Communes and Communal Groups in Israel
Miriam Harel (edited by Judith Gelman)
There have many articles lamenting or gloating over the “death of the kibbutzim”, yet far fewer about a new Israeli phenomenon—the new, mostly urban, communal groups, sometimes called kvutzot . About 60 of these intentional communities are scattered throughout the country. They vary in structure and rationale but typically the participants share housing, income and an ideology. The age range of the participants is quite wide, from 19 to about 60, and includes mostly singles but also some married couples and families with children. The groups have been developing over the past thirty years but are now increasing in number.
The first groups were developed in by Hashomer Hatzair and Noar Haoved youth movements from the communot (communes) in which youth leaders lived while giving a year of service between high school and the army. (Ed. note: Noar Haoved is Habonim Dror’s sister movement in Israel.) These communot evolved into the first “urban kibbutzim”, modeled on their traditional, rural counterparts. Now, there is much more variety among the groups, with some closer to a socialist ideal and some closer to other philosophies.
Many of these communities have a defining ideology. For example, Harduf is associated with the Anthroposophists (the philosophy behind the Waldorf school movement), Kalil with the Buddhists, Harrarit with meditation. Others, such as the solar-powered agricultural Samar, are closer to traditional kibbutzim.
To help the reader understand this new landscape a bit better, here some descriptions of a few of these communities.
Nir Moshe: Established seven years ago on 11 dunams (2.7 acres) near Be’er Yaakov, this community is made up of a group of self-defined anarchists. They grow organic vegetables together and give “each according to his means” and take “each according to his needs”. They have permaculture (sustainable, organic, naturalistic) gardens with donkeys and chickens. One member describes their group as “a family without rules or regulations.” They developed a nonprofit organization called Adamama (Mother Earth) to educate others about their approach to agriculture. Their aim is live together based on trusting, non-consumerist Buddhist principles.
Horesh: Located in Jerusalem, the goal of this community is to stem the exodus of non-religious young people from the city. Twenty high tech professionals occupy half an apartment building, each giving 2,000 shekels (about $500) a month to the kupa (communal fund) while retaining the rest of their salaries to use as they see fit. They welcome Shabbat together with a a Kabbalat Shabbat every Friday evening, , host lectures, share the housework and eat together.
Sadaka Jewish-Arab Youth Partnership: This six-year-old joint Jewish-Arab commune is located in Yaffo, a mixed city to the South of Tel Aviv. Unlike most groups, which are formed by the participants, this group is an ongoing project of Sadaka-Reut, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating Arab-Jewish understanding. The population of this community is purposely transient. Its members live together for a year or two after high school. By design, this is an ethnically, religiously and culturally diverse community rather than an island of like-minded individuals, as found in most of the new communities. The goal is for participants to learn how to live together by airing differences and breaking down stereotypes. Given the ages and stage of life of the members, significant personal maturation takes place in this challenging environment.
Galim-Haifa: Founded in 2005, this intentional community is made up of university students, musicians and high tech professionals who live together in a block of apartments. Together, they formed the Galim-Haifa nonprofit organization, which currently employs 20 people. One of their projects is teaching music to children in the Bat Galim neighborhood; they have also renovated bomb shelters and worked with elderly immigrants. Unlike many of the other groups, they do not pool their salaries and they are also very involved politically. They are discussing buying land to build their own school and a permanent residential community for the group.
Mifras: Located in Kiryat Shalem in Tel Aviv, this community of 15 occupies two houses where every member has his or her own room. Food is an important theme for this group. They grow or purchase all food together and compost the remains. All salaries go into a kupa from which each member takes according to his or her needs. Although they are only in their twenties and thirties, they contribute to pensions for each member. The community holds musical evenings and films to which members invite their friends from outside the community. They are proudly socialist and socially conscious. They are a very powerful agent in a disadvantaged, up and coming neighborhood providing many neighborhood projects.
Naama: Graduates of the Mahanot Ha’olim youth movement founded this organization about eight years ago. The total group is comprised of about 100 people, mostly teachers, scattered among about 30 apartments in three or four towns in the Nazareth/Migdal HaEmek area. Salaries are pooled and then allocated according to “need” and transportation is shared. They hold lectures, have a library and a big rented “living room” for shared Sabbath meals and holiday celebrations. Dedicated to social service in the community, an explicit part of their philosophy is also mutual social support for members in times of trouble.
