Valuables vs values

A Religious Kibbutz Movement project helps kids avoid being consumed by the consumer culture.

May 14, 2010 20:19
4 minute read.
consumerism 88 298

consumerism 88 298. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

‘Who wants to be a millionaire?” asks the song in my favorite movie, High Society.

I thought of the song recently when I heard of a new educational campaign by the Religious Kibbutz Movement launched under the title “Would a million dollars in the bank make you happier?” The project is aimed at teaching kibbutz youth “the value of being satisfied with a little.”

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The effort, based on a wealth of experience, includes a step-by-step program of activities and discussions, reflecting not only traditional sources but also modern dilemmas.

One of my strongest memories from the nine months I spent on a religious kibbutz as a very new immigrant some 30 years ago was being told I could not wear the plastic apron decorated with the illustration of a jar of Marmite I had brought with from London. It wasn’t the Marmite that was considered unkosher, it was the stylish pinafore on which it was advertised. It was considered way too flashy for the kibbutz kitchen.

Since those days, the consumer society has definitely made aliya, and even reached what’s left of kibbutz communal dining halls.

As the kibbutz educators note, today people buy things not to replace something that needs to be fixed but as a “fix” in itself, out of an urge to own the “latest” model or technology. The phrase “be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home” has gone out of fashion, or more to the point, the humble abode is not fashionable: Wealth needs to be displayed. We even buy more food than we can consume.

Just how far kibbutz life has changed can be seen in the recommendation to the counselors implementing the program to Google phrases like “Olam hashefa” (the affluent society) and including an article on the recent stampede-marked opening of H&M here.

“The educational program is meant to encourage Religious Kibbutz Movement youth to think about the consumer culture as opposed to modesty and moderation,” says Razi Ben-Ya’acov, director of the movement’s Young Generation Department, in the material accompanying the campaign. “Being satisfied with a little is a value that it’s important to reevaluate from time to time and in each age to find the best way to make it real.”

The issues raised include the classic Hebrew question of osher (spelled with an ayin) versus osher (spelled with an alef): i.e. wealth vs happiness. Among the topics: What would you do with a million dollars?; marketing, advertising and brand names; and the equitable distribution of wealth.

The program – available at no cost at – includes some articles written decades and even hundreds of years ago as well as more modern attempts at grappling with the issues. All the material is in Hebrew.

THIS BEING the Religious Kibbutz Movement, there is also, of course, enriching wisdom from millennia-old sources such as Proverbs. Flipping through the 40-or-so pages, I was surprised to find a quote by Mahatma Gandhi but not Ben Zoma’s rhetorical questions in Pirkei Avot: “Who is wise? The one who learns from every person... Who is rich? The one who is satisfied with his lot.”

On the other hand, the kibbutz movement is not against improving quality of life but concerned with educating the youth how to handle the responsibility of being among the haves rather than the have-nots.

For example, in one suggested activity a youth group is meant to discuss what they would do with a gift they think they have received of a million dollars. The madrichim are asked to examine whether the youths would keep the money or donate it or what percentage they would give away and whether the teens feel they actually need a million dollars or whether they are happy with what they’ve got.

Recently, sixth-graders from Kibbutz Sa’ad showed they had internalized some of the values when they helped a boy from a nearby community whose family could not afford a bar mitzva celebration. Although they didn’t previously know the boy, they mobilized donors and volunteers to provide a hall, catering, photography and music and, after a lot of hard but enriching work, created an event none of them will ever forget.

A TV program I saw a few months ago – one of the very few which make commercial television worthwhile – also focused on the question of how to achieve happiness and to what extent it depends on wealth. Popular psychologist Yoram Yovel noted a study among Olympic medalists that showed that the bronze recipients were happier than the silver. The competitors who’d come in second were comparing themselves to the gold medalists while those who came in third place were happy to have won a medal at all. The point was much of how we feel is based on comparison with others.

In short, count your blessings and you’ll feel blessed with good fortune.

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