The revival of the kibbutz: A uniquely Israeli institution

The kibbutz is still with us. But to survive, kibbutzim have had to compromise on ideals and, as always, foster a collaborative spirit.

Children play on bales of hay at the annual harvest festival at Kibbutz Deganya Alef in 2015 (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Children play on bales of hay at the annual harvest festival at Kibbutz Deganya Alef in 2015
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
It was a paradox built on high ideals: European Jewish intellectual pioneers immigrating to Palestine and the newly established State of Israel to build and fortify the land with their bare hands.
A radical communal experiment, the kibbutz aimed for equality, where everyone shared everything, earned the same wages (the manager of the farm earned the same as the dishwasher, etc.) and every decision was made collectively as a group.
The concept was to form a utopian community founded on socialist principles, and established on the soil of the Jewish homeland.
The word “kibbutz” in Hebrew means “gathering.” These communes began sprouting throughout the land during the early 20th century.
The kibbutz was a self-contained entity that provided everything to their members in return for maintaining the commune through hard work. Instead of relying on tried-and-true Jewish traditions based on the home and family as the backbones of their communities, the kibbutz movement shattered these institutions by stressing the ideals of equality so strongly that the family unit was deemed obsolete and children were raised in children’s houses. Adults lived in homes without kitchens, taking their meals in the communal dining hall.
The dining hall came to be the symbolic heart of the kibbutz, where members would eat – buffet style – the food that they grew and prepared themselves.
Mostly situated in the North of Israel in picturesque natural settings with quiet roads lined with palm trees and farms and fields over the horizon, the kibbutzim have endured a lot, and it remains to be seen what the future holds for this uniquely Israeli institution.
Today there are some 260 kibbutzim and as this experiment evolved over the last century and longer, they seem to be experiencing some sort of a revival. But as most kibbutzim prove by their very existence, staying alive requires working together.
WOMAN takes a selfie in a buttercup field near Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak, outside the Gaza Strip (Reuters)
WOMAN takes a selfie in a buttercup field near Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak, outside the Gaza Strip (Reuters)
KIBBUTZ DEGANYA, which eventually split into Kibbutz Deganya Alef and Deganya Bet, developed into one of Israel’s most iconic institutions, and led the way for the hundreds of kibbutzim thereafter. It was established in October 1910 by a dozen men hailing from Russia. They were inspired to pursue the Zionist socialist vision in Palestine by working the land during what is known as the Second Aliya.
Deganya is located on the banks of the Jordan River just south of Lake Kinneret. The kibbutz features large plantations of bananas, grapefruits and avocados, as well as large cowsheds and chicken coops. It also runs a large industrial factory called Toolgal, which employs most of the kibbutz members (the factory was sold to private interests in 2017).
Itzick Sheffer is a second-generation kibbutznik and a grandfather of kibbutz members. A graduate of the Technion Institute of Technology, Sheffer has been working in the Toolgal factory for more than 40 years in nearly every capacity. Speaking with The Jerusalem Post Magazine, he explains that he splits his responsibilities: 80% working in the factory and 20% as the kibbutz chairman. Sheffer relates how despite being the first kibbutz, Deganya was actually more ahead of its time than those established afterwards.
“Children never slept at the children’s houses in Deganya; they always lived with their parents. There were children’s houses, but nobody slept there. After school, we went to the children’s house for about three or four hours and then we went home and stayed with our families. This is how it always was.”
The strong family bond helped enrich the kibbutz’s community ties. “When I was younger and had to raise my four kids, I worked long hours in the factory. I woke up at five and came home at five. But the kibbutz helped me; I never needed to worry about my kids. I knew they were in good hands. Especially when my wife passed away, I knew that we were being taken care of. This gives you a hint of how things work here. Family life here is very strong, and social life is very strong. The family does not subtract from that social community, it doesn’t replace or go against it,” Sheffer says.
When an economic crisis hit kibbutzim in the ’80s, the effects did not hit Kibbutz Deganya too hard, Sheffer adds, as they had already privatized their factory earlier in that decade, once again underscoring the kibbutz’s one-stepahead aims.
