My Year on a Kibbutz

On the first day, I awoke at 6 a.m. to the sight of beautiful fruit trees and flowers through my window.

Although I was surrounded by exotic vegetation, I knew just outside the parameters of this unusual community I would find barren desert sprawled out in all directions.

I had a sensation of living in a remote, lush oasis. Little red roofed cottages dotted the landscape and children giggled and ran barefoot in the already burning sunshine.

I got out of bed and turned the lights on to wake the other sleepy volunteers. I prepared for my morning’s work with the chickens and cows.

It hit me quite suddenly – I was living on a kibbutz.

Sometimes, reality doesn’t live up to your expectations. Living on kibbutz didn’t live up to mine. It was one of the most difficult, and most rewarding, experiences of my life. It forced me to dig deeper, and let go of idealized, preconceived notions. I believe I am now a more mature, compassionate human being.

I grew up in Canada as part of the socialist, Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair (HH). In my last year of high school, I announced I was taking a year “off” and going to Israel on an educational program with HH.

The news elicited a litany of reactions. Some people were encouraging and excited, but most were skeptical. Good friends warned I was wandering off the beaten track and would never go back to school, or I would waste my year being frivolous and fall behind.

However, I stuck to my conviction that this was the right thing to do. I saw no rush to get to university considering I had no idea what to study.

The Shanah Tovah (meaning “good year” in Hebrew) program is designed for high school graduates and college students from across North America. It seeks to teach them the realities of kibbutz life and to immerse them in Israeli culture and community.

A kibbutz, unique to Israel, is a collective farm or settlement owned by its members. Historically, many young Jewish people worldwide choose to live on a kibbutz for a year to show their social and political support for the country and help develop the land.

More recently, with dangerous conflict in the Middle East and increasing pressure to get into university as soon as possible, the trend has been on the decline.

Despite this, kibbutz life remains a symbol of perfect, communal living to many North American Jews today. This image is spread through Jewish history books, stories told at camps and religious schools, and past remembrances by Israeli friends and family members.

For five months I lived on kibbutz. Three months were spent on a traditional, agricultural kibbutz called Nir-Oz and two months were spent on an urban kibbutz called Migvan, which was located in the development town of Sderot in the south of Israel.

I have always had an image of kibbutzim (plural of kibbutz) as idyllic, self-sufficient, socialist communes.

It is a fantasy I retained until I unpacked my stuff at Nir-Oz and settled down to work each morning at 6 a.m. with the baby bulls.

But Kibbutz Nir-Oz, located about 20 minutes from the Gaza fence, forced me to confront the reality that kibbutzim are in decline.

To begin with, most kibbutzim have been privatized, meaning where kibbutzniks used to eat together in the Nir-Oz dining room, they now head to their houses after work and eat individually at home.

Privatization is a so-called modernization process, whereby kibbutz members get individual wages according to the jobs they perform, instead of everyone taking an equal share of the total profits as was done in the past.

Without monetary equality, divisiveness among members is inevitable. There is obvious and understandable resentment from members who no longer make as much money.

Computers have replaced community, and most members I talked to seemed jaded, unsatisfied and angry. With the onset of technology in the fields and factories, many older members said they felt left behind and set in traditional ways.

People I talked to reminisced about members dropping in on each other uninvited and children living together in a special daycare. These customs seemed almost unimaginable to me. Perhaps the end of the Labour governments, which heavily subsidized kibbutzim, was also the end of socialism.

Now forget about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; I encountered enough racism within kibbutz to wipe out any immediate ideas about peace and equality on an international scale.

Kibbutz members must reconsider the way they treat their own labourers internally for there to be a just way forward.

At Nir-Oz, migrant Thai workers are hired at lesser pay to do the dirty and difficult farm work the kibbutzniks don’t want to do.

The Thais were some of the nicest and most generous people I met all year, but the kibbutzniks never bid them “shalom.” They live in separate quarters and are not invited to communal events such as soccer games or holiday festivities. Not once did I see them relaxing by the pool or at the kibbutz pub.

Perhaps most personally difficult for me, however, was when I talked to the young people on kibbutz. Many appeared to be engaged in an exodus to cities, fleeing the stifling isolation of kibbutz life, in search of bigger and better places.

Individualism is now the globalized norm there and everywhere else. When I argued about the scenic beauty of Nir-Oz, or the festive communal celebrations, the teenagers scoffed at the notion of staying on Nir-Oz post-army service. They want to travel to Australia and Thailand, not work in the fields or the kitchen.

All this was hard for me to digest. Sure, I had a great time working with the animals, picking mangoes off the trees and partying on the lawns until dawn, but was that really enough?

It took a lot of self-reflection and analysis, but I still believe there is a way forward for kibbutzim in Israel. Most Israelis seem pessimistic, but I did see a few signs of hope: A new kibbutz is currently being set up exclusively by young people, as proof of a more modern, positive context of communal living.

Leaving Israel and kibbutz for home was one of my most emotional experiences to date. I am still in touch with many friends there, but of course it is different when we are not in contact every day.

Upon return, I had newfound feelings of independence and maturity. I am studying International Development and my beliefs about the need for global change and reformed social inequalities were greatly influenced by my travels.

The realities on today’s kibbutzim are a reminder to me that nothing is perfect in life, and that the only way forward is through dialogue, tolerance and a drastic re-evaluation of established beliefs.

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