Change of Address

The kibbutz goes urban, moving to Tel Aviv.

Beit Dor, Jaffa (photo credit: Courtesy)
Beit Dor, Jaffa
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The idea of establishing a kibbutz in a city might seem like a contradiction. But as standard kibbutzim move towards privatization, a new model is popping up in cities around Israel.
It is fueled by the belief that kibbutz values – democracy, social justice, love of Israel – offer real solutions to social problems, and that the best place to effect change is from within.
To this end, the Dror Israel Movement recently purchased a derelict corner lot in the struggling Shapira neighborhood of Tel Aviv, and is poised to begin construction on the first building specifically designed to function as an urban kibbutz.
Dror Israel is made up of adults who grew up in the Labor Zionist youth movement Hanoar Haoved Vehalomed (NOAL). Traditionally, the movement’s youth would enlist in the IDF’s Nahal Brigade for a lengthened term of service. Part of the time was spent on kibbutz, where soldiers would integrate into work and social activities; after discharge, many would return to live on the kibbutz.
But the trend towards kibbutz privatization necessitated changes in the course of service.
Originally from Rishon Lezion, Eli Shamsian, 36, joined NOAL at the age of 13 and served in Nahal.
“The movement recommended that instead of going to a kibbutz, we consider going to a city. We agreed and went to Tel Aviv, where we ran programs for young people.” In 1999, Shamsian finished the army and remained in Tel Aviv to help found the original kibbutz. “I believe in the idea of contributing,” he says. “There’s something in me that’s suited to living in a group. The ‘together’ allows for a greater contribution – as long as the goal is shared.”
Much as in the standard model, city kibbutznikim live communally, pooling salaries and resources, but instead of working in agriculture, they work in a variety of informal and formal educational capacities.
The 1,200 members of Dror Israel’s “Educators’ Kibbutzim” serve 100,000 people in 158 locations around the country.
Shamsian remembers the first group of kids he mentored. “We caught three 14-year-olds red-handed, painting graffiti on the NOAL building [movement headquarters]. It was obvious they were bored. We told them, ‘Come tomorrow and we’ll give you paint. Paint over the graffiti and we’ll give you a room here where you can hang out.’ They came back the next day and painted,” Shamsian laughs.
“So we gave them a room, and a connection began. The group grew to about 15 kids, mostly from the former USSR, living in Shapira. We’d go on trips, do activities. They joined NOAL and went into the army.
Today, they’re parents; they have families. I’m still in touch with most of them.”
Today, in Tel Aviv and the surrounding suburbs, 110 kibbutznikim serve approximately 4,500 youth and adults, designing and implementing programs in community centers, schools and military facilities.
“The pioneers who founded the first kibbutz, Degania, were building a country,” says Shamsian.
“One hundred years later, the country exists – but society has other issues to address. We see ourselves as the new pioneers; our Tel Aviv kibbutz is the new Degania.”
Currently, the Tel Aviv kibbutz consists of rented apartments scattered throughout the city. It is an expensive and inefficient way to live. Dror Israel believes that having a permanent, physical base within the community they serve will enhance their ability to take action.
In one such instance of mobilizing to serve the community, years ago they heard that 15 to 20 busloads of Sudanese were headed toward Tel Aviv.
“We understood they would be dumped off in the middle of the city and we were there to meet them with food and clothing,” Shamsian says. “We saw there were a lot of teenagers. Without any framework, they could easily become criminals. We drafted resources and opened a school for them. Eventually, the state took responsibility and we closed the school.
It was never meant to be a permanent solution, but because we were right there, we were able to provide an immediate one.”
According to Guy Zuzut, youth coordinator for the city’s department of youth and young, one out of every three Tel Avivians is under the age of 25. In the past, the municipality didn’t provide any programming for residents from after high school, until they became parents. But in recent years, his department has extended services towards non-parents in the upper age bracket.
“Our goal is to provide meaningful activities. We’ve opened a network of neighborhood youth centers; a professional staff offers holistic treatment – it’s not just about afterschool clubs,” Zuzut explains. “We give them a physical place where they can come in and spend time, and offer relevant activities aimed to attract and draw them in. We target every segment of the population: Jews, Muslims, Christians, the disabled and people with special needs.”
