"A home is not only an apartment - a home is also land, roots." These were words that Eliyahu Schwartzman, a participant in the "First Home in the Homeland" project at Kibbutz Hukuk, waited to say when he reached the top of the tower of the historical Hukuk fortress. Built by the Palmach pre-state militia in 1945, on the border of the Upper and Lower Galilee, some five kilometers northwest of Lake Kinneret, the fortress marked the beginning of Kibbutz Hukuk.
In late 2002, when the economic crisis in Argentina was at its peak, the kibbutz decided to take in immigrant families from the beleaguered South American country. "I said that the Kibbutz Movement couldn't sit idly by at a time when a part of the Jewish people were in a catastrophic situation," Schwartzman says. "I said then that we had to do all we could with regard to absorption. The Kibbutz Movement is capable and used to it - even in times of change and severe economic hardship. Immigrant absorption is the Kibbutz Movement's finest hour."
Since then, over a period of some 18 months, the small kibbutz (300 residents) has taken in 76 immigrants (22 families) from Latin America; of these, 58 have remained. Over the coming months, Hukuk will take in more families, so that one-quarter of its population will comprise new immigrants.
The "First Home in the Homeland" project - a joint venture of the Kibbutz Movement, the Jewish Agency and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry - began in 1989, and was designed to help with the absorption of young immigrant families. Some 28,000 people (8,000 families) immigrated as part of this project, with 600 families finding their way to kibbutzim.
"The program was designed to give the immigrants a soft landing," explains Yoram Ziv, its director.
The program lasts a year, with the first half dedicated to studying Hebrew, and the second half to involvement in an employment program. Over the years, various training possibilities have become available to the newcomers, including courses for doctors, nurses and plastics technicians. The program has also created special projects for absorbing immigrants from Ethiopia.
On the backdrop of the recent drop in the number of immigrants and the return of some to their countries of origin, the Kibbutz Movement prides itself on the fact that 930 immigrants (256 families) found homes on kibbutzim last year in the framework of the project - 190 families from the Commonwealth of Independent States and Eastern Europe, 54 families from Latin America, and 12 families from Western Europe and the U.S.
"The target for 2004 is 300 additional families, of which 74 will go to kibbutzim this month," says Ziv.
Eduardo and Andrea Vitale came to Hukuk in late 2002 with their two daughters, Corinne and Sophie. "It was really dangerous in Argentina; we thought about the girls and their future, and we decided we were immigrating to Israel, to a kibbutz," recalls Andrea.
"A kibbutz is the only place where you feel protected, in a cocoon," she adds. "We had some kind of an ideal of a kibbutz, and we were a little disappointed with the model of the `new kibbutz,' but this is probably a change that any young society undergoes. It's a crisis, and you emerge from a crisis. We believe in socialism and equality, and a kibbutz is still the closest thing to these ideals. Actually, we and the kibbutz are undergoing changes together."
Andrea, a psychologist by profession, found work as an educational psychologist and is hoping also to work as a clinical psychologist. Eduardo, who worked in computers in Argentina, underwent a course and is now employed at Kibbutz Amiad's plastics factory.
"We are undergoing a tough process that requires courage and patience," Andrea says.
"The absorption of the two girls and the beautiful landscape of Hukuk," the couple agree, "make us want to remain here."
Says Schwartzman, "We have to help the immigrants find employment, to map out the requirements of the area in keeping with the professions of the immigrants. This is the lever for keeping them in the region."
As he comes down the stairs of the tower at the Hukuk fortress, overlooking Safed, the Amud River and the Lower Galilee, Schwartzman, a retired farmer, says: "This is where the immigrants will put down roots. Israel is their home, and they will put down roots here."
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