The changing face of Israel's kibbuztim


This week on Café Oleh, as part of a continuation on our previous discussions on housing and community in Israel (here and here), we speak with both Jen, one of our resident aliya bloggers, and Sivan Bamberger, an American olah and a member of Dror Israel, an educators'' kibbutz movement, about the nature of life on modern kibbutzim. 
Jen made aliya a little over a year ago, and has since then settled with her family on Kibbutz Hannaton, a masorti, pluralistic kibbutz in the lower Galilee. Jen describes her community as a place where it''s safe to be a "Jew in progress," where secular and religious Jews live together and pray together.
Sivan made aliya from Northern Virginia over ten years ago, and has since then joined the Dror Israel movement. Dror Israel is a Jewish Zionist educational movement, consisting of 1,200 young men and women. Members establish educators'' kibbutzim all across Israel and guide and teach in a variety of formal and informal frameworks. Sivan is a very active member her kibbutz in Hadera, where she coordinates year-abroad programs for Jewish 18 year olds from abroad and guides both Israeli and Diaspora youth in Zionist educational programs.
1. What should our readership know about kibbutzim today? We all know that kibbutzim have changed over the years and are no longer what they once were. So what, nowadays, defines a kibbutz as a kibbutz? What makes it different from other communities in Israel? Tell us a bit about the nature of life there—especially in terms of what differentiates it from life in other rural and urban environments.
Once I started the aliya process and realized most kibbutzim were not "traditional" kibbutzim any more, I was a bit disappointed. I had fantasies about what it would be like to live on a traditional, socialistic-like kibbutz with a common eating hall and common goals. Kibbutz Hannaton, where I live, is a "kibbutz mithadesh" which as I understand it means "a renewed kibbutz." I am not a member of the kibbutz yet, as I live in the part of the yishuv that is outside the original kibbutz. But my friends who are members all work off the kibbutz.
Part of me was a bit disappointed about that. I had fantasies about what it would be like to live on a traditional, socialistic kibbutz. However, since meeting Israelis who grew up on such kibbutzim, my original image has been shattered a little. Apparently, while there were some wonderful things growing up on a kibbutz, there were challenges too I never really understood before. And so, if I had to define what living on a kibbutz in Israel means today, I''d say it means acknowledging my need for community and for connection, and accepting the action steps required to make sure this community grows and thrives.
For me, the definition of kibbutz hasn''t changed – kibbutz is still a voluntary, intentional collective of people working to improve their community and society as a whole. We, in the Dror Israel Movement, are working to make it relevant for Israel in 2012.  We pool our money, work and study together, and celebrate the chagim together, but our kibbutzim own neither cows nor chickens and none of our kibbutz members work in the dining room or in the laundry. Instead, we have all chosen education as a way of life. I believe that the uniqueness of our new kibbutz model lies in our attempt to fuse together its two main components: our full and active communal life with our educational work in Israeli society.
2. What is an urban kibbutz? Can and do new olim involve themselves with the Urban Kibbutz movement? Tell us a little bit about your organization and what makes it a kibbutz?
My kibbutz is not just an urban kibbutz, it is an urban educators'' kibbutz.  Our shared labor is not in the fields, but in every educational framework in Israeli society—we establish and work in schools, afterschool clubhouses, centers for Jewish-Arab coexistence, centers for working youth, and much, much more. As an olah myself, I can safely say that new olim can and do involve themselves within the urban kibbutz movement. Small groups of olim, mostly from Zionist youth movements, from all over the world have started making aliya with the purpose of taking part in this new wave of educators'' kibbutzim.  Dror Israel is a social, educational movement of 1200 young men and women in 16 educators'' kibbutzim, working with over 100,000 participants throughout Israel. 
Here is a short video describing our work:

3. Approximately 2.5 percent of Israel''s population lives on Kibbutzim. Given that high percentage, what most appeals to kibbutz dwellers about this lifestyle?
I can''t speak for everyone, but what appealed to us about making aliya to the North and to a smallish kibbutz was the idea of intentional community...a group of people committed to similar values working together to build something communally. I also liked the idea of my children having the freedom and space to explore, and to make friends they would hopefully grow up with and close to. I like that I know my neighbors and they know me and my kids. I like that my door is open to them and theirs to me.
Historically, kibbutzim had an integral role in the building and shaping of the State of Israel. Kibbutz also has great potential for the creation of a full, meaningful, and socially responsible livelihood. Sadly, many kibbutzim have distanced themselves from this aspect of kibbutz life. For me, it is important that my personal life reflect a socially active lifestyle and an intimate community experience and, as I''ve witnessed more than 100 new members join Dror Israel Kibbutzim every year, I can only assume that others feel the same.
4. Do you see kibbutzim in Israel''s future? If so, do you see the nature of life in kibbutzim changing further?
The kibbutz, which is a home-grown Zionist and Jewish invention, has existed longer than the State of Israel. Throughout its history, people from every culture, religion and country have come to witness and take part in this unique endeavor.  Though it has changed drastically throughout the years, I believe and hope that its core idea and values will always have an important place in Israeli society: shared responsibility, cooperation and solidarity, and the aspiration towards a just and good Israeli society.
I think kibbutz is definitely in Israel''s future. I think, in general, the idea of communal life is becoming more and more appealing not just to Israelis but to many modern cultures who have spent the last decades participating in urban sprawl. There is a reason why Facebook is such a hit—people crave and miss community and connection. I don''t know if kibbutz is necessary the solution, but I think intentional community offers individuals the opportunity to find that connection they seek. That said, it''s hard work. It''s not as if you just show up and reap the benefits -- building community requires a community-wide effort. It requires compassion, understanding, a willingness to push your boundaries, and accept that your vision might not be shared by everyone in your community—and that it''s okay if it isn''t. You need to be willing to make compromises.
5. As a new Oleh, what is involved in becoming a member of a kibbutz? Does one simply find a home there and automatically become part of the community? How did you personally come to be a member of a kibbutz? 
As I said, I am not a member of the kibbutz I live on, but I think it would be fair to say we''re somewhere in the process. We chose Hannaton specifically for it''s community and we are so happy to be active members of the kehila there. That said, we are still very new olim—and it''s important that our family feels adjusted fully enough before we make such a big financial commitment as to become members of a kibbutz and to buy a home, which is what is required on our kibbutz mithadesh.  It is a huge financial commitment, and certainly not one all olim are in a position to do.