Kibbutz Life Attracts a New Generation of Urban Refugees

COVID is accelerating the growing interest in the quiet, spaciousness and low costs of rural living, with the old burdens of collectivism no longer a consideration

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The entrance to gated Kibbutz Nirim in Israel's south, November 2019.
The entrance to gated Kibbutz Nirim in Israel's south, November 2019. Credit: Eliyahu Herskowitz

Until two years ago, Roni and Inbar Carmel were Jewish Agency envoys in Vienna. At the end of their tour, they decided to return to a kibbutz and applied to join Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak in the south. Roni is originally from Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood and Inbar grew up on the kibbutz and wanted to return. So while their choice was no coincidence, it also wasn't inevitable.

Two decades ago, when the kibbutz movement was still in crisis, few young kibbutzniks chose to remain when they reached adulthood. For them, the kibbutz, at least in its collectivist version that once had charmed so many, seemed like a relic of the past. But that is no longer the case for many. “I was the one who pushed for the kibbutz,” says Roni. “I felt that it suited me, with the open space, quiet and security.”

Two years later, the Carmels and their two children are living in a rented house in Nir Yitzhak, waiting patiently for their membership application to be accepted. Like most kibbutz residents, they work outside the kibbutz. Roni works for the regional council part-time coordinating the absorption of new kibbutz members. (Yes, in the kibbutz of which he is still not a member.) Inbar is an occupational therapist who works in Be’er Sheva. At the end of their candidacy – which in Nir Yitzhak is particularly long – they will become full members and be able to build their own home on land allocated to new arrivals.

The Carmels are one of several hundred families that have moved to kibbutzim in quest of a quiet life in a rural area at an affordable price. “There is tremendous demand, it’s hard to imagine it, even,” says Nir Meir, secretary of the Kibbutz Movement. “If we could take in everyone who was applying, the movement could double in size.”

The coronavirus has accelerated the trend. “It seems that because of the coronavirus, a lot of families have concluded that an apartment in the city is too small for their needs,” says Yavin Gilmor, CEO of the real estate website Yad 2. “The office is closed and they are working at home, and the kids are home, too. Those families are now seeking open spaces and a sense of partnership, which is why demand for the kibbutz life experience is at record levels.”

Meanwhile, the social price you once paid for living on a kibbutz isn’t what it once was. In the “privatized” kibbutz that emerged from the crisis era, members have a lot more personal space. There remains a higher degree of collectivity than in city life, with decisions made jointly about the public space and shared property. But they have the same independent work life and household as ordinary families, while enjoying a built-in social life.

Attractive deals

Dozens of kibbutzim are now offering pretty attractive deals for new members – a private home, or half of a two-family residence, with a yard and lawns all around, for between 1 million and 1.5 million shekels ($301,000 to $452,000). There’s a pool nearby, preschools and sometimes even an elementary school within walking distance of home. There are sidewalks but almost no roads. In most cases the schools are high quality and enhanced with enrichment hours.

The acceptance process is complex and lengthy, but for suitable families the process is pretty smooth. Candidates prove that they can finance construction of their home and cover mandatory kibbutz expenses, including membership fees, property taxes and preschool tuition. But a couple earning average salaries or even a bit less should be able to meet these prerequisites without a problem. Candidates are also asked to prove that they have suitable pension savings and no financial threats. An assessment of their social suitability for kibbutz life is conducted by professionals.

Other requirements vary from kibbutz to kibbutz. Candidates must come to get-acquainted meetings, and some kibbutzim insist that the family live at least a year on the kibbutz, in a rental unit provided for them. It’s common to assign an “accompanying family” to help the newcomers find their place and meet the other members. At the end of the process the candidates are voted on by the members by secret ballot. The entire process takes between 18 months to two years.

While the kibbutzim do not have any restrictions on age or family status, the most desirable candidates are couples aged 30 to 40, with children, and with good jobs. Demographic growth coordinators on several kibbutzim said that while there is no obstacle in principle for singles to join, few singles apply.

To accommodate the growth, kibbutzim have submitted plans to build thousands of new homes. But getting these plans approved is no simpler or easier than getting them approved in cities: Several weeks ago, Kibbutz Mashabei Sadeh in the Negev finally got its building permit for 300 new homes, 18 years after submitting the plan.

The pace at which new members join varies. In most kibbutzim the aim is a manageable influx of 10 families a year, as part of a process they call “demographic growth.” That pace doesn’t bring about a significant increase in the number of members but it brings down the average age, which is higher than the average age in the cities. It also diversifies the population and adds children to populate local schools. The kibbutzim long ago gave up on maintaining elementary schools that are not shared with other kibbutzim, but some are having a hard time keeping their independent preschools filled.

The Kibbutz Movement doesn’t have exact data on the phenomenon. But officials say the biggest demand is for kibbutzim close to cities, like Neveh Yam, Yad Hannah, Givat Brenner and Palmahim. Nevertheless, most of those expressing interest are looking at the “expansions,” residential neighborhoods adjacent to kibbutzim that are not part of the kibbutz. Those who buy homes there are not required to be members.

