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As pandemic pushes people to greener pastures, kibbutzim see membership swell

Israelis looking for a very different kind of community are continuing to move out of cities and into collective settlements, even as (almost) post-COVID normalcy returns

Introducing new members on Kibbutz Mevo Hama. (courtesy Ayelet Harris)
Introducing new members on Kibbutz Mevo Hama. (courtesy Ayelet Harris)

For the first time in more than 30 years, there are growing waiting lists for Israel’s kibbutzim. The Kibbutz Movement — which represents a majority of Israel’s 279 kibbutzim nationwide — has set up a “matchmaking service” to help people find a suitable kibbutz to call home.

The number of people looking to move to a kibbutz, which often have wider spaces and more communal services, began to grow as the COVID-19 pandemic and its restrictions intensified in 2020. But even as life has returned (mostly) to normal, this trend is still going strong, according to the Kibbutz Movement.

Ayelet Harris, who leads absorption services for the Kibbutz Movement, told The Times of Israel in a recent interview that the movement has about “500 new members queuing up to join.”

“Many of them are families, but also single people at many different stages of their life. Some have a connection to kibbutz life – maybe they grew up on a kibbutz and moved away – but most of them do not,” said Harris.

Shira and Dov Isikovitz, parents of five from north-central Israel, are typical of some of those making the move.

“After years of living in Hadera and feeling no particular connection to the place, COVID made us start thinking about the things that were really important to us and our family. It made thinking about making some big changes more intense and urgent, and also seemed more realistic to leave the center of the country,” said Shira.

Shira and Dov Isikovitz outside their new home on Kibbutz Ma’ale Gilboa (courtesy Shira Isikovitz)

“Decades ago we volunteered on kibbutzim and we’d had a dream of being part of that kind of community – but it hadn’t seemed practical,” she added.

They had sent one of their children to an agriculture-focused school and seen how he thrived there, she explained. Meanwhile, some friends made the move to Kibbutz Merav, and on a visit to see them, the Isikovitzs got some insight into what life on a kibbutz could be like.

They were so inspired that they applied to join, but the kibbutz’s authorities told them they did not feel the match was quite right, and recommended Ma’ale Gilboa, a religious kibbutz located about five kilometers (3.1 miles) west of Beit She’an, instead.

“We went to visit Ma’ale Gilboa, and we felt like this could be home for us. It was very diverse religiously, in a way that is quite unusual for Israel. It was a place where you could be who you wanted to be, and the people were incredibly welcoming,” Shira said.

“There was a huge feeling of togetherness which we’d not experienced at all in Hadera. And so we moved forward and transplanted the family, including our children who were 7, 9, 15 and 18, to two old kibbutz apartments which were given to us to live in. This summer, our boys are working in the cowsheds,” she went on.

The entrance to Ma’ale Gilboa, in the Beit She’an Valley Regional Council. (Dr. Avishai Teicher – Own work. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21914156)

Both Dov and Shira are still adjusting to the new location and to life on a kibbutz. Dov is a plumber by training; Shira is a medical masseuse. They both had a full book of clients back in Hadera and the surrounding area, but are reluctant to commute about an hour’s drive each way and want Ma’ale Gilboa truly to be the center of their lives.

They are now working on building up lists of clients more locally, and Shira has plans to retrain as a nurse.

The family is still in their trial year as kibbutz residents. But Dov said they “already know that we want to become full members of the kibbutz, not just to live here.”

This would mean being voted in by existing members, and in the context of the now fairly common more privatized kibbutz framework, giving 10% of their salaries to the central kibbutz fund in exchange for getting a say in the decisions the kibbutz makes for the future.

Over the last two years, Shira said, Ma’ale Gilboa has welcomed a number of people in their late 50s, and families with children in their forties.

“We have no regrets. There is honestly nothing we miss from Hadera. We haven’t reached paradise, but it’s great,” said Dov.

Ayelet Harris, head of Integration for new members at the Kibbutz Movement (courtesy Ayelet Harris)

From her position overseeing the Kibbutz Movement as a whole, and leading the absorption of new kibbutz members on her home kibbutz of Mevo Hama, Harris believes that the COVID-19 lockdown periods were a major catalyst for moves from the center of the country to outlying kibbutzim.

“COVID gave these people an opportunity to work from home, and to think about the possibility of moving with their careers to live somewhere else, to find a community of which they could be a part. They want to be away from the cities and they are looking at kibbutzim all across the country,” she said.