Tnuat Bogrim Kvutzot: Located mostly in urban centers, these small groups (kvutzot) of Israeli Noar Oved movement graduates and Habonim Dror movement olim form larger local conglomerations and come together in a national “Circle of Kvutzot.” Within the individual kvutzot, participants live together, typically pooling their salaries. Service to the larger community through education and youth movement work is a goal of these groups. Although many members work as teachers or social workers, others have “regular” jobs and do their service work strictly as volunteers. Each group is self-governing and determines its own affiliations. For example, Kibbutz Yovel, made up mostly of Habonim Dror alumni from the UK and Australia/New Zealand, is both a member of the Naama group (see above) and part of the Tnuat Bogrim Kvutzot. For several years, the Habonim Dror North America yearlong Workshop program has drawn madrichim and instructors from movement graduates who are members of the Tnuat Bogrim Kvutzot. The participants in the Workshop program spend part of the year living a kvutzot-type lifestyle in apartments in the vicinity of ongoing groups.
Migvan: About 30 families (60+ members) in the Sderot community make up this self-described “urban kibbutz.” Founded in 1987, they resemble the anarchists in some ways because they have no set rules and no defined roles. They live in private homes but celebrate holidays together and eat meals together (when they want to.) They pool their money and cars. The group meets weekly to work out issues. They have a “greater committee” which does projects in Sderot and has had a very important role in helping and supporting the Sderot community during the endless scud attacks on that city. One of Migvan’s founders, Nomika Zion (granddaughter of Yaakov Hazan, co-founder of Hashomer Hatzair and leader of Mapam) also founded the peace group Kol Acher (Another Voice) which works for rapprochement between Jews and Arabs and opposed the Gaza War. Migvan has members in their forties and fifties as well as younger people and is an official member of the kibbutz movement.
Tamuz: Located in Bet Shemesh, this community, also founded in1987 and also calling itself an “urban kibbutz”, is another official member of the kibbutz movement. The 61 members and their children live together in 20 connected multi-story buildings that surround a large common green lawn and form a horseshoe around the community buildings where they hold Kabbalat Shabbat and holiday celebrations, as well as educational events for adults and children. Unlike many of these communities, members eat and cook privately, sharing only Friday night dinner each week. Their green enclave sets them off from the surrounding neighborhood and gives the community the feel of a traditional kibbutz. The community’s website lists its core values as 1) equality and collectivism, 2) personal responsibility, 3) study and education 4) involvement in Israeli society and 5) Jewish life. The community runs a kindergarten and childcare center for its own children and children from the surrounding community. Tamuz also operates a non-profit community service organization called Kehillah (community), which focused on education and empowerment in the Bet Shemesh community. A number of members are employed by this organization, while others work in the community and contribute their entire salaries to the kupa.
(For more details about some of these groups, see Vered Lee, “All Together Now”, Haaretz Online, Aug 21, 2008 http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1012131)
What is the appeal of these groups? Why now?
Need for Intimacy: Israeli society is increasing anonymous. Perhaps this is no different than what is found in the rest of the developed world, but the Jewish people over hundreds of years has always banded together in small communities. There may have been divisions among the different communities and arguments within communities, but Jewish identity has historically been tied to one’s place in a community, whether that is a physical community such as a shtetl or a philosophical community such as a sect associated with a particular rabbi. In the Jewish world outside Israel, many “secular” Jews belong to liberal congregational communities that strive to continue this tradition. Today, in urban Israel, where people may not even know their neighbors, the sense of belonging to a community is largely gone, especially for secular Israelis. These new communal structures revitalize this deeply Jewish way of organizing life in small, intimate groups.
Creating New “Families”: As throughout the developed world, what constitutes “family” in Israel is changing. Roles in the family have broken down and marriages are not as stable as they once were. For many young adults, there is no longer a “family home” welcoming them back every Shabbat. Many people yearn to be part of something to belong to, something that provides connection, comfort, security and emotional wholeness. The communities described above offer a home and a “family”, where neither blood ties nor marriage are prerequisites for membership.
