The Good Life, on a Kibbutz

From little more than agrarian nursing homes for their aged founders, these communities are reinventing themselves

Dan Cohen
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Dan Cohen

A hush has fallen on the kibbutzim, after years of stampedes by young families seeking homes. Potential buyers are still trickling in but the pace has slowed, for two main reasons. One is that the first phase of the expansion drive at some of the kibbutzim has ended. The other is that the kibbutzim are trying to rebuild from another direction: to bring in people seeking membership, not merely land for homes - prodigal children of veteran members, for instance, or newcomers seeking a more pastoral life, a safer place for their children and far from the rat race of the cities.

It is true that when it comes to keeping their land and water and dairy quotas, expansion drives (merely selling homes to outsiders ) won't help them. When a kibbutz has to do a head-count for the authorities, it isn't allowed to factor in people living on its land who don't belong to the agricultural cooperative. The kibbutzim have to find other solutions to keep their subsidies, hence their hope to lure back long-lost offspring. But there is the constant demand from city folk seeking a different life. Some kibbutzim have heeded that siren call of cash, and hope for more.

Kibbutz in Israel.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

A moment of background: Kibbutzim began to expand, building new homes on their land, but not necessarily by choice. Buffeted badly as their economic model proved nonviable, by the late 1970s many kibbutzim had descended into economic collapse, which was followed by an unfavorable debt arrangement.

Bruised and battered, the kibbutzniks had to dump their own myth of the idealistic agricultural collective. They also found themselves reaping another bitter fruit entirely of their own making: children leaving and not returning. The next generation was moving away. The kibbutz population dwindled and aged, threatening to turn at least some of the collectives into little more than agrarian nursing homes.

The kibbutzim had certain assets, though. The underlying idea, that man should work the land and live in brotherhood, freedom and equality, created forces that fed excellent education systems, a wealth of cultural activities and the platform for rethinking the model.

The natural first step, helped by these assets, would be to recall the lost children. As kibbutzim headed for privatization, those young people realized they had an opportunity to return to hearth and home, without the communality that the original kibbutzim had offered. They could come back without mucking out the cow-house.

Moreover, moshavim were no alternative for people like these. Unlike kibbutzim, the moshavim were focused on personal profit, not the collective good; they generally did not develop advanced education and cultural systems that could attract young families and former kibbutz children.

Builders pounce, a little

As for expanding and selling homes to outsiders, thereby creating the critical mass of a small town, developing the idea was one thing. Developing the land was another.

For the stronger kibbutzim in or near central Israel, demand quickly outstripped supply and work went quickly. Construction companies sniffed the wind and pounced, offering not only to plan and build but to market. A lot of the kibbutzim liked that, which saved them much headache.

Generally the expansions are on the margins of the communities. Sometimes, the roads to them don't even pass through the kibbutz. But inevitably, the words meet: the old and the new. TheMarker set out to see some options for people yearning to live nearer the land at today's kibbutzim.

Adamit: Like in Europe

Adamit lies on the Galilean hills of the same name. On one side is the nature preserve Nahal Betzet and to the north lies Nahal Namer. The road to the kibbutz is beautiful and the view from the expansion neighborhood is panoramic, from Rosh Hanikra to Haifa Bay. A small forest lies below.

The kibbutz itself is a small one with the traditional chicken coop, orchards and also a metal works, as well as resort cabins for tourists. The expansion lies on its western side.

The new neighborhood, a built-your-own-home effort, is laid out in concentric circles going down a hillside.

The area is hilly and verdant, the weather comfortable, and there is a relatively large amount of precipitation: 750 millimeters a year, making it rather like a European village. The proximity to the Nahariya train station and the Tefen industrial center are two other advantages.

Clean air and panoramic views at the new houses in Kibbutz Adamit, built on hills in the Galilee. All that and the potential for tax breaks for home builders, too.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

As Adamit is defined as a national priority area, people building homes there can be eligible for tax breaks.

