In Israel, Kibbutz Life Undergoes Reinvention For years, the kibbutz movement in Israel has been struggling. Now, fewer than 5 percent of Israelis live in the communal settlements. But from the ashes, some Israelis are trying to take the old movement in a new direction.
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In Israel, Kibbutz Life Undergoes Reinvention

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In Israel, Kibbutz Life Undergoes Reinvention

In Israel, Kibbutz Life Undergoes Reinvention

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

For more than a century, the Kibbutz Movement has brought Zionists to what is now Israel to fulfill the dream of living in a utopian, socialist society on communal farms. But the movement is struggling and now less than five percent of Israelis live in kibbutzim. Many communities were privatized, others were abandoned. But as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports, some Israelis are trying to take the movement in a new direction.

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's dinner time at this apartment in Jerusalem's Kiryat Yovel neighborhood. The door is unlocked and 20-something men and women walk in, holding dishes of food for the potluck meal.

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It looks like a gathering of any group of young Israelis, but the people here are members of an urban kibbutz.

Ms. MICHAL GOMEL (Social Worker): It's the renewal of the Kibbutz Movement. And I think it takes the basic and core values and principles of the Kibbutz Movement, but places it in a different context.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Michal Gomel is a 28-year-old social worker. She grew up on a traditional kibbutz, one that was set in a remote rural environment, where all the funds and the work were shared.

Ms. GOMEL: What we felt, that in modern society today, there is a lot of alienation between people in the cities, where most of the population today lives. So this is why we felt we want to live in a more urban setting but with the solidarity and the friendship and the personal ties of a small kibbutz.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Her urban kibbutz, one of dozens in the country, is comprised of 13 adults and three children, most of them live in this apartment building.

Ms. GOMEL: We want to share a space, that's for sure. No, we don't share the same apartment. We're not in a commune setting but we have some kind of economic sharing. We celebrate holidays together. We also have a lot of ideological sharing, which means we learn a lot from each other.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And they want to achieve certain common goals. This group is active in local politics. At the moment, they're leading the charge in trying to maintain the secular character of their neighborhood as increasing numbers of orthodox Jews move in.

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Communal meals like this one are an important feature of their life, where they can discuss and plan activities. As dusk falls, they sit down to eat.

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: According to the official Web site, there are 256 kibbutzim in Israel. But for the past decade, the movement has been in crisis.

Mr. MUKI TZUR (Historian; Former Secretary-General, United Kibbutz Movement,): We are in a situation of restarting the whole thing.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Muki Tzur is a historian and former secretary-general of the United Kibbutz Movement. Sitting in a park in Tel Aviv, he says he's hopeful that the movement can survive this difficult time.

Mr. TZUR: It's a pregnant movement. There are many directions, many adaptations. There are many new ideas. The kibbutz is in the hospital, but to go to the hospital doesn't mean that you are sick. Sometimes you go to the hospital because, you know, something is going to be born.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But what exactly? Sometimes even those who are starting a new kibbutz don't know. In the kibbutz of Hanaton in northern Israel, Jacob Ner-David answers a question about what the model of this kibbutz will be.

Unidentified Man: There's one thing that's not clear to me.

Mr. JACOB NER-DAVID: Sure.

Unidentified Man: The 25 or 30 new houses that you want to build for future members…

Mr. NER-DAVID: Yeah.

Unidentified Man: …what will it mean to those families to be a kibbutz member?

Mr. NER-DAVID: I mean there isn't an absolute answer to you. But it's still going through definition of what does it mean to be more than just living in some suburbs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ner-David moved here a few months ago from Jerusalem with his wife and six children, along with 17 other families. As we walk around the area, people are busy at work remodeling homes they will eventually be living in. Hanaton, he says, was founded in the 1980s, but from the original 114 members, by 2006, only 11 were left. Like many kibbutzim, its finances faltered and it was deeply in debt. Ner-David and the other families bought the kibbutz and are now working out how the community will function. Everyone will own their own home. Most have jobs off the kibbutz, so their income will be their own as well. Beyond that, Hanaton is affiliated with the conservative Jewish movement, and Ner-David says that the families who come here all want to explore their faith.

Mr. NER-DAVID: Your Jewish identity has to mean something, and it has to be the basis for, you know, how you view communal life. Beyond that, into discussion because it is a bunch of people that want to figure out what does it all mean.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says Hanaton will be a place where some interfaith challenges can be resolved.

Mr. NER-DAVID: And hopefully, it will be an example of what could be, how do you all get along. I mean, if we have one synagogue, for example, you know, what do you do? I'm sure there's going to be a breakaway synagogue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It hasn't been easy, but he says he doesn't regret coming here.

Mr. NER-DAVID: The reaction we've got from most people that we speak to, for example, in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, my business partner, who's an absolute Tel Avivian, is wow, you are actually doing what everybody else dreams about.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: About an hour away is a different community that is trying to completely redefine what a kibbutz is.

Mr. YOCHANAN BAYIT: Our community is a (unintelligible) with special needs and also you call regular people. And to make less distance between two groups and I think it's very good.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yochanan Bayit is a resident with special needs at Kishorit. He came here five years ago and he works in this community's television station.

Mr. BAYIT: I came here to change my life. I have interesting things to do.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dita Kohl-Roman is one of the directors here.

Ms. DITA KOHL-ROMAN (Director, Kishorit): Kishorit is a home for life for adults with special needs located in the Galilee and has 140 members. The vision of the founders was based on the kibbutz model.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says the members all have different backgrounds, some are autistic, some are schizophrenic, all have some form of disability. Eventually, there will be a community for family members abutting Kishorit. A sister area for Arab members with special needs is also planned.

Ms. KOHL-ROMAN: The kibbutz has an enormous ability to heal. The community life in the kibbutz, the fact that one celebrates the holidays together, actually is very good for people with special needs.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kohl-Roman says that having a place where no one judges you, where there is a safety network, is vital.

Ms. KOHL-ROMAN: You have people who are taking care of you here, and you have friends here. You can help others who are weaker than you and you can get help of other members who are stronger than you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Like a traditional kibbutz, everyone is expected to work here. There's a toy factory, a goat farm and a kennel.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Kohl-Roman says there is nothing like Kishorit anywhere in the world.

Ms. KOHL-ROMAN: It's a change. It's something new.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says she's excited by what's happening here. Far from the Kibbutz Movement being dead and buried, it is, she says, being reborn.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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