The youth movements, of which the Scouts is the largest, provide programming and volunteer manpower. “We also utilize kids serving in Nahal and Shnat Sherut [pre-army service],” says Zuzut.
“In addition, we have six paid employees from the Educators’ Kibbutz. They run four of the youth centers, serving 500 to 600 youth. They are the only movement with whom we have this kind of relationship.
“For me, the group is really special. They’re fresh and refreshing. They don’t think conventionally.
They care about society; they want to contribute. And there’s continuity – if one finishes, someone else can take their place.”
Zuzut agrees that a permanent kibbutz building will benefit the city. “We’ll concentrate all the start-up minds together,” he says. “This could be the ‘Silicon Valley of education’ in the community.”
DIRECTLY BEHIND the ornate Nouzha Mosque on Jerusalem Boulevard in Jaffa are two school buildings – one Arab, one Jewish. One small room off the shared courtyard houses all of NOAL’s activities in Jaffa. It is open during school recess, for afterschool activities and during school holidays.
Sharon Raz is the school’s director of afterschool care. “It is very important that NOAL is here,” she says.
“The informal educational activities they run expose these kids to more than what they get at home – and teach them about values and relationships. There are real connections between the counselors and the children. If someone has a problem, the counselors are there to provide an answer, other than what the teachers give them.”
Soundos Daka, 17, has been in the movement for two years. She is planning to continue after high school. “It’s not always easy to come here; there are always other things to do,” she says. “But we simply love it. I’ve learned what it means to be together, I’ve learned how to deal with children.”
“The movement is a world in itself. When I was in ninth grade, 1,500 of us kids went on a seminar in the North. We slept in tents, had parties until 5 a.m. and we learned how to be counselors.”
“When we go into schools in our [blue] shirts, everyone knows who we are and gets excited to see us,” says Omar Hamoudeh, 17. “Our goal is to change society, end racism and educate children, to teach them patience and strength.”
His brother, 15-year-old Muhammad, is also in the movement. They will both participate in a new project involving both the Tel Aviv and Jaffa groups, in an effort to destroy boundaries and stigmas.
And next year, for the first time in Jaffa, five high school graduates will participate in national service offered to Arab and religious youth. While living at home, they’ll work in schools and run movement activities. “There are tons of kids who want to take part,” says Dror Israel counselor Jonathan Kershenbaum, 22. “Some don’t know it’s open to everybody.”
“Counselors came to my school and explained what the movement is,” says Mariana Jahan, 13. “I was convinced to try it out. I got to know new kids, and now I come two to three times a week.”
Because there is only the one small room, youth activities have to be carefully timed. The movement has been in discussions with the city for two years to get a larger meeting space, but still has no answer.
Back on Jerusalem Boulevard, Shamsian says he worked in Jaffa for several years. “When you hear them speak, it might not be clear there are real hardships here – poverty and crime, and parents aren’t always supportive of their children. But these kids want to be a part of Israel, and it’s like we open a door for them and say, ‘Come in; be Israeli. Be a part of us.’” YIFAT KARLINSKY, 39, joined NOAL as a fifth grader in Kfar Saba. Today, she occupies the role of Dror Israel manager in Tel Aviv-Jaffa.
“We no longer wait until people come to kibbutz. Kibbutz comes to them,” she says. “We take part in the formal educational structure as well. We work in every single school in Jaffa, including Dov Hoz School for at-risk youth, where the students have all dropped out of the regular framework. They get 12 years of schooling plus a vocation – like computers or computer graphics. When they go into the army, they often work in their field.”
While she’s at work, Karlinsky leaves her baby in Dror Israel’s childcare facilities, located in Jaffa on the grounds of a former school. Beit Dor accommodates 0-2 year olds and is adjacent to the preschool, which is open to non-movement 2 to 4 year olds. Her older child attends their afterschool program.
“We’re not ’60s hippies,” she says. “We’re normal people who choose to live together. The strength of ‘together’ is stronger than the individual. We see ourselves as very much part of the community. Our present living conditions are hard on us.”
Architect Eden Barre, principal of Barre Levie Architects and Urban Planners, has worked with Dror Israel since 1999, when he first worked on a project for Kibbutz Eshbal, in the Misgav Regional Council near Karmiel.
