hang out.

"Last week," Mark relays, telling his friends on the phone to "hold tight," "I went up to two people and I said, 'If you need help finding friends – I can help you.'" They didn’t even answer him, he says, but he was glad he did it. "They looked kind of lost," he shrugs. "And I am pretty popular here."

"This place gives you a chance," says Shiri.

Living off the land

Founded in 1997 by Shuki Levinger, a social worker, and Yael Shilo, a textile artist looking for a way to help her special needs stepson, Kishorit started small, with four members, four staff members and the simple, but ambitious, dream of creating a home for special needs adults who wanted to live independent and productive lives.

"We see this as a place that provides members the sense of dignity, autonomy and love they would receive in their parents' home," says Shira Reifman, Kishorit’s Director of Resource Development. "As well as some needed guidance." And for parents, Reifman continues, Kishorit provides "peace of mind" that their children will be cared for, as they themselves get older.

Today, some 150 kibbutz members live and work here alongside close to 175 staffers and volunteers. The community includes two nurses, a consulting physiatrist and seven social workers who meet regularly with members. A family doctor, dentist and cosmetologist all make thrice-weekly visits.

Every kibbutz member is assigned work duty – be it in the laundry room, the kitchen or in one of the community’s ten work centers. The centers, which are all headed by outside professionals, range from an organic goat farm (the largest in the country, with 1,500 goats); to a chicken coop, which produces 400,000 free-range eggs a year; to a toy factory producing handmade pastel-colored toys for tots, to a dog kennel where champion miniature schnauzers, sold all over Europe, are bred.

Filling out the picture are an organic cheese factory, a 1.5-acre organic vegetable garden, a bakery, a winery, an olive grove and oil press and a communications center, which produces TV programs for a local cable station.

While some of these businesses turn a profit, especially the goat farm and the schnauzer breeding, the vast majority of funds for running the kibbutz come from the government, through the national insurance system. The rest comes from private donations. Families of members that can afford to do so are asked to contribute generously. Those who cannot afford it pay nothing.

What's not to like?

In between teaching canines to heel and putting wheels on baby-blue wooden tractors, Kishorit members are encouraged to take part in the array of activities on offer. No one is required to do anything. But for those so inspired, there are soccer and basketball games out on the playing fields, yoga and karate classes at the gym and video games, cookies and coffee over at the kibbutz club.

Transport into the nearest town of Carmiel is also available to anyone who wants to get out, and there are a few members who own cars. Members come and go from the kibbutz freely, although there is system of checking in and out. Stipends of a few hundred shekels a month are dispersed evenly among members, as pocket money.

At night, everyone heads to simple, little two-or-three-room houses, where members either live alone, with a friend or, if they so desire, with a romantic partner. Shiri, for example, recently married her boyfriend Yaron, whom she met here – and the two moved into a larger kibbutz unit. Mark was the guest of honor at their wedding.

Relationship counseling and sex education is provided, aimed, Reifman says, at driving home the weight of the responsibility of starting a family. To date, no babies have been born on the kibbutz.

With studies classifying about 13 percent of the world's population as having "special needs," and with far from enough satisfying options in terms of independent living available to this large community, Kishorit draws applications from around Israel and beyond.

Interest in Kishorit is, in fact, so great that the board is reluctant to allow reports about the place to appear in the press, as every instance of exposure inevitably brings hundreds of new inquires about joining. Places do open up, but not often – as many, if not most, members choose to live out their lives here.

"Turning families down is heartbreaking," says Reifman. "Ultimately, we expect the community to grow to approximately 250 members … but we want to manage the growth carefully in order to preserve the strong sense of the community."

One expansion that is underway involves the establishment of a small sister-community here for Arabs with special needs. To be called Al-Fanara, or, "The Lighthouse," it is being built on the grounds of the kibbutz and will send its members to work alongside the kibbutzniks at the vocational centers and to socialize with them during leisure-time activities. But it will preserve Arabic culture, including language, gender separation and holidays. Al-Fanara is projected to have some 40 residents and will open its doors next year.

"They will like it here," says Mark, as he hugs Shiri goodbye and heads out to see his other friends. "All people who need some extra help would like it here."