A new horizon

Dov Margalit believes that his kibbutz, Kfar Blum, offers a growing and thriving community in place of a declining one.

Dov Margalit: Bring the children back (photo credit: JINIPIX)
Dov Margalit: Bring the children back
(photo credit: JINIPIX)
 IN 1946, Dov “Dubi” Margalit, three years old at the time, arrived at Kibbutz Kfar Blum in northern Israel, just below the Golan Heights, some three years after the kibbutz was founded.
Life was tough and dangerous. With the kibbutz on the edge of the Hula Swamp, Margalit’s mother, Sonia Koshane, endured several bouts of malaria. The summers were scorching, the winters muddy; there were no roads, no trees, no houses; most land was waterlogged; shacks were the norm. Members begged for quinine and tried to avoid DDT pesticide. Though the malaria was contained by 1948, more residents were leaving the kibbutz than staying – hardly a recipe for success.
For all the hardships they faced, kibbutzim became symbols of the new State of Israel, socialist communes helping to forge a new kind of lifestyle and a new kind of Jew. With its high esprit de corps and its clandestine courses in military leadership, the kibbutz produced military leaders at a rate disproportional to their numbers. The tiny one-for-all kibbutzim became Israel’s elite.
Margalit remembers the 1950s, soon after he and his parents – Menachem Margolis and Sonia, all three born in England – arrived by boat to Cairo, rail to Haifa, and finally a bus to Kfar Blum. His parents wanted to leave for Palestine earlier, but Moshe Sharett, a Jewish Agency leader, asked them to stay behind to work on behalf of the organization during World War II. Arriving at Kfar Blum, they found a mixed Anglo-Baltic community consisting of 50 percent Americans, English and Canadians, and 50 percent from the Baltic countries.
Margalit lived in the children’s house; but at age 17, he and other youth decided they wanted to live with their parents, who agreed to the change. It was the first sign that the children wanted to stay close to the kibbutz. He also found a community in which all members shared in the work in return for which the kibbutz assumed responsibility for their wellbeing.
When we met at Kfar Blum in mid- January, Margalit, though 70, was busy as ever, as if he had never retired from teaching general and Jewish philosophy at the kibbutz high school. He bikes; he cooks Friday night dinner once a week for his family; he browses through books on Immanuel Kant or John Hume in his personal library; he attends kibbutz meetings; and most importantly, he derives great joy from the fact that three of his four children still live on the kibbutz in homes that the kibbutz administration would never have permitted to be built in the early years.
Of Margalit’s four sons, only Nimrod, 45, has not returned; he is a music teacher in England. When his children completed their three-year army stints, they sought lives away from the kibbutz, which seemed to them too restrictive, unimaginative, in a word, dull. But, like their father, they chose to return to live on the kibbutz, attracted by the good life on the kibbutz and their inability to find housing elsewhere.
To listen to Margalit, as I did for two hours on a Friday afternoon in his home, is to hear the voice of a veteran who loves kibbutz life; with the sharp eye of a business manager and accountant, he appreciated it when the kibbutz made all decisions, big or small; and he appreciates it even more now that members have privatized many of its services and offered market-value salaries to members. Kfar Blum no longer offers services to its members and residents free of charge.
The evolution from communal decision-making to a pay-as-you-go system for kibbutz members is pervasive. When Margalit’s wife, Nomi, walked to the dining room to pick up some vegetables and salads for Shabbat dinner, she had to pay for what she took. That would have been unheard of years earlier.
Putting everything on a commercial footing has helped keep members’ offspring on the kibbutz. Children can build their own homes nearby as long as they can afford the purchase, usually by securing bank loans. The new, enlarged homes are one of the compromises the kibbutz made to keep their children around.
Margalit met Nomi, then a secretary of a field school at Ein Gedi and married her in 1968. They moved to Kfar Blum four years later so that he could be with his parents.
Though Margalit left the kibbutz once, for two years, to try out a newer kibbutz at Ein Gedi on the Dead Sea, he could not stay away from Kfar Blum and has been living there continuously since 1972. He spent his army service in the 1960s protecting the southern borders against intruders.
In the early 1970s, eager for a new challenge, he and his family moved to London to encourage candidates for aliya; and then, in 1972, they moved back to Kfar Blum; and for the next eight years, Margalit worked at various kibbutz jobs – milking cows, turning a factory lathe. He earned 17 shekels per hour and it all went to the kibbutz. Today, the same worker earns 23 shekels per hour and keeps it all. The kibbutz wanted to shut the dairy down as unproductive, but Margalit convinced it to keep the place going.
