Oren Anoch, a coordinator for Kibbutz Erez and Kibbutz Gat in the south, has already stopped counting how many people are on his waiting list to move to one of the two collective communities. He simply can’t keep up. Over the past year and a half, at Kibbutz Erez, which is on the border with the Gaza Strip, about 35 families have moved in, including 30 families with someone who grew up there.
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There are 20 families on the waiting list at Kibbutz Erez, and Gat, which is near the town of Kiryat Gat, has more than 200 families awaiting the chance to live on the kibbutz. Anoch assumes that some of them have already given up waiting.
The waiting lists are the most recent in a series of changes that the kibbutz movement has undergone since the financial crisis it faced in the 1980s. And in recent years, most kibbutzim are accepting new residents only as fully fledged members, with full rights and obligations, rather than as people simply living there. Many of the arrivals are children of the kibbutz who are returning home.
Many kibbutzim simply cannot meet the demand, and it’s not just the wealthy kibbutzim near the center of the country that are a draw, but also smaller collective communities in outlying areas. Kibbutz movement secretary general Nir Meir says every year, on the eve of Shavuot, the number of babies on the kibbutzim is tallied. This year the number exceeded 3,000.
Speaking to Haaretz, Meir attributed the growth to a number of factors. One is that the era in which kibbutzim were allowing non-members to move in, living in new neighborhoods that were being built, but not really fully part of the kibbutz community, is over. At the same time, the kibbutz movement extracted itself from its earlier financial crisis and changes on kibbutzim “made the way of life a lot more attractive,” Meir asserted.
“We would have taken in a lot more people if they hadn’t interfered with us,” Meir said, explaining that obtaining building permits requires a lot of government bureaucracy and that the country’s housing shortage has also affected kibbutzim.
Kibbutz Ma’agan Michael, which ran out of land for housing, recently decided to build a six-story residential building instead of low-rise housing. Meir says this approach isn’t ideal but it’s better than refusing admission to new residents. Kibbutzim in the center of the country will probably have to take similar steps, he said.
Most returnees head to the periphery
Yaron Lindman, who heads the Kibbutz Movement’s intake department, said the return of the younger generation to the kibbutz is particularly pronounced in outlying parts of Israel, where there is still room to build and where costs are lower. Even if not all of the country’s 270 kibbutzim are experiencing similar growth, Lindman says, “All of them are involved with intake. It’s the main issue on kibbutzim, after years when it was not possible and there was a lack of demand.”
“We are really happy,” says Vered Shpirir, 31, who returned about two years ago to Kibbutz Erez, after living for five years at Kibbutz Nitzanim, where her husband, Or, grew up. “It’s one of the best decisions that I have ever made.” While acknowledging that she preferred Nitzanim, further north up the Mediterranean coast, for its location, she said, “I’m happy that my daughter has been growing up here, [happy] with the neighbors, with the atmosphere.”
Anoch expressed the view that the return to kibbutzim is a product of what he calls the “ideal or almost ideal way of life” that they offer, to a large extent due to the education that the kibbutz movement provides, also because kibbutzim offer homes on a plot of land rather than apartment living.
As collective communities, kibbutzim in their earlier years were committed to collective ownership of virtually all of the property in the community, along with the payment of equal wages. For much of the kibbutz movement’s existence, children also slept in children’s housing rather than with their parents.
In recent years, there has been a major shift in many kibbutzim away from that decree of collective life. In kibbutz nomenclature it is called privatization, but Anoch said that despite privatization and differential wages, kibbutzim have maintained a commitment to community and to mutual responsibility.
Kibbutz Gat still has an active communal dining room, Anoch notes, and there is interest in reviving the dining room at Erez as well. “The kibbutz is returning to what it once was, without the bad things,” he says, adding jokingly: “In the end, they’ll revive the children’s houses.”
Liat Mack, who grew up at Kibbutz Mevo Hama in the Golan Heights, and her husband, Harel, who is from Kibbutz Hanita, moved to Mevo Hama in 2011 after living in Jerusalem for several years. Mack says they began considering the idea when planning for a second child. (Now they have three daughters). “I had a feeling that we didn’t want to live in a city anymore,” she said.