Its approach toward volunteers was also forward-looking. Like most kibbutzim, Deganya began opening its doors to volunteers from all over the world, starting shortly after the Six Day War in 1967.
“From that year, we started to get volunteers from all over the world. In 1982 we stopped accepting volunteers, not because it was bad, but if you want people to work and assist Israelis, it makes more sense to hire people nearby in neighboring cities like Tiberias and Bet She’an, instead of bringing them in from the UK or Europe. We chose to hire Israelis instead of volunteers and foreign workers. It was more expensive, but this is what we decided as a group.”
Today, Deganya is enjoying a sort of revival. At 360 members, its population is the highest it has ever been. There isn’t much agriculture going on, but they are growing and selling olives, as well as grapes for wine.
As for Deganya’s future and legacy, Sheffer says, “I do not think Deganya should face a future any different than the entire kibbutz movement. I assume that when more and more places stop being kibbutzim, Deganya will still stay a kibbutz, but I cannot make any real forecast.”
COMMON thread of kibbutz life was the volunteers. For decades, people from all over the world began flocking to kibbutzim to get a taste of working the land and experiencing this type of communal living. According to Aya Sagi, the director of the Kibbutz Volunteers Program Center, the first official wave of volunteers began after 1967.
“I think 1967 is a sexy date because of the Six Day War. Many people wanted to come and join in this phenomenon so this was the only program available. There were a few people even before that who came to work on a kibbutz, but these cases were rare and somewhat informal,” Sagi says.
Many Diaspora Jews saw the Six Day War as a meaningful victory drawing them to the land. Within a few years, the kibbutzim were flooded with young Jewish volunteers from all over the world.
The peak of this phenomenon was somewhere between the 1970s and mid-’80s, with some 12,000 Jewish and non-Jewish volunteers working at kibbutzim in Israel. Sagi calls this time “the golden era” during which a kibbutz could have had as many as 100 volunteers at a time.
“This was at the time when kibbutzim were still communal and socialist. Volunteers were doing all kinds of jobs on the kibbutzim – a lot of agricultural work, work in the factories and even doing jobs they previously would never give to volunteers, like guarding the kibbutz and standing watch on the periphery or on borders and that sort of thing.”
In the early ’90s things started to shift for the volunteers. Sagi says the effects of an economic crisis began to hit the kibbutz volunteer program. “Communal life was disrupted, as volunteers as well as the kibbutz members were expected to pay for their food, laundry and newspapers. Privatization meant more individual opportunities for members to earn extra income that went toward home improvement, including the addition of private kitchens. An overall desire for a higher quality of life became an issue that needed to be addressed.”
Eventually fewer volunteers came because of global competition with other volunteer programs. The kibbutzim were now competing on a global scale with hundreds of volunteer ventures all over the world, and as a result, the 18- to 35-year-old demographic, which was a staple of the kibbutzim, decreased. Wars and the two intifadas also had an effect and the volunteer trend bottomed out at the turn of the millennium.
Sagi explains that the kibbutzim were going through an introspective period following the kibbutz crisis of the ’80s and the shift to a more privatized and less idealistic kibbutz lifestyle.
“There was a collective shift among the kibbutzim to stop what they were doing and to fix the damage caused by the crisis. This was a time where kibbutzim couldn’t look outward and open their arms to volunteers,” Sagi adds.
The year 2010 marked the end of the period when the kibbutzim had to pay off debts that accrued because of the economic crisis. The year also seems to mark the end of the decline of the kibbutz movement, as many kibbutzim have since welcomed volunteers again. Today, the Kibbutz Volunteers Program Center annually places around 700 volunteers from around the world. There are currently some 330 volunteers in 25 kibbutzim helping out in a variety of ways, including working in factories, agriculture, hospitality and even the dining hall. Sagi notes that 70% of these volunteers are non-Jewish.
“We have always had volunteers coming from all over the world. At first we had many from Western Europe and Scandinavia, but now things shifted and we are seeing a lot from South Korea, India and South American countries.”