“From then, I had a crush on them,” says Barre, who is careful to explain he doesn’t represent them, but is simply saying what he sees.
“I help them translate their way of life into living spaces and public spaces. During numerous meetings and workshops, I’ve gotten to know them.
I see them as the true continuation of the kibbutz movement. They’ve taken upon themselves the concepts of community, society and values, and the basis of everything is education. And the education they present is less ‘How can I earn more?’ or ‘How can I raise my standing in society?’ but more about personal leadership and ‘How do I function within my community?’” “The design for the Tel Aviv kibbutz was based on a hierarchy of private-to-public spaces. For instance, there is a person’s private room. Then several of these rooms are situated around a living room, which is also a meeting space – just like a family home. Then you have a lobby, which is an additional meeting room for a larger group. On the ground floor and in the basement parking area, when you remove the cars, there are more and larger meeting spaces.”
“We tried to straddle the fine line between residential and public. And we tried to insert the language of modern Bauhaus, which is at the root of Israeli architecture.”
The building will house 40 kibbutznikim.
Residents of Shapira are in the lower socioeconomic bracket, but the neighborhood is in the earliest stages of gentrification. Barre says the kibbutz is undergoing the exact opposite. On a plot where someone might build a three-story private home, Dror Israel is planning a home for 40 people.
Barre draws a parallel between the residents of the kibbutz and the historic mulberry tree on the corner of the lot, which has been preserved in the building plans. “They’re the mulberry tree,” he says. “The community will be able to come and eat of their fruit.”
Among other roles, Gilad Perry, 36, of Kibbutz Eshbal and Gary Levy, 40, of Kibbutz Ravid, function as Dror Israel’s directors of international collaboration.
Their job is to initiate contact with Jewish organizations, publicize the movement’s programs and create partnerships of all kinds. For this reason, both are knowledgeable about Dror Israel’s wideranging activities.
“We try to reach every single child. Never mind their background, we come with the same basic values: leadership, democracy, Zionism, love of man and the land, social justice,” says Perry. “We have a network of schools called Dror Batei Chinuch (Dror Houses of Education). They’re regular schools but they have a special approach. It’s less about presenting information, and more about posing questions that the children can answer and learn from.”
“Two weeks ago, Education Minister Shai Piron recognized one of our schools as a school that exemplifies meaningful learning. It will be included in a new program called Halutzei Ha’aracha (Evaluation Pioneers).”
“In the Education Ministry they talk a lot about the concept of ‘meaningful learning’ – where kids learn by going through some kind of process,” Levy says. “What they learn stays with them, gives them tools for the future, self-confidence. That is exactly the way we teach.”
Dror Israel programs include bringing sex education to Kiryat Gat schools, arranging shared activities for Israeli children and children of refugees and foreign workers in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood; and providing Jewish teachers of English to Arab schoolchildren as a way of breaking barriers and building trust. And, Dror Israel is currently in the process of organizing a United States tour for a traveling exhibition honoring the life and work of Yitzhak Rabin.
By definition, Dror Israel kibbutznikim live a modest lifestyle. They scrimped and saved to purchase the Shapira plot – at a cost of $1 million. Today, the building permits are in the final stages of approval, and they’re seeking additional financial support.
“Just as many towns have student housing or housing for the elderly, we can see 20 years from now that every city will have an Educators’ Kibbutz,” says Levy. “Today, there are 270 kibbutzim. They were established by the KKL-JNF, the Jewish Agency, by others. And it doesn’t seem strange to anyone that they exist. We won’t ever have 270, but we could have 27…” Levy reminds us that we’ve seen all kinds of advances in technology – Google, cellphones, cars that drive themselves – and makes an analogy. “In the social sphere, it’s hard to imagine similarly huge changes. It always comes down to the leadership: Do they use the people or serve the people? We come from a place where we want to serve.”
“Israel is thought of as the ‘Start-up Nation’ in hi-tech,” Perry says. “The question is, can we be the Start-up Nation from a social standpoint? I think we can; I think we have to be.”
“The idea of the kibbutz started here in Israel. We can take that idea and renew it, and adjust it to fit our modern lives. We can build communities where there are meaningful objectives and a shared vision. Then Israel will have that to be proud of, too.”