Educating in Acre – on a kibbutz

“I remember what the youth leaders told me on that trip,” Sulema recounted. “‘You must ask yourself: What do you see? What don’t you like? And what are you going to do about it?’”

‘THE KIBBUTZ members have definitely made a positive change in Acre with their idealism and vision.’ (photo credit: OMER COHEN)
‘THE KIBBUTZ members have definitely made a positive change in Acre with their idealism and vision.’
(photo credit: OMER COHEN)
When Mirit Sulema, 30, was in 11th grade, she went on a trip to Poland with an Israeli youth group. There she had a moment of reckoning when she heard how young people in the Dror Movement in the Warsaw Ghetto – facing death and extermination by the Nazis along with more than 400,000 other Jews – realized they had to “get out of denial about what was happening,” and organize to fight against the Nazis. Although their uprising ended in defeat, the youth leaders’ courageous example continues to serve as her inspiration.
“I remember what the youth leaders told me on that trip,” Sulema recounted. “‘You must ask yourself: What do you see? What don’t you like? And what are you going to do about it?’”
Those questions motivated Sulema to become a member of the Educators’ Kibbutz in the city of Acre, in the Western Galilee, a unique kibbutz with 75 adults (and 13 children) who all work in the area in the field of education.
The Dror Israel Educational Movement – which includes the Tnuat HaBogrim and HaNoar HaOved VeHaLomed movements – started building kibbutzim in cities called urban kibbutzim, of which there are now 16. There are approximately 100 of these communities around Israel, including Kibbutz Beit Yisrael, which started in southern Jerusalem in 1993, considered one of the pioneers of the urban kibbutz model.
The kibbutz in Acre took root after municipal officials, including Acre Mayor Shimon Lankri, approached leaders of the Dror Movement, inviting them to spark a renaissance in the city.
“The kibbutz members have definitely made a positive change in Acre with their idealism and vision,” said Dr. Janan Faraj Falah, founder and chairwoman of the Acre Women’s Vision Association, a group of Druze, Christian, Jewish and Muslim women who develop community projects with the kibbutz.
Approximately 50,000 people – one-third Arab and two-thirds Jewish, including 10,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union – reside in Acre. One of the goals of the kibbutz members, explained Sulema, is to find a way to widen Acre’s image as a “mixed city” where residents simply exist side-by-side, to a “shared city” with democratic values and ideals and a sense of community.
As Michal Keider, another kibbutz member and coordinator of the Advot, or “Ripple” Center, explained, “We want people in Acre to learn that living in a mixed community is a choice, because diversity is better.”
Keider, 37, lives with her husband and three sons in the kibbutz building, which is located among drab apartment building blocks near the Acre train station. Not the sort of setting one would imagine for a kibbutz, but it’s exactly the kind of place for this social start-up. By living among the people they want to help, kibbutz members feel they can enhance dialogue in the neighborhood, strengthen ties among the youth, reach out to the elderly, and bring about change, not from the outside but from within.
THE DROR Israel Movement purchased the spacious building, which was once a nursing home, and then raised funds to renovate and redesign it for the kibbutz’s needs. It now houses 50 residents (including 10 children) on the upper floors. Some of the members live alone; others live together in large apartments, so that flat-mates become extended family, celebrating holidays and helping one another on a daily basis. There are also 25 adults and three children who live in nearby apartments and also work in educational programs in the area.
The building has the feel of a college dorm – there’s a surfboard leaning on an outdoor balcony railing – but there is a seriousness of purpose inside. The main floor contains meeting rooms, an incubator lab for new technologies and innovation, and an inviting space for after-school activities and community events.
Kibbutz members worked especially hard in the fall of 2014, when Yom Kippur and Eid al-Adha fell on the same day – an event that occurs once every 33 years. For Jews, Yom Kippur is a solemn day of fasting and meditation; for Muslims, Eid al-Adha is a day of feasting and celebration. Civic leaders were concerned that there would be a repeat of 2008, when sectarian riots erupted all over the city on Yom Kippur.
Kibbutz members, working closely with the Acre Municipality, Acre’s chief rabbi, the chief imam, and civic leaders such as Dr. Janan Faraj Falah, gave classes to youths and adults on tolerance and organized volunteers to pass out flyers around the city to encourage people to respect one another’s traditions and customs.
And while the 2008 riots unleashed anger and violence, the holiday of 2014 was a success because “nothing happened,” said Sulema. “Acre residents told me that they felt proud that they could live together in a democratic way, respecting one another’s religions. It was a big accomplishment.” Since then, quiet has reigned in the city, which UNESCO recognized as a World Heritage Site in 2001.
“People realized how important it is to have good relations with their neighbors,” said Faraj Falah.
The kibbutz sponsors a wide range of educational projects throughout the city, including after-school programs for at-risk youth in which teenagers from 13-18 years old get a hot lunch and help with their homework. In addition, the teens learn how to repair wrecked bicycles, train dogs, and volunteer with the elderly, thereby learning that they have something to give.
Another project is the Acre Jam, a club that sponsors musical events to enhance the city’s night life and draw more visitors, and a summer camp for both Arab and Jewish children as part of the HaNoar HaOved Youth Movement. There are Hebrew-Arabic language courses, and tours for visitors to learn about Acre. The kibbutz also works on educational projects with Arab and Jewish students in the Western Galilee College located nearby.
Each year, 100 new immigrant families from the former Soviet Union settle in Acre. Sulema said there is also a young mothers’ group for women with new babies to come and talk about their shared problems and challenges.
Keider said her mission is to show people that they can promote change and influence the society around them.
Sulema said, “I’ve worked with students who thought they were failures, and now they’re graduating high school and finishing their army service, and they come back to talk to me and show me what they’ve accomplished. This shows me that what I’m doing is effective.”