A Commune Grows in Brooklyn

Imagine, for instance, trying to explain to a banker at Bank of America that you want to open a joint checking account with five other people. This was the situation that Jamie Beran and five fellow alumni of the Zionist youth movement Habonim Dror found themselves in this summer, as they worked together to set up one of the first of a new breed of urban kibbutzim in the United States. The banker, says Beran, “could not comprehend why we wanted to do this,” insisting that there were rules limiting the number of people on a single checking account. There weren’t, and before long the newly minted kibbutzniks were issued a stack of Ben & Jerry-themed checks with all six of their names at the top.

Most groups of roommates share communal expenses to some extent, chipping in on toilet paper and light bulbs. These young Habonim Dror alumni have taken it a step further. They are among a few groups that are working to translate the new Israeli urban kibbutz movement to an American context. Geared towards recent college graduates, these urban kibbutzim trace their ideological heritage to the Israeli communal farms while replacing the kibbutz’s traditional focus on the land with a focus on social action. Along with a similar commune, or kvutza, founded by alumni of Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, Beran and the Habonim Dror members are engaged in a sort of social experiment. Can this distinctly Israeli way of life thrive in the heart of New York City?

International Zionist youth groups have long played a key role in the kibbutz movement in Israel. From the 1920s through the 1980s, members of these groups came from around the world to build, live, and work on Israel’s kibbutzim. Habonim Dror and its predecessor movements alone founded approximately 40 of the agrarian communes.

In the 1980s, the kibbutz movement as a whole dwindled. “When the kibbutzim were created, there was a need for agriculture work,” says Habonim’s Beran. “Their philosophy was based on a connection to the earth and the land.” By the 1980s, Israel had outgrown the kibbutzim. Urbanization drew young people to the big cities, while privatization challenged the most basic principles of the communities.

Instead of abandoning the communal model embodied by the kibbutz movement and idealized by the Zionist youth groups, one Israeli youth group determined to adapt the kibbutz to the modern age. That group, called Noar Oved ve’Lomed, began to send its graduates to found small urban kibbutzim, called kvutzot, throughout Israel. Instead of a connection to the land, these kvutzot organized themselves around addressing specific social problems.

“As the world has modernized and Israel has modernized,” Beran says, “the need now is to work on society itself, bridging the gap between the founding principles of Israel and the privatized, capitalistic society it’s becoming.”

In recent years, these Noar Oved ve’Lomed kvutzot have grown in popularity in Israel, and have been replicated there by other youth groups, including Hashomer Hatzair and Habonim Dror. It wasn’t until this past summer, however, that an attempt was made to bring the model to the United States.

Although college-age members of Habonim Dror have long lived together in communal settings, the new post-college kvutza, along with the Hashomer Hatzair’s Brooklyn kvutza, called Kvutzat Orev, represent an entirely different level of commitment. While residents can casually join a college commune for as little as a semester at a time, the members of the new Habonim Dror kvutza, all between 24 and 26 years old, are contemplating much longer-term decisions about the ways they will spend their adult lives. Further, unlike many college students, they are fully independent of their parents, supporting themselves with full-time jobs. Members deposit their salaries minus long term savings into the communal checking account. Beran says that there is no set percentage, although those residents with higher paying jobs contribute more. The checking account is used to cover all expenses. “That’s our bank account,” says Beran. If a member wants to go out to dinner or buy a plane ticket, they use that account. Larger purchases are shared, as well. In the next few months, the group is planning to use communal funds to pay for a portion of a new laptop being purchased by a member.

Still, the policies on shared property are much more ambivalent than at the original Israeli kibbutzim, which banned private property. “I don’t share everything,” says Tal Beery, a resident of Brooklyn’s Kvutzat Orev. He has his own computer, among other personal possessions. Still, he says, “I feel closer with members of my kvutza because we share.” At the Habonim Dror kvutza, residents maintain personal savings accounts.

For Kenan Jaffe, a member the Habonim Dror kvutza, sharing financial resources is “only one factor out of many [that define the kvutza].” In addition to making decisions together, members of each kvutza make a conscious effort to build their small communities. Both kvutzot set aside times to share meals, particularly on Friday nights. Once a week, the Habonim Dror group holds a “Yom Kvutza,” a meeting lasting for up to six hours in which members discuss issues facing the group, engage in group-building activities, and discuss selected texts.

Like their Israeli counterparts, the kvutzot define themselves in terms of their activist work. “We are trying to build an internal movement that has a large and positive impact on the world around us through education and other forms of activism,” says Daniel Roth, a member of Kvutzat Orev. For some members of both of the Brooklyn kvutzot, this activism is expressed in a large part through work at their respective youth movements. Many of the members are currently on the staffs of the two movements.

The communal lifestyle also makes up a part of the appeal of the kvutzot. “It’s a small, intimate group of people,” says Beery. “This is a very unique way to live…It’s a response to a time in our society that feels very alienating. This style of living has never been more relevant.”

“We are all interested in working to break down the walls that the capitalist world builds between each of us,” says Roth. “Through a communal learning environment, open emotional dialogue, and [communalized financial resources], we hope to become more intimate with the world around us”

The members of the kvutzot have a degree of trust in each other that is remarkable to the outside observer. Beran says that she is frequently asked whether she’s worried that one of the members will take advantage of the group. She says that the possibility never even occurs to her. “Once you get to the point of having to think about that, it doesn’t make sense to do what we’re doing,” she says.

It’s still much too early to judge the success of Kvutza Orev or the Habonim Dror kvutza. Both are still in the process of developing, and are still engaged in important conversations about their future. Still, it’s clear that they’re off to a solid start. “Everyone’s looking for a meaningful way to live their lives,” says Beery. He and his fellow members are hoping that the kvutzot will provide just that.

Gitana Mirochnik contributed reporting for this story.

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