Kibbutz Ein Dor: practical ecologists

This Lower Galilean biblical venue, so central to the story of King Saul, now hosts a kibbutz by the same name. En route to its expansion area, on the Afula-Kfar Tavor road, one sees round hilltops. At their foot winds the Tavor rivulet. The neighborhood itself to the south of the kibbutz, by the pool, lies among grapevines and almond and olive trees. The houses are painted in light colors, or brown and gray.

Ecological construction, but not to a fanatic degree, is all the rage at Ein Dor, the latter-day version of the biblical town.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

The expansion even has a name: "The ecological neighborhood." But the "ecological touches" are individual, not collective: The people there call themselves practical ecologists, not fanatics. Windows are placed to maximize sunlight and economize on energy. Pipelines are constructed to maximize water recycling. Organic garbage is composted.

At Ein Dor, unlike some places, the kibbutz views the homebuyers as an integral part of the community and they have a say in municipal and community decisions, says Philip Holi, who markets the expansion.

Kfar Haruv: Founded by Anglo immigrants

Kfar Haruv, or "carob village," lies to the south of the Golan, east of Lake Kinneret. The expansion lies by the kibbutz's fields on the east. To the north are the Susita nature preserve and Nahal Pik.

The kibbutz was founded by English speakers and is economically strong. It has orchards, cow barns, traditional crops, lodging for tourists, and also A.R.I. Kfar Haruv, an industrial plant that makes fluid control accessories. The weather is comfortable, compared with the Jordan Valley, and it isn't as chilly as the Golan. The expansion neighborhood lies along the cliffs, to the north of the kibbutz. Buyers can choose from a range of home styles.

Kissufim: Peaceful, aside from the rockets

Kissufim is a small kibbutz in the western Negev. Its population is aging and it's anxious to grow. Founded by immigrants from the United States and South America, it has a large chicken farm, a "mehadrin" dairy farm and 600 dunams of avocado trees.

While the border area has been quiet of late, the proximity to the Gaza Strip hasn't helped it grow. The odd rocket attack notwithstanding, Kissufim has kept its tagline, "Kibbutz Kissufim - a quiet place in the western Negev."

The kibbutz is transversed by wadis banked by yellow hills of loess soil. It is surrounded by the Kissufim forest. The entire area has become a favorite among bicycle riders, who show up in droves on the weekends.

Kibbutz Hulata.: Not a fishing village any more. It began its expansion by wooing back prodigal children who had jumped ship from the drained lakebed for life in the cities.Credit: Yaron Kaminski

Hulata, from fish to fowl

Kibbutz Hulata was founded as a fishing village. The lake was drained in the 1950s to free up arable land, and the residents turned to farming. Nestling between the Naftali hills in the west and the Golan Heights to the east, it lies in a valley crossed by the Jordan River.

Homes in Kibbutz Miflasim, a believer in the community neighborhood, not only consisting of its original founders but of the cityfolk who come to live there too.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

Hulata began by wooing back prodigal children. They were allocated land to build housing (which the returning children had to pay for themselves ) and then rejoined the kibbutz as proper members. Dozens of prodigals returned in the last couple of years, and although they rejoined the kibbutz, they are allowed to keep their jobs outside.

Having declared their effort to regain the lost generation a success, the kibbutz then looked outward more broadly, and began a second expansion drive. It is offering land in two areas, one site with 20 lots that had housed a cowshed, and the other nearby.

Lior Cnaani, the kibbutz member in charge of the expansion, describes Hulata as a "pluralistic kibbutz." It has members from all ethnicities, backgrounds, and parts of Israel, some religiously observant, some not.

Miflasim: Decisions are made together

Miflasim was one of the first kibbutzim to create community neighborhoods. The kibbutz all but collapsed in the crisis of the 1990s, which led to two decisions. One was to expand. The first new homes went up in 2000; the contractor offered eight basic types of houses to buyers. Now Miflasim lets buyers build as they please, too.

Founded in 1949 by immigrants from South America, Miflasim is in the northwest Negev, near Sderot and the Gaza Strip. It has orchards, cowsheds, chickens and a metal works. Miflasim's aim was to create a sort of hybrid kibbutz-community and it has done so, says Itai Zuri, a son of founders who lives in the expansion zone. Now the neighborhood has 85 families, who came in three expansion waves.



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