This helps to fulfill the program’s goals of “bringing the world to the kibbutz and bringing the kibbutz to the world,” Sagi says. “In turn, these volunteers can go back to their home countries and become our ambassadors. Of course, these world travelers provide much-needed help to kibbutzim. We really benefit from them. And we also encourage people to try out this way of life for a time,” she adds.
INSPIRED BY the pioneering and collective spirit of the kibbutzim of yore, Kibbutz Ketura, located in the Arava, was one of the first founded by Anglo immigrants. Members of Young Judaea, a non-denominational Jewish youth group under the auspices of Hadassah, and the Israeli Scouts (Tzofim), founded Ketura in 1974. Its location is telling, just a quick drive north of Eilat. Ketura’s founders did not want to be near a border or an area captured in the Six Day War.
Sharon Benheim has been a member of the kibbutz since 1996. She originally hails from Washington, DC, was raised by Israeli parents, and has brought up her two Israeli-born children at the kibbutz. She is part of the Young Judaea movement, which influenced her decision to make Ketura her home.
“I spent the year after high school in Israel on a Young Judaea Year course. Ketura was the highlight of the program. During my year in Israel I fell in love with the idea of life on a kibbutz and with Ketura specifically, with its awesome desert vistas and magical air – living with people, working alongside others, and gaining mutual empowerment from the very unique lifestyle,” Benheim explains.
Even though English-speaking immigrants founded the kibbutz, today only about 40% of its members fall into the “Anglo” category. Furthermore, all of the kibbutz’s official business is conducted in Hebrew.
“All of our meetings, and everything on the books, is in Hebrew.”
Even though the kibbutz is relatively young, the members pride themselves on their “old-school approach,” she says. “We are like Old Williamsburg. The big joke around the kibbutz is that we are so old school that in the future when we get visitors they will see us in kova tembels [an iconic Israeli hat typically worn by kibbutz members decades ago] and singing work songs.”
Despite clinging to classic kibbutz ideals, Benheim does not hesitate to mention the religious element of this kibbutz. “All of the activities here are shomer Shabbat and shomer kashrut [observing Shabbat and kosher laws]. This is one of the kibbutz’s tenets, that this is a pluralistic Jewish kibbutz.”
This is not to say that individuals cannot live outside the rules, she adds.
“In public places, we keep these observances, and it is totally clear that the dining room is kosher, but it’s also totally clear that you can cook a cheeseburger in your house if you wish. We always have Shabbat dinner in the dining room. It’s the only time of the week where there is assigned seating. We make kiddush – and yes, women can make kiddush, too – and we are completely egalitarian here.”
This approach has brought thousands of visitors to the kibbutz from all walks of life.
“We get all kinds of tour groups and visitors – nuns from Italy, for example – and many tourists from all over the world who spend a day with us or stay at our bed-and-breakfast. We host many Jewish programs and tour groups here: Ramah groups, USY [a North American Conservative youth group] and gap year programs. Almost all of them spend a weekend here.”
In addition, Ketura is home to The Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, a leading environmental studies and research program in partnership with Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The Institute is noted for hosting Jordanians, Palestinians, Israelis and students from many countries. It was founded by Alon Tal in 1996 and today has its largest group to date: 58 students from all over the world. Benheim says that the kibbutz gets calls daily with requests from people hoping to join the community.
“We get these calls all the time, every day. About 30% of them don’t know what they want. They think they can find inexpensive homes in the south without having to join our kibbutz, and everything it entails. Another 30% are over 65 years old. It’s not that we have anything against this age group; it’s just that there are too many of them here right now and we could benefit from a more diverse community.
“Nevertheless, we manage to bring in one or two families each year. We want to increase that, but these things take time, so we go at a gentle pace,” Benheim adds.
Today, Ketura boasts many members – in fact, the largest number in its history – with 167 members and about 500 who live on the kibbutz (children and “renters” do not count as members).
Once built on radical ideals, Israel’s roughly 260 kibbutzim have emerged from a century- long journey and crippling economic downturns. Yet they have emerged as strong institutions balancing collectivism and capitalism, as well as family and community