Working the land

Kibbutz Galon still proudly swims against the current of conventional Israeli society.

kibbutz galon 298.88 (photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
kibbutz galon 298.88
(photo credit: Yocheved Miriam Russo)
On the night of October 6, 1946, just after the Yom Kippur fast, pioneer immigrants fanned out across the northern Negev. In defiance of the British Mandate, on that one night they created 11 new kibbutzim. Moving onto Jewish National Fund land, they pitched their tents and, in each location, plowed a furrow - the law required not just the purchase of the land, but working it as well. With their courage, the pioneers staked their claim not only to a Jewish state, but also to the inclusion of the Negev in the area that would ultimately be allocated to Israel. Kibbutz Galon - the name symbolizing the pioneers' strength and courage - came into being as a part of the most audacious settlement movement the Jews in the Land of Israel ever carried out. In many ways, Galon still operates in defiance mode, standing as firm as possible for the old kibbutz values of equality, hard work, democracy and communality. "Before World War II, the Hashomer Hatza'ir youth movement in Poland had 40,000 members," says Yudke Grossman, a Kibbutz Galon member for more than 55 years. "The leaders made a conscious decision to send only a part of their membership to Israel, holding the others back - of course only those who emigrated survived. Kibbutz Galon was founded by nine of those immigrants that night after Yom Kippur. Two years later, in 1948, Mordechai Roseman and other survivors of the legendary ship Exodus joined. In the 1950s my garin, seed group, and other Hashomer units from the US and Canada arrived. Then came the South Americans, Yugoslavians and Russians. In 1961 an Israeli Hashomer unit joined, followed by a smaller group of Mapam members from Uruguay. Culturally we were very diverse, but philosophically, we had a single goal: We were intent on creating a different kind of world, one where the well-being of the community came first." LOCATED IN the Lachish area, about 10 kilometers east of Kiryat Gat, Galon is in a lush agricultural area where flatlands alternate with low hills. Farming - the kibbutz's first endeavor - still accounts for a big part of its income. At its apex, the kibbutz had about 300 members with a total population, counting children, of about 600. Today there are about 170 members, augmented by a number of renters who live on the kibbutz, but have no ownership interest. In the beginning, there was agriculture: crops, chickens and a dairy herd. "I was a city kid from Montreal when I arrived here in 1953," Grossman says. "I knew nothing at all about dairy cows, but on day one, I was sent to the dairy barns and stayed there for 10 years. Starting my second year, I'd finish working, then take a bus into Rehovot, where I was a 'free listener' at Hebrew University's agricultural school. For two years, I took every course it had on animal husbandry, learning an amazing amount. "Today, milk production per cow in Israel is much higher than anyone else's, worldwide, and that's the reason: It's because people like me came to Israel. We didn't know anything about farming, and we didn't have our father's and grandfather's experience to rely on. So what did we do? We studied the latest methods for ourselves. Because we didn't have any 'old ways' to cling to, or any loyalty to the way it had always been done, we were able to make changes and adapt to new conditions quickly. That's one of the secrets of our success." A tool factory was another business. "We started manufacturing hammers," recalls Polish-born Mordechai Kafry, who immigrated to the US after the war, then came to Galon in 1951 with a New York garin. "One of our Polish members was a 'smithy' who came from a family of Jewish blacksmiths, which was very rare. So we opened the first modern tool factory in Israel. We started with hammers, then began making hoes and other kinds of implements. Eventually it stopped being profitable, and we moved on to something else. But in the early days, everyone worked in the fields or the factory." A box factory replaced the hammer factory, and then the kibbutz took a long foray into manufacturing electrical equipment. "We bought the electrical factory from Ramle," says Nurit Grossman, a Galon member who came by way of marriage to Yudke in 1963. "Men from Ramle came, set it up and got it running. We started making household fans. We were lucky - during those years, there was very hot weather. We were overloaded with orders. Even running overtime, we fell behind. I remember coming to work in the factory, dodging the long line of people outside, demanding their fans. It was a good business until Chinese imports made it unprofitable. Up to then, it was fun." When the fan factory went out of production, the kibbutz moved into manufacturing small electrical motors, until Chinese imports ended that, too. "Today most of the factory space is leased out to others," Nurit