A resurgence

The death of the kibbutz ideal is predicted regularly. There have been times when the movement, founded in the early settlement days out of socialist ideology, has been seen as out of touch and out of date, a place for old-time socialists to live out their days. A funding crisis in the 1980s appeared to bang the nails in the coffin of what had been a global experiment in communal living.

But increasingly, there’s new energy to kibbutz life across Israel. And that energy goes both ways.

Kibbutzim themselves have become more open to new members, and more flexible in the ways that they operate. Many have chosen to privatize and to adopt new ways of working. The focus is very much on community, although what that means varies across kibbutzim.

But, as Harris stressed, “it’s not about selecting the best, or the smartest, or the richest people, but it is looking for those who want to become real partners in kibbutz life, to immerse themselves in the community.”

One example of this community immersion is on Kibbutz Lavi, a religious kibbutz in the Galilee, where new residents have been welcomed through a partnership with Kinneret, a regional charity that works with autistic young adults. (The charity has also partnered with other kibbutzim).

Working with Kibbutz Lavi over the last three years, the charity has converted kibbutz houses into two hostels — Beit Rimon and Beit Zayit — for around 15 autistic dati leumi (modern Orthodox) young men. They are residents rather than members of the kibbutz, but they participate in its religious and cultural life. A number of them work in the kibbutz hotel or furniture factory, and they are fully integrated as members of the diverse kibbutz community.

Naftali Wolfson at Kibbutz Lavi. (courtesy Naftali Wolfson)

Naftali Wolfson, 22, was one of the first young adults to move into the Beit Rimon hostel on Kibbutz Lavi. Before that, he lived with his family in the center of the country and attended a special education high school. This year he undertook a year of national service at a school in Tiberias. And next year, he has plans to start work on the kibbutz itself, with training provided by other kibbutz members.

“Living on the kibbutz has meant that I can be much more independent than when I lived with my parents. People from the kibbutz invite us for meals – we were at the rabbi’s house last Friday night. Often somebody comes round with nice cakes for all of us before Shabbat. It’s very easy to get to know people on the kibbutz and they are very friendly. We celebrate Shabbat and all the holidays with people on the kibbutz, and I even did magic for the kids on the kibbutz over Purim,” he told The Times of Israel.

Becoming part of a kibbutz

The application process for kibbutz membership varies by kibbutz. But usually, would-be kibbutzniks will live on the kibbutz for a year or so before their full membership is brought to a vote.

In that year, they get to experience the realities of kibbutz communal life, and they have the opportunity to demonstrate their commitment and potential contribution to the kibbutz. There will also be interviews and even psychological profiling at times.

Once admitted as members, they are given equal voting rights when it comes to decisions relating to the kibbutz. There are some variations from kibbutz to kibbutz regarding the relationship of new members to existing successful businesses. But most aim for complete equality between members.

A view of the Jezreel Valley from Mount Gilboa. Illustrative. (irisphoto2 via iStock by Getty Images)

In some cases, it is possible to make a home on a kibbutz without becoming a full member: to live as a long-term resident as part of the community but without the rights that come with kibbutz membership.

On the whole, Harris noted, existing members are eager to welcome newcomers and to bring more people to their communities. But there are, at times, some tensions.

Kibbutz land is owned by the state, and usually, a plot is given to new members to build their homes. And there can be stark differences between those arriving with money and building now, and the veterans whose homes are aging and were built in a time of more limited resources.

Although most kibbutzim maintain some kind of industry on-site – agriculture, factories, hotels, technology businesses, even stock exchange-listed companies – these represent only a limited part of kibbutz income. These days the majority of members earn their living off the kibbutz, arriving with their own business or career.

On becoming a member, a portion of any income is pooled with the kibbutz, with services and a fixed amount of money going back to each member each month based on family size and needs.

Back in 2014, the Kibbutz Movement conducted a survey to better understand attitudes in Israel towards kibbutzim and found 70% support among the general public for using land for kibbutzim, even though most (60%) also believed that their general contribution to society was in decline.

An aerial image of Kibbutz Nir David in the Beit She’an Valley in northern Israel. Illustrative. (liorpt via iStock by Getty Images)

Fast forward to 2020 and all the trends point to growth for the kibbutzim. The Kibbutz Movement’s internal research says 96.8% of kibbutzim have an open door for new members. ּBetween 2015 and 2020, records suggest that only around 40% of kibbutzim admitted more than 20 new families, with the majority growing slowly or not at all. Since 2020, ongoing surveys suggest that at least 65% of kibbutzim across the country are in the process of absorbing a minimum of 20 new families or more as members.