Achieving Adult Autonomy: Throughout the developed world, the phenomenon of prolonged adolescence has emerged. Ironically, while the family structure is breaking down, young people remain dependence on their parents for longer. In part this is because young people have a hard time becoming economically independent. Tuition to university, rent, food, medical expenses are all prohibitive. Economic dependence is especially prolonged in Israel where entrance into university is delayed by service in the army. Many young people are very eager for independence and the chance to define their own lives. Communal living, where expenses of rent, food, transportation and entertainment are shared, is especially appealing in this situation. By contributing “according to one’s ability,” independence, dignity and true adulthood are gained.
The New Chalutziut (Pioneering): It is no surprise that many members of these intentional communities are youth movement graduates. In keeping with the pioneering model so important to the Zionist ideal, the young adults who band together in these groups create a society for themselves, rather than being part of the society which was created by their elders. Particularly for those raised in the kibbutz and youth movements where the heroism of pioneering a new community is a central part of the values and mythology, many young people want to forge something new, not join something which is already staid and settled.
Filling a Void by Taking Action: Israeli society is increasingly divided along religious, ethnic and socio-economic lines and lacks the cohesive sense of purpose that permeated Israeli society in its early years. As the old “Zionist ethos” fades and “the pioneering spirit” is largely co-opted by the “settlers” movement, many Israelis experience a spiritual and ideological void. Young secular Israelis have typically not only broke with Orthodox Judaism, but are deeply alienated from organized religion, which has coercive power over their lives. The end of the socialist/communist era that gave birth to the kibbutz movement, and in many ways defined idealism in Israel’s early years, has added to the post modern void. In recent years, Israel, which had been one of the most economically egalitarian of industrialized nations, has become among the most economically unequal in the developed world. Adding to this is the ecological deteriorate evident throughout the country.
In this situation, people can either give up hope or take action by creating meaning and structure. In his theory of “learned helplessness”, Martin Seligman theorizes that not taking charge of a situation leads to depression and even physical illness as well as social problems, whereas self-actualization and positive action in a crisis leads to optimism, well-being and social cohesion.
These new communal groups each came together to deal with a problem, ecological or social or spiritual, at a personal and interpersonal level. In each case, they have created a consensus within a small group on how to organize a community to confront some of these issues. They are the embodiment of positive action.
Creating a Lifestyle of Connection and Service, Not Consumerism: The new communities attract people who want to break down barriers, to step out of the Ashkenazi or Sephardi “ghetto” in which most Israelis live. These groups represent a break from the self-absorbed, the fashionable, and the glitz that characterizes the economically successful “Shenkin” (Israeli yuppie) crowd. Instead, the participants join a new counter culture that focuses on being of service, of making real connections with real people and creating positive connections with local neighborhoods. Often, the communal groups have as one of their primary goals improving the lives of the disadvantaged through social service projects. The participants in these groups are drawn to this lifestyle in part by their desire to improve society. Many participants serve as tutors or mentors, conduct art classes or teach computer skills, and generally become role models to young people in the neighborhoods in which they live. In general, the new communal groups have become positive fixtures in the communities where they are located, typically the disadvantaged neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, Sderot, the Galilee, Bet Shemesh and Hadara.
Creating a new society is not easy. Forging a new way means endless discussions in which the participants share ideas as they attempt to define rules, boundaries and goals. These endless discussions, so invigorating and stimulating, can also be frustrating and difficult. There is bound to be much soul searching, hair splitting and group pressure. In many ways, what is happening in these groups seems like a throw-back to the chalutzim (pioneers) almost a hundred years back, in the first idealistic days of kibbutz movement. In other ways, they seem like an echo of the American commune movement of the 60’s, with young people looking for spiritual connections with a minimum of rules. But in fact these groups may be harbingers, pathfinders for a new way of life, which suits our very complicated and uniquely Israeli society.
Although there are some exceptions, these groups, for the most part, shun politics. However, they may yet become a political force. The members are well-educated and thoughtful. They have discussions, read books and articles and clarify issues together. Many of them have a weekly meeting for this purpose. The structure could easily end itself to grassroots political organizing, if the participants become motivated to work on societal, rather than a local, level. They are a positive force and a phenomenon to watch.