Grossman notes. "An olive press makes olive oil there and uses our name, but we have no part of the operation." DIVERSIFIED AGRICULTURE is still the backbone of the kibbutz. "We started with chickens, and we still have chickens, says Nurit Grossman. "I grew up in London. I didn't know anything about chickens, but four of us were assigned to gather eggs every morning, starting at 6. I hated the chickens, but when we got a chance, we'd make omelets from the broken eggs. One time someone came in while we were eating an illegal omelet, and I picked the dripping thing up and shoved it into my pocket." Today, the chicken operation is for meat, not eggs, says farm manager Yonit Partok, the 37-year-old kibbutznik who oversees the entire farming operation. "Actually, we're just recovering from a disaster with our chickens," she says. "Not the chickens themselves, but with farm insurance. Because of all the fears of avian flu, we lost two months of production - it was just a preventive measure. There wasn't anything wrong with our chickens. We'd paid for insurance, and had a very clearly written contract that covered us for such a loss. So we applied for reimbursement, which under our contract, we were entitled to. "But what happened? The insurance company began making excuses, and then denied coverage. I went up to see what I could do, and ended up getting so angry they threw me out of their offices. Then we hired a lawyer, and finally they settled for some small amount." Even with the insurance problem, Galon's agricultural operation is turning a nice profit, Partok says, something that's not easy for any farm, anywhere. In addition to the chickens, Galon has a dairy herd of 250 milkers. "We have very high milk production and we market to Tnuva, which has been good. Tnuva just went private, so we're not sure what the future will hold, but for now, the dairy business is good." In all, the kibbutz farms 12,000 dunams (3,000 acres), producing wheat, cotton, chickpeas, watermelons for seed, fruit, avocados and jojoba. Water is an issue. "There's never enough water," Partok says. "In the early days we relied on wells, but because of the high salt and mineral content, we don't use them now. We haven't experimented with any of the more salt-tolerant crops, like olives, but stick to our proven crop rotation pattern. We're very traditional in crops - we plant what we know. If you try something else and it doesn't work, you lose a whole year." Galon was connected to Mekorot, Israel's water company, in the 1960s, and now irrigates sensitive crops with its water, and when necessary, irrigates others with recycled water from Kiryat Gat. "The field crops, like wheat, we try not to irrigate at all, but rely on rain. But if we have to, we use recycled waste water." As farm manager, Partok is one of a triumvirate of women who run the kibbutz. "We're a little bit of a matriarchy at the moment," Partok laughs. "Our three top administrative positions are all held by women. I'm farm manager, Batya Danziger is the kibbutz chairwoman and Yael Lev is head of the community. What's even more unusual is that all three of us are kibbutz kids. We all grew up here." A BIG CHALLENGE for Galon, as for many kibbutzim, is finding a way to keep the children home on the farm. "Young people aren't staying," says Yudke Grossman. "The idealism isn't there anymore. In my day, we were willing to sacrifice our own self-interest for the good of the whole. That's not a prevailing attitude anymore. Now, people want to be rewarded for what they do." The work ethic has changed, too, Mordechai Kafry suggests. "When I came, in 1951, everyone had to work, even when there wasn't any work to do. The kibbutz wouldn't let you rest - you had to do something. So one day they sent us out to pick stones out of mountains of cow dung. The dung was used to make compost, but when the bulldozers piled it up, stones would get mixed in. So there we were, in that heat, picking stones out of cow dung. Not many young people would be willing to do that today." It's not an issue of laziness, Nurit Grossman says. "The people who left the kibbutz probably worked harder outside than they did here. But outside, they felt they were rewarded for their efforts. One told me, 'I don't mind working my tail off from morning to night, but I'll be darned if I'm going to do that, and then come home to see that my neighbor has been sitting playing records all day - not when we both have the same standard of living.' It was a big problem, and the kibbutz didn't deal with the issue very well. That's where problems started." A practical problem also exists how to equitably bring adult children in as members, sharing the wealth of the kibbutz created by the older members. "At the moment, we aren't accepting any new applications for membership," Yudke Grossman says. "We're working on a plan now, something that will be fair for everyone. Maybe a system of shares or units a young person could purchase, so he'd be buying into membership. The problem is, we have far more older