Living Out Their Ideals on an Eight-floor Urban Kibbutz

The members of Kibbutz Mishol gave up on the whole rural idea and moved into an abandoned immigrant absorption center in Upper Nazareth.

Kibbutz Mishol doesn’t have any fields or fish ponds, sprawling lawns or looming water towers. What it has instead are corridors, filled with the odors of clothes being cleaned and food being fried.

There are also some plants, toys and group photos in the ugly, gray and cumbersome building in Upper Nazareth that served as an immigrant absorption center in the 1970s and now functions as the living quarters of an urban kibbutz that was founded 15 years ago but has not had a collective home until now.

Its 120 members, including 40 children, are graduates of Hamahanot Ha’olim, a socialist-Zionist youth movement that lists its aims as “building a just, egalitarian society that lives in peace with its neighbors.”

They moved to the eight-story building in September, after years of living in rented apartments in Nazareth and the nearby city of Migdal Ha’emek. It was founded after several of the members completed their military service in Nahal, a program that originally combined Israel Defense Forces service with the establishment of new agricultural settlements or volunteer work, and wanted to live out their pioneering ideals.

“This was a crossroads for the youth movements, a question of survival or extinction,” said Mishol member Nir Harburger, who also heads Tikkun, a center for education and social change that is also affiliated with the youth movement. “When we realized this, we chose to break our ties with the rural mode of a kibbutz and to try to create something new.”

‘This was our dream’

The kibbutz members began searching for a communal living space eight years ago. They were unable to come up with a suitable location, though, until they linked up with the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee, which was in the process of locating abandoned buildings in the north and south of the country and finding inhabitants for them.

The absorption center was abandoned five years ago. When new immigrants lived there, it was divided into 110 tiny apartments in which entire families lived for months. The smallest apartments were 26 square meters, or 280 square feet, and the largest were just 35 square meters, or 377 square feet.

The Jewish Agency and the development ministry told the kibbutz members they would allocate 5 million shekels ($1.4 million) for renovating the 6,000-square-meter building – and, most importantly, would give them the right to redesign the building to suit their needs.

The kibbutz agreed to rent the building for five years.

“This was our dream, and we were very optimistic,” said Harburger.

Over the course of three years, four of the kibbutz members took on the task of recording everyone’s living requirements and figuring out how to distribute people within the oddly shaped building, which is built like a pyramid in which each floor looks different.

The Shamir design firm in Migdal Ha’emek renovated the building, but that was the easy part, said Ayelet Hahn, the kibbutz member who was responsible for the complex project of planning the move, which involved figuring out how to combine smaller apartments into units that would suit families, couples and singles.

“There’s a thin line you have to be careful not to cross when you’re making decisions for other people,” she said. “Most people didn’t plan their apartments and went along with our decisions. We worked in two stages – first deciding who goes where, and then deciding what the apartments would look like. Getting the architect’s plan after that was a simpler matter.”

Back in the corridors, it turns out the clean laundry smell comes from the washing machines located in the building’s communal areas.

The kibbutz, whose adult members are aged 28-44, consists of eight groups, each from a different Nahal cohort. Each group has its own floor and common area.

“The architect kept asking why we don’t put all the family units together and put the singles units in their own section, since that would be easier for everyone,” said Hahn. “For us it was more important to stay together as a group.”

The fourth floor houses the Zebra group, and the names of all the families residing there are listed at the entrance. The entrance walls are adorned with photos of kibbutz members from days long gone. The group shares a large common space containing a sitting area, a work space, a small library, a kitchen and a dining area.

“Everyone’s at work now, but if you came in the evening you’d hear the frying pans rattle,” said Harburger as he showed a visitor around.

The bottom floor contains the kibbutz offices and a communal library, as well as a room that serves as a cafe and dining room for people working in the building during the day, and as an entertainment venue in the evening. There is also a music room and a child care center for children from the adjacent neighborhood as well as those in the kibbutz, and rooms that are used for summer camp. The roof, from which the city and the Jezreel Valley can be seen, has not been renovated due to insufficient funds, but there are nice playgrounds and an area that is slated to become a garden. “We’re only at the beginning,” said one kibbutz member.

Model for affordable housing

These kibbutz members have established a model of affordable housing that could also work for other urban dwellers. At Mishol, family apartments are larger than they were when new immigrants lived there, but at 70 to 85 square meters (up to 915 square feet), they are still pretty small. Items that don’t fit inside are placed in corridors or in the communal living area, which is also used for events that can’t take place in the apartments because of space constraints.

Similar ideas for housing solutions are cropping up in academic circles due to the housing shortage.

“As far as architectural and financial considerations, we are practicing the art of scrimping,” said Harbuger.

Kibbutz Mishol operates on an economic model similar to that of other kibbutzim, at least before many of them became privatized. Most of its members are involved in teaching, some working at informal education programs run by Tikkun or Hamahanot Ha’olim. “We believe in communal work that strengthens our sense of solidarity,” said Harburger.

The work does not bring in much money. It all goes into a communal fund and distributed to each of the eight groups, which then distribute the money to members. But that could change in the future.

“There is nothing sacred about this model,” said Harburger. “We’re different from what we were five years ago, and will probably change over the next few years.”
There are other urban kibbutz models similar to Mishol that were established more than 20 years ago. Kibbutz Tammuz was founded in 1987 and its members live in several adjacent buildings in Beit Shemesh. Kibbutz Beit Yisrael, founded in the early 1990s, operates out of a former absorption center in the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem. And Ayalim is a group that has more than 800 students and alumni living and volunteering in more than 30 towns in the Negev and Galilee.

“The last 15 years have witnessed a revival of youth movements, with graduates opting for a communal lifestyle,” said Harburger. “Most of them don’t live in buildings such as these since it’s hard to find one.”

As far as social aspects of the initiative go, members are generally satisfied with their transition to a cooperative lifestyle.

“It’s true that singles wanted to occupy the upper floors,” said Hahn. “But overall it’s quite amazing, since it’s not easy for people to enter a mind-set in which they know they are going to live here but can’t choose everything they want, such as the color of their ceramic tiles. Ultimately, people took lower floors if that was the decision. People cooperated really well.”

Yael Engelhart