Mevo Hama had built a new residential area with 53 units, some 10 of which were meant for former residents of the kibbutz. Now Mack and several other people who grew up on the kibbutz are working on plans for a new 28-unit neighborhood for returning kibbutz residents. Even though no marketing efforts have begun on the project, 13 families have already signed up to move to what Mack called “a neighborhood with a kibbutz character, affordable housing and kibbutz values.”
Mack’s husband, Harel, worked long hours in Jerusalem as a chef, and Liat found herself raising their oldest daughter alone, responsibilities that came in addition to her job at the Israel Museum. The kibbutz welcomed her family with open arms. Now she is working at Kinneret College, at the southern edge of the Sea of Galilee. Her husband is working as a maintenance staffer at Mapal Plastics, a kibbutz movement factory, and is studying electrical engineering. The kibbutz is covering his tuition.
On Monday afternoon this week, she was taking a walk on the beautiful kibbutz grounds, from which there is almost a bird’s-eye view of the entire Sea of Galilee. They were joined on their walk by Liat’s father, Ted. One of the major advantages of her return to the kibbutz, Liat said, has been being near her parents. And one of her daughter’s nursery school teachers was Liat’s own teacher.
Of the nine children in Mack’s high school graduating class, five have returned to Mevo Hama. Mack says even a greater proportion of those in the classes behind her have also returned. “One classmate lives catty-corner to me and two houses away is another classmate,” she recounts. “In my middle daughter’s nursery school, everyone is a child of a classmate of mine.”
In the past, Mack explains, the perception was that the ex-members who returned to the kibbutz were those who hadn’t been successful on the outside. “But now that’s absolutely not true. They’re returning from a different perspective, from strength and a desire for a quality of life.”
Southwest of Mevo Hama, Kibbutz Mizra in the Jezreel Valley, has taken in about 100 new members in the past year, all of whom are families of people who grew up on the kibbutz, which has a waiting list of about 130. A 31-unit neighborhood is being built at Mizra and will be occupied entirely by returning kibbutz families. Another, more varied neighborhood with 121 housing units is also in the works.
Kibbutz business manager Erez Egozi, who is coordinating the construction of the new neighborhoods, looks to the situation among Mizra’s pre-school children as an indicator of the changes occurring: “I was born in 1968 and when I was in kindergarten, there were 18 of us. My 16-year-old daughter had seven in her class and now the kindergarten , which we have renovated, has 35 children.”
Kibbutz Deganya Aleph, the first kibbutz, hadn’t received new members for about 20 years; until a few years ago, none of the younger generation who had left returned. Unlike other kibbutzim, no new residential neighborhoods were built there. Tamar Gal-Sarai, who is responsible for culture and for the intake of new members at Deganya Aleph, said the kibbutz members deliberated for a long time about the future of their collective community. “The second generation lived in the large shadow of the first generation. The third generation understood that they needed to continue to change, and it took them a lot of time to decide which values they wanted to preserve.”
In 2005, the members approved revised bylaws that were more in keeping with new-style kibbutzim. Gal-Sarai explained that the new bylaws provide that every child on the kibbutz is automatically accepted as a member at age 18, with 10 years to decide whether to remain as a fully-fledged member or to waive membership rights, “although they are told that the door is always open.”
In 2011, Deganya Aleph began receiving returning children and their families. “We understood that there was a growing group of people who are dear to us, and we said that they would be accepted for membership based on the old bylaws. Four families and 12 spouses were accepted, which was an exciting show of growth. Then another five spouses were accepted, and now there are another three families and four couples on the application track. There are about 10 people who grew up on the kibbutz and their spouses waiting.”
Neta Frankel, 41, left Deganya Aleph in 1999 for three years to pursue studies and spent most of the subsequent period living with her husband, Lior, in Netanya. They returned to the kibbutz in 2011 with their two children and now have a third. “We didn’t return because we were in distress. On the contrary,” she said. “We wanted to be close to family, and so the children would grow up as I did, with nature.”
Frankel calls the return to Deganya Aleph “one of the smartest things we have done,” but it also came at a price. Lior, who is in the industrial engineering and management field, works at the other end of Israel’s north, in Haifa, “an hour and 15 minutes away on a good day.”
When they first moved to the kibbutz, she worked as a juvenile probation officer in Safed, which also involved a long commute. “There are things that are hard – coming home late from work, the wait for construction [of a home],” she says, “but there is no comparison in our quality of life and what we had in the city. It’s great for me to have my children grow up as I did.”