Research during the first COVID-19 wave found that the ethos and values inherent in kibbutzim made them particularly resilient to the challenges presented by the pandemic.

“They contribute to the resilience of the community around them,” according to Gil Lin, deputy secretary-general of the Kibbutz Movement and a member of Mishmar Ha’Emek, a kibbutz in Jezreel Valley in northern Israel.

New generation kibbutzim

Kibbutz Ketura, in the southern Arava desert close to Eilat, is a good example of how kibbutzim have evolved. Founded in 1973, it has around 165 members; the older members are largely from the United States, and the younger members mostly native Israelis.

Having grown by two to three families a year for some time, that number has doubled since the pandemic, and includes families who are new arrivals to Israel.

The kibbutz has a successful date orchard that was part of its original agricultural business. But it now also runs an educational tourism project and an accounting services business. Some of its members work in the regional school, in local high-tech businesses, renewable energy projects, and as psychologists and actors, but they also run additional in-kibbutz activities – such as kickboxing classes, craft-making, and beer brewing.

Kibbutz Ketura, north of Eilat, founded in November 1973 (Rachael Cerrotti/Flash90)

Urban kibbutzim (Kibbutz Ironi) have also become a trend. There are just over 100 in Israel, comprising around 2,000 members. The idea was tried and failed in the early 20th century, and again in the 1970s. But more recently it seems to have found its feet and become a way to address inner-city social problems. As an example, the Haifa Municipality asked youth group members to form an urban kibbutz in the Hadar neighborhood to work with at-risk children.

But the concept has a looser social configuration than the traditional kibbutz. At Migvan in Sderot, of 100 urban kibbutz members, only around nine are actually pooling funds. Others are part of the community but opt out of full communal living.

Last year in a blog for The Times of Israel, Asaf Shimoni issued an invitation to people he felt were excluded from existing kibbutzim to join him in creating a new kibbutz community in the Arava. He focused on older people and on new immigrants, and got 20 people willing to commit from that one request for support.

The project did not get off the ground for a number of reasons. “This wasn’t because people weren’t interested in being part of growing a kibbutz from the ground up. And I could have done much more to find an even bigger startup community. But I needed support from the municipality and they didn’t seem to want to support the plan,” Shimoni told The Times of Israel.

The downsides

Kibbutz living is not for everyone.

Keren Tinman got married on Kibbutz Be’erot Yitzhak in central Israel, which has so far resisted the general move by kibbutzim towards privatization and greater individuality. Her husband, Shir Amir, grew up on the kibbutz. They started their life together after their huppah on the kibbutz lawn was lifted up above the crowd by a tractor customized for the process. Most of the friends that Amir grew up with came back for the wedding but have chosen to live elsewhere.

Tinman and Amir live on the kibbutz in a room that is 20 meters square and significantly cheaper than anything they could find elsewhere in the Gush Dan area. They also benefit from subsidized food at the kibbutz supermarket.

Tinman works as an architect in Kfar Saba, while Amir studies two days a week and works on the kibbutz two days a week. But the couple has already decided that long-term life on the kibbutz is not for them.

“There’s no private space. People on the kibbutz feel that they can access everywhere — even our home.  It’s not the regular thing to do but every time we go out we lock the door to make sure nobody comes in. Ideologically the kibbutz is very traditional, and you have to share every part of your life. I feel the people here lack ambition. There’s no incentive to do better because everything is shared,” Tinman told The Times of Israel.

The couple plan to leave for Jerusalem next year.

Tinman and Amir’s reaction may be typical of younger couples. Most of those moving in are families with children.  In 2000, some 117,000 people lived on kibbutzim, according to Israeli government figures. By 2021, the Kibbutz Movement’s Nir Meir said, they had a total population that is the largest ever of 182,000.

According to the Kibbutz Movement’s private research that has been shared with The Times of Israel, of those who embark on the one-year trial period that kibbutzim offer, close to 90% “succeed” and integrate into the cultural life of the kibbutz.

These days there is training for both sides of the partnership to try to ensure the success of the relationship. And the absorption of these new members has a positive and dynamic effect on kibbutzim – around 60% of survey respondents believe that the addition of new members has significantly improved the social aspect of kibbutz life.

If there was a time when it seemed like the days of the kibbutz were numbered, and that they would die out with the last of their diehard inhabitants, those days seem well past.

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