members than younger ones. The oldest is over 90, the youngest is maybe 28. "Right now, 50 of our 170 members are pensioners, over 65 years of age. Of that number, 10 are between 60 and 65, 25 are between 72 and 77 and another 15 are over 78. Another large segment is just turning 60 - these are kibbutz children, plus the Israeli group who joined us in 1961. There's another cluster in their 50s. But younger than 40? There aren't many. So the problem is obvious: Who will care for the older ones, like we do now? We have to find a way to bring younger people in as members. We especially want to bring in our children." THE GOOD news is, many people - kibbutz children and others - find the quiet, agrarian lifestyle attractive and have chosen to live on the kibbutz as renters. "Our renters help make Galon a real community," Nurit Grossman says. "They're mostly families, so our kids have playmates and schoolmates." By decision of government authorities, all kibbutz children now attend regional schools. "They're very good schools, many with waiting lists," Nurit says. "The kibbutz provides after-school care, activities, playgrounds and snacks. So for working parents, kibbutz life is ideal. They don't have to worry about their kids." About 30%-40% of the Galon members work at outside jobs, providing another major source of income, since all salaries go into the common fund. "The kibbutz takes your salary, deducts the taxes, deducts your charges - laundry or school - and you get the rest," Yudke Grossman says. "Taxes tend to be high - we have maintenance costs, and we subsidize the dining room, pensions for the elderly, other things. Those who work outside do a little bit of everything - there are teachers, engineers, hi-tech people, a physiotherapist, a dietician. A real cross section." A third source of kibbutz income results from the Seminar Center, a project which originated because of all the North American tour groups Yudke Grossman was bringing. "We needed a place for them to stay," he says. "We converted the old children's houses into bedrooms and have dormitory space as well. We can accommodate 80-100 people, or more, in dormitory-style living." The center attracts all kinds of visitors who come for a Shabbat, for a week or longer. "The Mormons have an archeological excavation near here, so they stay," says manager Leah Eliav. "We have university groups, as well as individuals. Even though we're a secular kibbutz, we maintain a mehadrin dining room, so Jews of all kinds are comfortable here. Our guests have full use of all the kibbutz facilities, including the swimming pool. They hike, rest, tour, do whatever they want. It's not like being confined in a hotel. Here, everything is available." That "everything is available" policy isn't always popular among kibbutz residents. "Having guests living inside your kibbutz hasn't been easy for some members," one member noted. "There's been some conflict. Some guests don't keep regular hours, or they play loud music at 4 a.m, while those of us who live here need to get up early to work. We try to maintain a certain quality of life here, so sometimes there have to be adjustments. "One year there was a question of guests wanting to barbecue on Yom Kippur. True, we're a secular kibbutz, but allowing someone make a fire on Yom Kippur was something we simply could not permit. The center was empty that year, and we lost money. But clearly, we had to draw the line. There has to be a balance between our way of life and earning money." The old days are gone: Today, children live with their parents, not communally in children's houses. The communal showers are gone, while individual homes have every modern convenience. Evenings are no longer spent watching the news on the one common television set. Kibbutz workers receive a salary. Members are not only free to attend university, but also to study whatever they like. They're encouraged, even required, to earn money - there's a kibbutz beauty shop, a small grocery, a thriving South African-themed restaurant. Members work outside, they go to the theater and restaurants. They live pretty much like other Israelis. But there's still a quality of life that's different on Kibbutz Galon. It's as peaceful as a working family farm can be. It's a place where everyone instantly recognizes a visitor. It's one of the last places where many people don't lock their doors, at least during the day. But maybe the biggest difference is in the way the veteran kibbutzniks remember the old days. For them, it's not the hard physical labor that was important, but rather the way they all thought. "We were pioneers," Yudke Grossman says. "We believed when we came that we'd start a whole new way of life. In some ways, we succeeded: we proved that Jews can be successful farmers. For a while, we did live a different kind of life. But now? We're back to what many of us were running from. We're working for ourselves, not for the community. The best we can do now is preserve as much of the kibbutz lifestyle as we can, for as long as we can."