On May 5, 1950, 60 ideological young members of the Hashomer Hatza'ir youth movement arrived on a patch of barren, rocky soil with the clothes on their backs and a dream: to build Kibbutz Nahshon and live in collective equality.
Until individual rooms could be built, the garin members, largely from Tel Aviv and its environs, slept in tents. Their movement's philosophy was that life without hierarchies and financial discrepancies was better. The kibbutz members thought it was the right way to live. They thought it was the only way to live.
Today, as sweeping changes are reforming the vast majority of kibbutzim, including Nahshon, some of them are not so sure.
Located near Latrun, one narrow, paved road takes visitors from the kibbutz entrance, where the Aran packaging factory and a small grocery store are located, to the administration buildings, the old arsenal and the tzrifim - the wooden buildings in whose cubicles the members once slept - the dairy farm, a boutique vineyard, a stained-glass studio, the Paradox Pub, a few rental apartments and the Corinth Chocolate factory, which is privately owned. Up the hill from the dilapidated tzrifim, a meandering path leads to a row of brand new homes whose front lawns look out over the entire Ayalon Valley. A metal fence topped with barbed wire follows the course of the dusty dirt path that once defined the border with Jordan. Now, it is nothing more than a physical reminder of past struggles.
Residents of the kibbutz today live in private houses with green lawns and flowering gardens. Satellite dishes sprout from Spanish-tile roofs, and Internet connections are commonplace.
Na'ama Barzilay and Yossi Muchnik, two of the founding members of Kibbutz Nahshon, have witnessed all of the changes. As he palms a cellphone, Muchnik points out that the newest neighborhood in the kibbutz was recently constructed on what used to be No Man's Land. "We were afraid to come to this lookout area because we weren't supposed to be seen by the Jordanian soldiers," he explains. In the distance, the soft bells of the Latrun Monastery begin to chime, spreading a soft reverberation over the area.
"We were the strength of the country in the early days," says Muchnik. "There were 200 kibbutzim and moshavim placed along the border, and it was our job to guard and protect the country."
On their first day on the kibbutz, the new members built a fence around the circular property to delineate their space. "We knew what a kibbutz was, and we had been taught and trained how to build one for two years, so we got to work immediately," says Muchnik. "We didn't have any running water or electricity. We had to construct everything from scratch. There were scorpions under the rocks and snakes in the fields. Our tents blew away, and we suffered from the cold and rain in winter, but we were happy. Life was a series of celebrations - for every new house, every birth, every marriage."
Day by day, plank by plank, the founding members slowly constructed the dining hall, the tzrifim, the arsenal and the showers. Gradually, animals were brought to the kibbutz and the seeds for orchards were planted.
Muchnik sweeps a long arm across the valley before us, pointing out the neighboring village of Neveh Shalom, Kibbutz Shalabim, the city of Modi'in and the Armored Corps Museum in Latrun, none of which existed in 1950. "The only thing in this entire area that was here then was the monastery and the Jordanian soldiers' base," he says. "It all used to be raw, unfettered land."
Muchnik and the other garin members cleared the fields for agriculture. Today, the kibbutz grows wheat, chickpeas, sunflowers, corn, watermelons, almonds, grapes, pomegranates, plums and peaches.
On May 5, 1952, exactly two years after it was established, the first child was born on the kibbutz. Many more births soon followed and, according to the kibbutz philosophy, the babies were sent to sleep and learn in the communal children's house. A few meters away from the old border, in Barzilay's living room, more of the original members have gathered to recall the early days, the huge changes and relate their hopes for the future.
For Dalia Naveh, who was originally in charge of laundry and plowing, life was difficult not because of the physical hardships but because of the rules dictating every minute and restricting anything too "individualistic." "Everyone thought we were spoiled children, so they had to forbid us to travel to see our parents," she says. "We weren't permitted to go home, and we had a fanatical, strict leader."
Yet even then, she insists, life wasn't bad. Each member was accorded a job, and everyone basically followed the rules. On Saturdays, meetings were held to decide what needed to be accomplished and what jobs each person would take in the upcoming week.
"Some people didn't like it, and they didn't stay. And there were times when none of us felt like unloading the roof tiles from a delivery truck, but we had to do it when the truck arrived because we had to do it together, in line, passing the tiles from hand to hand," Naveh says.
The 60 young founders all wore the same shapeless, sensible clothing until it was thin and full of holes, paying little heed to size or style. Most of them were barely older than 20, and the youngest was just 17. Every Friday, each member was provided with clean laundry - one shirt for Shabbat, two pairs of pants, two work shirts, some socks, one pair of pajamas and a small towel. Privacy and private property, including land, homes, salaries and even children, were given up in the name of utopian Labor Zionism.