A man fishes in the holiday village in Kibbutz Neveh Yam, December 2014. Credit: Nir Kafri

Most of the kibbutzim in the outlying areas are not near main highways, nor do they have good public transportation to cities. The chance of finding work on a kibbutz is very small. The distance from jobs, entertainment or even shopping centers is part of the price.

“Demand isn’t incredible but it exists and it’s stable,” says Almog Holot, demographic growth coordinator at Kibbutz Nirim. Still, the kibbutz, with 200 members, has a plan approved to build 500 housing units and a relatively ambitious expansion plan. “I think we’ll take in 20 to 30 families in the current wave,” she says.

The Kibbutz Movement has had its ups and downs. From an elite society during the first two decades of the state, many kibbutzim became failed enterprises, both socially and financially. Various rehabilitation plans and expedited “privatization” measures stopped them from crumbling. In recent years, and even more so since the pandemic broke out, the kibbutzim have started to look like attractive options for many families, not for their ideology but for their lifestyle.

For their part, most kibbutzim, particularly the smaller ones, realize that only openness and ability to refresh their populations will assure their long-term viability. But taking in new members also requires creative solutions about land ownership and their partnership in control of the kibbutz’s joint property, which is often considerable.

Buying a house on a kibbutz is a problematic real estate transaction in many respects, and kibbutz residents make a point of stressing – justifiably – that joining a kibbutz is as much a social transition, not just about moving homes for financial reasons. Nevertheless, the Kibbutz Movement says kibbutzim near the confrontation lines, including areas near the Gaza border, have attracted interest because of the tax incentives the government offers. In addition, residents of the Gaza-area kibbutzim get free land on which to build a home, which reduces the cost considerably.

One such kibbutz is Ein Hashlosha, less than a kilometer from the Gaza border. It is a relatively small kibbutz, with only 100 members, but it’s financially stable based on agriculture, primarily field crops, and a small factory called Classerica that makes office supplies.

‘Lively demand’

Alex Weintraub, absorption coordinator at Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, says the kibbutz’s aim is to meet its target of taking in 10 to 15 families a year as new members. Homes being allocated to the newcomers are two-family units of 100 to 110 square meters. “There’s a lively demand to live on the kibbutz,” Weintraub says. “We get families from all over the country – even from the center and the north – but most of them are from the south. It’s true that tax breaks and the land are an attraction here, but I think the main motivation of the new families is the community life and the connection to the Gaza border region.”

Despite the vast differences between the historic communal kibbutz and the modern, privatized version, the kibbutzim are still trying to reinvent the mutual arrangements, understanding that they must be adapted to the era of private ownership.

Kids get off a school bus in Kibbutz Ein Hashlosha, October 2017. Credit: Eliyahu Herskowitz

A kibbutz’s land was given to the residents for free by the government or the Jewish National Fund, and for decades residents lived on it without any kind of formal ownership or leasing agreement. Privatization and the new social order on the kibbutz required redefining the link between the kibbutz and its land. The issue became a national dispute, as some kibbutzim took land designated for agriculture and built stores and offices on it. Following a High Court of Justice suit by Hakeshet HaMizrahit – the Mizrahi Democratic Rainbow Coalition – in 2001, kibbutz land ownership was finally regulated and an agreement was reached on the division of profits between kibbutz members and the state when agricultural land is turned over for commercia use.

A number of decisions made by the Israel Land Authority were aimed at also regularizing the members’ ownership of the land on which their homes stood. This new arrangement was necessary to allow kibbutz members to assume ownership of their homes and the personal property they’d acquired, to enable new members to join privatized kibbutzim and to resolve problems of inheritance.

The process of registering land began 14 years ago and still isn’t finished, in part because the kibbutzim want to control the process of absorbing new members and not simply sell off plots to the highest bidder. The result of the disagreements and delays in the process of assigning land rights is that most kibbutzim cannot offer new members a lease agreement with the ILA, as is usual in property transactions elsewhere.

This means that newcomers get a plot and can build their home with the knowledge that they will later have to sign a lease agreement for the land and pay for it. Based on ILA decisions and the agreements with the kibbutzim, the  price will be only a third of the land’s assessed value. If the home is built outside the residential framework granted the kibbutz, the buyer will have to pay 91% of the land’s value. But those who buy in confrontation line areas still get the land for free.

The uncertainty regarding the land price makes some people nervous, but in any case they won’t be so high that it becomes impractical for the average family, especially since the initial payment includes the development and infrastructure costs. However, buying a kibbutz home still isn’t a normal real estate transaction: All agreements between the kibbutz and the newcomers include a clause stating that the home can be sold only to another kibbutz member. That severely limits the resale market and the home’s potential value.

Other questions relate to the jointly owned property. Many kibbutzim don’t have especially valuable assets, but there are some that have factories and businesses worth hundreds of millions, even billions of shekels. Many kibbutzim grant new members a full share in the joint property, but kibbutzim that have large businesses generally separate membership from partnership in property. On the other hand, not all kibbutz businesses thrive and if a business goes bankrupt the owner-members must share equally in the debts.

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