Though enamored with kibbutz life, Margalit constantly felt the need to go beyond the education offered at Kfar Blum. In 1980, with the support of the kibbutz, he and Nomi moved to Jerusalem, where he completed a bachelor’s degree in general and Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University. Margalit was 37 years old when he began his studies. He was the first member of Kfar Blum to take his family with him for his outside studies. Starting in 1984, he taught Jewish philosophy, Bible and computer science at the Kfar Blum Regional High School.
“I felt,” he tells The Jerusalem Report, “that Zionism had left Judaism out of the Zionist movement. We needed to make room for Jewish values, for Jewish tradition – but not religion. I am not religious.”
In 1987, the kibbutz faced its worst crisis. Until then, the kibbutz’s General Assembly decided all aspects of kibbutz life, big and small, including how to run its economic enterprises, “But the assembly had no idea how to run the factory, or our hotel,” says Margalit. With inflation soaring and facing an 80 million-shekel bank debt, the kibbutz had no way to make a living and feared that soon the banks would take over the place.
Then, in the 1990s, came the flight of sons and daughters from the kibbutz. “We felt we were becoming an old age home, that we would have to plan life without our children,” Margalit recalls. “A way had to be found to bring the children back.”
It would take years. Countless debates ensued over how to keep the next generation in the fold. The problem was the kibbutz was showing no profits. “Kibbutz members,” Margalit recalls, “went to work in the morning, worked hard, but few ever made a living. And all this was accepted as part of the way of kibbutz, a way of life, part of the Zionist venture.”
In 1993, Margalit became the kibbutz manager, and despite encountering fierce opposition, he brought about the biggest change at Kfar Blum since its founding. Decision-making moved from the executive committee to professionals drawn from the kibbutz. Preparing members for the change was not easy; they had been accustomed to letting the collective make all decisions, big and small. Margalit managed to impose a new business strategy. “Each person became responsible for his or her livelihood, even if they worked only one day a week,” he says.
Expenditure was slashed. Outlay on education, then quite high, was drastically reduced; pre-school teachers who had been taking care of only four children each went to work in the factories. In a revolutionary step, members were encouraged to find work, and much-needed salaries, outside Kfar Blum. “It was a compromise with reality,” says Margalit.
For the first time, the newly profitable kibbutz promised its members a pension plan of 4,000 New Israeli shekels ($1,145) per month. Margalit notes proudly, “The main difference is that a new horizon has emerged offering a growing and thriving community in place of a dwindling and declining one.”
The proof, he says, lies in the fact that a young third generation now manages the celebration of festivals and education. By the mid-1990s, with the improvement in the kibbutz economy, the bank agreed to waive half its debt, which was reduced to 40 million shekels; the debt was finally paid off in 2013.
The kibbutz has a thriving wellrun hotel, a kayaking enterprise, a computerized irrigation equipment factory and orchards where it grows grapefruit, peaches and plums. But it is best known for having an Olympic-size swimming pool and a chamber music festival in midsummer that draw 15,000 visitors a year.
But it was not only the new business strategies that attracted the offspring back, but also the harsh economic situation that began in 2000; it became impossible for these youngsters to buy a house anywhere in the country.
Says Margalit, “The children’s return surprised us and created a new challenge. How do we preserve the rights of the original two generations of children as opposed to the children of kibbutz members who came after?” The original children were given large discounts to build; later generations of kibbutz children would not get such discounts.
Once, its location below the Golan Heights led members to talk incessantly about whether Israel should give up the Heights. Might such a sacrifice bring a peace treaty with Syria? But today, with the last rocket fired at the kibbutz in 2006, from Hezbollah in Lebanon and with Syria showing no interest in a peace treaty with Israel that might have given them back all of the Golan, Kfar Blum’s members display great indifference to Golan Heights politics.
Says Margalit, “For years, we have had no political discussion about the Golan in the kibbutz dining room. In the old days, half of us wanted to stay on the Golan, the other half wanted to get off. But now the political talk is about Iran and the Palestinians. We worry about the civil war in Syria and whether Hezbollah will soon be on our borders.”
Asked if he would live the life of a kibbutznik if he could do it over, Margalit thinks long and then says, “That’s a hard question.” He admits that the kibbutz ideology that taught that the collective was more important than the individual limited the notion of personal fulfillment and achievement.
Margalit is still fighting the fight to get more children back on the kibbutz. At a mid-January kibbutz meeting, he learned that lawyers were advising the kibbutz not to absorb children unless houses could be provided for them. According to the Israel Lands Authority, the kibbutz is allowed only two more homes. The lawyers would not allow the absorption of any more children.
Margalit was appalled. “I said legalities couldn’t run a kibbutz life. We need to find a solution to continue to absorb new members. We are being run by the lawyers,” he notes.