"We shared everything. Even the showers, although the men and women were separated, had peep holes, and I'm sure the boys were spying on us," says Barzilay, a mischievous grin on her face. Across from her, Yossi, his wife Avital and Dalia nod in agreement. "We did everything together. We ate, worked, cried, laughed, sang, sweated and celebrated together, but it wasn't for everyone," Barzilay says.
About two-thirds of the original members found reasons to leave. Those who stayed formed couples, got married and had children. "We weren't religious, and some of us wanted to get married without a huppa, which created a lot of conflict with our parents," Naveh says. "So we had two weddings - one here and one with the family."
In 1967, as Israel battled Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Iraq in the Six Day War, Latrun became a central location for the war effort. Strategically located near the road to Jerusalem, Kibbutz Nahshon became a critical spot for the IDF.
"When the soldiers came to Kibbutz Nahshon, they dug trenches. I was a teacher at the school, and we got in the trenches with them and sang. We slept in the dining room with the soldiers," Barzilay says. "But I never felt the children were afraid."
After the war, the border suddenly vanished. "For 17 years we'd had that border, and suddenly, one day, it was gone," Naveh says. "It was a very odd and rapid change."
NAHSHON, LIKE MANY other kibbutzim, flourished in the 1960s and '70s despite the realization that being agriculturally self-sufficient was not possible. Salaries were still shared and life continued to be communal despite minor alterations, such as permitting the ownership of personal items and having more living space. In 1983, the Aran Packaging factory was founded, employing many kibbutz members and raising the standard of living. A swimming pool was constructed, and the dairy farm began making cheese for export. Nevertheless, despite financial aid from the state and some industry, by the 1990s Nahshon was in serious financial trouble. The members of the kibbutz had a higher standard of living than they could afford, and not enough of the children were remaining to raise the general income.
Today, the average age of the kibbutz members is 50, much higher than the 36 it was in 1976.
"When we came to live on the kibbutz, it was largely because we believed in the ideals of equality and communal life," says kibbutz head Ya'acov Lazar, who has lived there since 1963. "But for our children, it was not a choice but an imposition, and some of them did not want to stay."
Now, a total of 450 people live on the kibbutz. Two hundred of them are members and the others are renters. The kibbutz is also allowing interested families to take up temporary residence for a trial period, after which the members vote on whether or not to absorb them.
"We had big dreams, but the old system didn't work," says Lazar, whose youngest child, like all of the other children, left the children's house and moved in with his parents during the first Gulf War. It was the first major break in the kibbutz philosophy, and it planted the seeds of change that were necessary for the kibbutz to survive.
"We used to have one account in which everyone put their salaries to be divided among all of the members, but people started working outside of the kibbutz and it was no longer equal," Lazar says. There were other discrepancies between the ideals and actual practices, such as having individual clothing and more living space, but members tried to maintain communal life as long as they could.
"The system failed because not everyone works as hard as they can, and we were na ve enough to think they would. When we voted for change, everything was so intertwined that we didn't even know which parts of the agriculture and industry were successful and which ones were not," Lazar explains.
After more than 50 years, the kibbutz's deficit was tremendous. The children were leaving, and change was no longer avoidable.
In January 2006, Lazar led the kibbutz to a total reformation. "More than 70 percent of the members voted to change the system, to take other kibbutzim as models and move toward a restructuring that would provide a better future."
This meant charging for what were once free meals in the communal dining hall. The communal showers had already disappeared and private houses had already been built, but in the near future members will be able to purchase the land and own the deeds to their homes.
"We are hoping that these changes will attract young families to the kibbutz and encourage our children to stay," Lazar says. "But it hasn't been easy. Life on the kibbutz is no different now than in a city or anywhere else. That was not the dream," he says, a defeated look in his eyes. "I was educated that the old system was the right way to live, but I wouldn't go back to it now. I enjoy having my son at home."
Lazar says he hopes the future will bring more prosperity to the kibbutz through new industries and businesses, and that it will continue to grow in membership and financial resources. Most members agree that reform was the only way for these things to happen.
Nevertheless, for Yossi and Avital Muchnik, Na'ama Barzilay and Dalia Naveh, there was too much change. "There was no choice because the mentality changed from asking what we could give to the kibbutz to what we could take from the kibbutz," Naveh says. "We couldn't continue to live the way things were, but I don't like the inequality or the way it was handled."
The others agree that a transformation was necessary, but bemoan the fact that it was such a big one. Some are more optimistic than others about what the future holds. "We are slightly confused now," says Muchnik. "We are not used to eating alone, cooking alone, doing our own laundry and paying for everything, and it wasn't our choice."
At 75, learning how to change the fundamental way you live your life can be daunting, and for these members of the kibbutz, this latest revision toward privatization symbolizes the failure of their dreams.
"We feel like we've been abandoned by the State of Israel," Muchnik says as we drive down the winding road toward the entrance in his motorized cart. "We were there to serve when needed and we sacrificed to ensure the safety of this country. Now no one needs us anymore and we are forgotten." n