“I get up in the morning, walk three minutes with my daughters and leave them with the caretakers. I then walk another five minutes to an office overlooking the Hula Valley and the Golan Heights. After spending eight hours with the guys I grew up with, I pick up the girls and visit my parents who live half a minute away from me. I play and eat dinner with friends on the grass – what more does a person need?”
Amit Schlesinger returned to Kibbutz Baram on the border with Lebanon after spending 12 years away, like many kibbutz members who have since returned. “It’s an amazing place in terms of quality of life. Only the neighbors leave something to be desired,” he says with a smile. He works in the kibbutz factory that develops medical products, and his wife, an art therapist, works outside the kibbutz.
Devora Gelbstein, a native of Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh in Emek Hefer, returned home after living in the center of the country for 20 years. She and her husband own a grocery at a nearby moshav. “I live in a closed community with all that it entails,” she says, “but I take only the good from it and disassociate myself from the bad. I never cut myself off sentimentally from the kibbutz.”
She lives in an “old and leaky” house in the kibbutz, as she describes it. She says she wouldn’t live there if it were situated in a city, but the blooming flowers and ficus trees swayed her.
It is well-known in the Kibbutz Movement that privatization, which uprooted the original socialist ideology, is the main reason for the growing trend of returning members; many are indeed coming back because of financial difficulties or simply due to convenience.
“The privatization created a situation in which it is possible to live on a kibbutz with considerable independence, just like any place in the country,” says Niv Wiesel of the Kibbutz Movement. “First and foremost, we had to make the kibbutzim attractive again. We realized that the fact that everything on the kibbutz is cooperative is the Achilles’ heel. Whereas you once had to wait on line for a home and to study, today financial independence lies with the individual.”
Kibbutz veterans may not like all these changes, but the movement’s leaders understand the need to change, even if it comes at the cost of capitulating to capitalism. “We are bringing the children back, not as an ideology, but as a necessity,” says Wiesel. “We have to change according to the reality, which is constantly changing. We are at the beginning of the process of empowering the kibbutz enterprise. There are kibbutzim where the average age of members is 55 and the process is saving them from demographic destruction.”
Naturally, kibbutzim in the center of the country have an easier time winning back members – both because they are closer to job centers and because they are more profitable. Elsewhere, a greater effort is required. The impressive carnival held over the Sukkot holiday in the Ibim Students Village, near Sderot, looked like the launch of a trendy new item. Ahead of the event, flags and banners were hung and dozens worked on final preparations. On stage, a local female troupe rehearsed Hebrew versions of hits from “The Lion King.” Among stalls selling food and local artists’ crafts, youngsters in costumes handed out balloons and lollipops.
Under the banner “going back home,” kibbutzim representatives in the Shaar Hanegev Regional Council gathered to persuade former members to return. Every kibbutz built a sukka with decorations. Kibbutz Dorot advertised its successful garlic factory. Kibbutz Or Ha’ner, which was founded by immigrants from South America, handed out flyers that said, among other things, “every Saturday there is a multi-generational soccer game,” “everything is done slowly” and “you can be late for meetings.”
In recent months, many kibbutzim have taken carefully-planned steps to lure kibbutz natives home, and have even appealed directly to those who left, but this is the first time that a regional council, in collaboration with the Kibbutz Movement, is organizing a mass event to meet with the deliberating potential returnees. It appears to be effective. Einat and Yair, parents of a newborn baby, have already put out feelers and have started to make inquiries about returning to one of the kibbutzim in the area, where Einat was born and lived until after her army service. Her partner, Yair, who was born and raised in Rishon Letzion, said he was not “the only sucker.”
“I’m surprised, really,” says Yair. “The fact that I see so many people here who are planning to go back makes it easier for me.” Einat adds: “That’s basically the essence of the kibbutz, isn’t it? Not to be alone.”
Oded Felot, the director of the strategic office at Shaar Hanegev and one of the organizers of the event, understands how important it is for those who are wavering to meet hundreds like themselves. “The sense that you are part of a bloc that wants to be accepted back in the kibbutz makes the difference,” he says.
Security problems in the area were not directly addressed by the flyers, but they did come up in conversations. For Alon Schuster, the head of the regional council, the return home at this time is clearly an ideological move. “It’s our response to terrorism,” he says. “This is Zionism for us, and we stress to the children, the ‘despite everything’ idea. Come home despite the Qassams.”
Most of the kibbutzniks return with families at the age of 30 to 40. “It was clear to us that once we had children, we wouldn’t continue living in Tel Aviv,” says Aviv Kutz, 37, married with two children, who returned to Kfar Aza after eight years. “The surrounding noise and the fact that there are no green spaces – it’s just not it.”
The Kibbutz Movement does not have precise figures on the number of returning members because the Central Bureau of Statistics does not differentiate between kibbutz members, returning members or those who rent an apartment on a kibbutz and record their new address on their identity card. “We know that in 2006, there was an increase of 500 members in the movement’s 250 kibbutzim,” says Amikem Osem of the office for demographic support at the Kibbutz Movement, “but we don’t know if they are returning members.”
Figures from several kibbutzim indicate an increase in the population: Kibbutz Einat recently absorbed 80 new members, Netiv Halamed Heh accepted 34 members, Netzer Sireni accepted 150, Kibbutz Yasur accepted 50 and Kibbutz Be’eri took in around 40 new members, as did Maagan Michael and Sasa. Kibbutz Na’an even submitted a request to the state to increase the number of households permitted to live there from 500 to 1,000.
The rights and obligations of returning members and new members are defined by each kibbutz, and there are numerous different absorption options, almost as many as there are kibbutzim. There are some that offer membership in which the new member is not a party to the kibbutz’s past debts, but is a member of the community and the businesses. There are kibbutzim that offer “absorption for expansion” (residence without obligations and rights) and there are some that offer an in-between status, a share of the debts and a share of the benefits. According to this arrangement, the individual’s salary is not transferred to the kibbutz’s coffers, but a mutual responsibility tax is paid.
Schlesinger, of Kibbutz Baram, which is in the process of privatizing, acknowledges that “whoever grew up on a kibbutz has baggage, and when you return, you must consider what you are willing to give up. The fact that I, as an adult male with a family, must share financial decisions that apply to me with 300 people is certainly a concession on my part. The fact that I will have to obtain the approval of the special committee for me to go and study, a trivial thing in the city, is a concession. The fact that I will have to accumulate vacation days for my wife to be able to extend her maternity leave, so that she can use them instead of me, is a concession.”
On Baram, Schlesinger can still enter the grocery store and take 30 packs of cigarettes a month. The kibbutz also pays a share of parking tickets. “A kibbutz member has a budget suited to him,” he explains, “but every member has different needs and therefore it’s logical that everyone receives bonuses beyond his salary, each according to his needs.”
In the meantime, Schlesinger has three months to stop smoking; at the beginning of next year, the kibbutz will stop paying for his cigarettes. Gelbstein and Schlesinger may not want to have their children raised in communal children’s homes, the way they themselves grew up, but they have no bad memories of that era: on the contrary. As far as Schlesinger is concerned, the people who grew up with him in the same children’s home and with whom he lives and works today are “closer to him than brothers.”
Gelbstein, who says she left because “we were young and spirited and yearned for independence,” adds her roots lie in the kibbutz. “The kibbutz provided an education and instilled values that are a major factor in my moral behavior today. I received only good things from the kibbutz enterprise. I don’t want to be condescending, but the kibbutz values are different, more tolerant than in the city, where the concept of ‘there is no one like me’ prevails.”