New Members Breathe Life Into Israel's Kibbutzim

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Kibbutz Lehavot Habashan and its expansion neighborhood, December 2014. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Well, it’s not like petitions are demanding that communal living be reinstated at kibbutzim, but nostalgia has been instilling the old movement with new life. More than 80 percent of kibbutzim are taking on new members.

Member – that’s the watchword. The last time kibbutzim tried to bring in new residents, during the 1990s, it was an attempt to extract themselves from dire economic straits. They built new neighborhoods for new residents, and the effort worked.

But rifts developed between veteran kibbutzniks and their new neighbors, who didn’t have equal rights in terms of decision-making.

So in recent years many kibbutzim have brought back the old system; the expansion process has all but ended. Instead, young families are joining kibbutzim not just for the incentive of a house with a view of orchards for just above 1 million shekels ($253,000). They also want to be part of a real kibbutz community.

Ayelet and Alon Barash left Kfar Saba two years ago and took their 8- and 5-year-old daughters north, after Alon began working as a lecturer at the medical school in Safed. They chose Kibbutz Kadarim.

The Barash family on Kibbutz Kadarim, December 2014.Credit: Gil Eliahu

“We weren’t really looking for the title kibbutz member; we wanted to be part of a real community,” says Alon, 42. “Before we moved here, we came for dinners and holidays, and we understood that there was community here.”

So the Barashes forwent a home in an expansion neighborhood in favor of official membership. “The idea was to truly become part of a community, one that didn’t distinguish between members and residents,” he says.

Ayelet, 40, added that as members they have a full say in kibbutz decisions. “Alon is on the kibbutz staff,” she says. “If we were just residents we wouldn’t have a say in the place we live. Here we’re actually part of the kibbutz. You’re involved, you have influence.”

Kibbutz Kadarim is partly privatized but still taxes member’s salaries. Two years later, the couple is very happy with their decision. They say the fact that Kadarim has only about 40 families is an advantage.

“You have closer friends and less-close friends, but in terms of community, sitting together at the holidays is wonderful for us,” says Ayelet. “We don’t have a lot of family in Israel, and this really envelops you, really supports you.”

Another advantage is the cost; for example, the 145-square-meter house that the Barashes built. “For the cost to build here we could maybe have bought an old apartment, three rooms, on the 10th floor with no elevator in Kfar Saba,” Alon says.

Partial membership 

Adi Sofer, 30, and her husband Omri, 32, are in the third phase of the acceptance process at Kibbutz Misgav Am. They’re becoming partial members: They reserve their economic independence.

This means they don’t have to share part of their salaries with the kibbutz, but they don’t reap dividends from shares in kibbutz companies. In the future they might want to be full members, they say.

The Sofers have been renting on the kibbutz since August 2013 “to see what it’s like,” says Adi Sofer, 30. “It was important for us to be members with inside influence – the right to vote on things that aren’t economic, culture – everything that happens here. As soon as you’re a member, things are different.”

But before they can be members, they have to finish the acceptance process. In the meantime, they’ve gotten past the interviews with the acceptance committee and kibbutz secretary. Now they’re in the social-community review, and if there are no surprises, the kibbutz will soon vote on their membership.

“I can’t say I’ve wanted to live on a kibbutz my whole life, but community has always been important to me in a place to live. We came to Misgav Am and fell in love,” says Sofer, noting the good education for the kids and the good cultural events for her and Omri. And it’s not like they're living in Alaska.

“We’re 10 minutes from Kiryat Shmona .... I don’t need for everything to be open 24 hours a day. It’s not a big deal,” she says. “We’ve learn to get used to this lifestyle and routine. I know to buy everything I need in the supermarket so I don’t get stuck on Shabbat.”

A bit more religious

D., a 29-year-old kibbutznik from the north, is glad the expansion-era neighborhood is over, but she isn’t too optimistic. She says her kibbutz — the old part — is home to some 150 families, and the expansion neighborhood houses 100-plus more families. This has caused some tension.

“Initially they just wanted to join the committees, but soon, nothing was like it was,” she says. According to D., the kibbutz movement’s latest annual report shows that more than 90 kibbutzim have growing populations since the end of 2012 — 65 percent of them in the north, 20 percent in the center and 15 percent in the south.

“They’ve changed the education system, the most important thing on the kibbutz,” says D. “I've seen it from the outside and the inside as an educator.”

D. admits that the expansion saved her kibbutz from a tough financial situation, but says the place has changed for the worse.

“The holidays aren’t the same; things are a bit more religious and the kibbutz was never like that,” she says. "Suddenly on Yom Kippur, instead of feeling free enough to go down to the wadi and have a barbecue, there are three synagogues for 50 people.”

G., a 28-year-old resident from a kibbutz in southern Israel, agrees that religion could cause a rift among kibbutz residents. “When the issue of a synagogue came up, things got complicated,” she says, adding that this rift was sealed.

“At our kibbutz, we learned to build great relations; it’s one community that works together in both happy and difficult situations,” she says.

Helpful expansion neighborhoods

Dr. Zeevik Greenberg, a geographer at Tel-Hai Academic College, studied kibbutz expansions for five years. “The kibbutz rediscovered itself because of the expansions,” he says. “The flow of young people into the kibbutz helped it believe in itself as an organization, even if it’s slightly different from the old, historic kibbutz.”

At the same time, Greenberg says that even though it was right to build new communities, no one knew how to forge the partnership. Kibbutzim didn’t know how to deal with the young people living in the expansion neighborhoods who wanted a voice in decision-making — even though they weren’t full members.

“The friction happened because there was no knowledge about how large numbers of new people should be absorbed into the kibbutz, or how to create a partnership with them,” he says.

“Most of the people who came to the kibbutz expansions wanted to enjoy the better quality of life that they knew the kibbutz had to offer, but they were unaware of the significance of that life; for example, the financial implications” — mainly the high cost of education on kibbutzim.

Greenberg says this process caused some antagonism between new residents and long-time members; only later did they seal a true partnership. But this didn’t happen on all kibbutzim, he notes.

“It’s correct to say that the expansion neighborhoods made the kibbutzim more attractive, from the kibbutz’s perspective, as well,” he says.

D. is not as sanguine. She believes that bringing in new members instead of continuing the expansion projects might solve some of the problems, but not all.

“It depends on who gets accepted,” she says. “If it’s the same process they used for the expansion, not much will change under a different name.”

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