The Israeli urban kibbutz model, now in Brooklyn

Group trying out urban kibbutz model for first time on North American soil.

state-religion survey 224 (photo credit: )
state-religion survey 224
(photo credit: )
It's 7 o'clock on a Thursday night and Rogers Avenue in Brooklyn is a commotion of hissing cars, gossipy packs of middle-school girls and elderly Russian women on apartment stoops speaking in fractured English. I ring the doorbell of Kvutzat Orev - one of the three urban kibbutzim that have cropped up in North America over the past few years. A petite girl named Karen answers. She offers a handshake, then guides me outside where four other kvutza members are tending their vegetable garden. "This is just one of our ways of connecting with Israel," Karen says. We reconvene in a rough-hewn, maple-paneled kitchen with a table so long conversation barely reaches the opposite end; I ask about the apartment, but the Orev kids want to talk Israel. "There's a burgeoning urban kibbutz movement in Israel right now," explains youth movement Hashomer Hatza'ir's development director Daniel Roth. "And we are bringing it here, redefining what Zionism means. It's a very exciting time." Kvutzat Orev, made up of six members of Hashomer Hatza'ir, its sister group in Toronto, Kvutzat Piratz, and Habonim Dror's Brooklyn-based kvutza are trying out the urban kibbutz model for the first time on North American soil. The model grows out of a long history. In the 1970s, the kibbutz movement began to suffer in Israel as young people moved to the big cities. In an effort to save the lifestyle from dying out completely, the Zionist youth movement Hano'ar Ha'oved Vehalomed repackaged the model to fit the modern world. It sent alumni into the cities to create what it called urban kvutzot (Israel boasts around 100 such models today), where members lived together in an apartment, shared a joint bank account and spent their days settling society instead of settling the land. The Kvutzat Orev members had spent a year in Israel building such a kvutza but wanted to return to the States to revive their movement's New York office and build a kvutza in Brooklyn. "It just seemed like the right thing to do. It seemed like -" Roth scratches his chin, "like the right revolution for the right time." The revolution is a vague one. In a world where almost every nonprofit seems to focus on tight, overly targeted missions, the North American kvutzot simply want to better their surroundings. This begins with their day jobs, which for almost every kvutza member is a position at the local Zionist youth movement office. Titles range from marketing supervisor to outreach coordinator to summer camp director, positions that at most organizations would take a long ribbon of promotions to acquire. Their early success hasn't come without a few annoyed mutterings from the press, however. While Orev was still based in Israel, it launched a coexistence curriculum and drama course that enrolled both Israeli and Arab middle school students. The project made national headlines, but bloggers and on-line commenters were less than enthusiastic. "People thought there were more important Zionist projects we should be spending our time on," says Hashomer Hatza'ir events director Eugenia Manwelyan. Kvutzat Piratz in Toronto is in an even more urgent chase of adulthood. In just eight months, the group has launched a successful nonprofit, Project Equity, whose projects are unusually varied and ambitious. Piratz member Eyal Rosenblum says its centerpiece campaign, Project Goodwater, aims to help a small village in Guyana fix its broken wells. The community, Rosenblum explains, was greatly disturbed when four major wells broke down, causing children to miss school so they could walk two hours daily to fetch contaminated water for their families. Remarkably, the members of Piratz raised $7,000 for the project and traveled to Guyana to fix three of the four wells. Project Equity's Solar and Wind Initiative Towards Change (SWITCH) rents roof space atop Toronto public schools to install energy-efficient solar panels, which decentralizes the need for mammoth-sized power supplies. Ten schools have already signed on to test the model in a pilot program, and if all goes well, the operation will expand to involve a staggering 168 schools. Because of roof rental costs, it also pours a significant sum of cash into the Toronto public school system. Surely, with six or seven 20-somethings sharing bank accounts and apartments in a big city, there must be some kind of domestic warfare ensuing. Roth explains that Kvutzat Orev members did fight in the infant stages of the kvutza, while they were still based in Israel, but they eventually grew to realize their mission was too important to let silly household brawls get in their way. Orev member and Hashomer Hatza'ir graphic designer Tal Baery chimes in: "We had to work through things in the beginning, but then we realized what annoyed us about each other was the same thing we loved about each other. It's just like any kind of relationship." Kvutzat Habonim Dror, also based in Brooklyn, was not even fazed by romantic entanglement. Habonim Dror lovebirds Jamie Beran and Elon Sehore, who had been together for three years before joining the kvutza, claim their relationship is not something they could ever see causing tension. "We are not the type of couple to read other people out," says Sehore. "When we need alone time, we are upfront about it. And everyone's cool with it." The neighbors at first found it a bit odd that so many 20-somethings were piled together into one apartment. Naturally, they eased up after getting to know the kvutza members. But then there was the whole banking issue. Bank of America had trouble understanding why these seemingly normal recent grads felt the need to bind their friendship into a six-person joint checking account, and the teller insisted this was against bank policy. He was wrong, however, and, soon enough, checks with all six of the kvutza members names lining the top arrived in their mailbox. The Habonim Dror members do have private bank accounts, but they contribute most of their earnings (there is no set amount but those with higher incomes pay more) to the joint account. The account pays for all household items, and most personal items, which recently included a portion of a member's new laptop. The account even paid for one of its members, Rachel Profeta, a program associate for the American Jewish World Service, to laze around Mexico for a few days, as a kind of mini-vacation following a work trip. Habonim Dror sees money sharing as a simple issue of family obligation. Just as a working man or woman might cover the food and clothes costs for their stay-at-home spouse, so too, would a Habonim Dror member for a fellow housemate. "I like the joint account because it makes me splurge less," says Profeta, "I spend my money less on things for myself, like clothes, and more on social things I do with my kvutza, like going out to eat." For Kenan Jaffe, Habonim Dror's financial director, the joint bank account serves as a way to unite the group. "You don't have those barriers you had with your college roommates. We share everything, so there is none of that awkwardness about asking to use people's things or to figure out the check at a restaurant." All three kvutzot set aside at least one evening in their busy work week for intensive bonding. This includes anything from a heated discussion about homelessness in Toronto to a question-and-answer session with a Jerusalem Post reporter. Additionally, Habonim Dror blocks off two Sundays a month to spend together, and Orev has christened Tuesday evenings its official Thai dinner night. All three kvutzot host creative Kabbalat Shabbat services and dinner every Friday night, which lure in a long list of friends who have a way of hobbling in just in time to miss the services. "For many of our guests, our Friday nights are their only connection to Judaism," says Orev's Manwelyan. Most kvutzot members believe in God, but they have devoted some serious thinking time to inventing their own kind of Judaism. Of all the kvutzot, Orev is perhaps the most committed to "God-searching." They discuss and argue religion endlessly, have met with a number of rabbis in Israel, and have even signed up for an Aish Hatorah session.