Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Lessons from the Kibbutz

By Sherri Stewart

On 7 October 2023, Hamas militants carried out a massacre at Be’eri, an Israeli kibbutz near the Gaza Strip. Around 70 Hamas militants attacked the kibbutz, and at least 130 people were killed in the attack. The militants also attacked Kfar Aza, a kibbutz about 3 kilometers (1.9 mi) from the border with Gaza Strip, massacring residents and abducting several hostages.

The kibbutz (Hebrew word for “communal settlement”) is a unique rural community—a society dedicated to mutual ownership of property, cooperation of production, and education. The first kibbutzim (plural of “kibbutz”) were founded about 40 years before the establishment of the State of Israel (1948). Degania (from the Hebrew “dagan,” meaning grain) was established in 1909. Their founders were young Jewish pioneers, mainly from Eastern Europe, who came not only to reclaim the soil of their ancient homeland but also to forge a new way of life.

When Mark Twain traveled through Israel, he described it as “ ...[a] desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds—a silent mournful expanse....A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action....We never saw a human being on the whole route....There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.” (Quoted in Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad. London: 1881) 

The path of the members of the kibbutzim was not easy: a hostile environment, inexperience with physical labor, a lack of agricultural know-how, desolate land neglected for centuries, scarcity of water, and a shortage of funds were among the difficulties confronting them. For the founders, tilling the soil of their ancient homeland and transforming city dwellers into farmers was an ideology, not just a way to earn a livelihood. However, over the years, kibbutz farmers made barren lands bloom with field crops, orchards, poultry, dairy, and fish farming, and more recently, organic agriculture becoming the mainstays of their economy. Through a combination of hard work and advanced farming methods, they achieved remarkable results, accounting for a large percentage of Israel's agricultural output to this day. 

Most kibbutzim are laid out according to a similar plan. Adjacent to the living quarters are sheds for dairy cattle and modern chicken coops, as well as one or more industrial plants. Agricultural fields, orchards, and fish ponds are located around the perimeter, a short tractor ride from the center. To get from place to place within the kibbutz, people either walk or ride bicycles, while electric carts are provided for the disabled and elderly.

In many areas, kibbutzim have pooled their resources, establishing regional enterprises such as cotton gins and poultry-packing plants, as well as providing a gamut of services ranging from computer data compilation to joint purchasing and marketing. The contribution of the kibbutzim to the country's production, both in agriculture (33 percent of farm produce) and in industry (6.3 percent of manufactured goods) is far greater than their share of the population (2.5 percent). In recent years, increasing numbers of kibbutzim have become centers for tourism, with recreational facilities such as guest houses, swimming pools, horseback riding, tennis courts, museums, exotic animal farms, and water parks for Israelis and foreign visitors alike. 

Children grow up knowing the value and importance of work—that everyone must do their share. From kindergarten, the educational system emphasizes cooperation in daily life and, from the early school grades, youngsters are assigned duties. Young children perform regular age-appropriate tasks, older children assume certain jobs in the kibbutz, and at high school level, they devote one full day each week to work in a branch of the kibbutz economy. Some 40 percent of all kibbutz children return to settle on their kibbutz after army service. The majority of kibbutz members today grew up in the kibbutz and decided to build their lives there. 

Today some 270 kibbutzim, with memberships ranging from 40 to more than 1,000, are scattered throughout the country. Most of them have between 300 and 400 adult members, and a population of 500-600. The number of people living in kibbutzim totals approximately 130,000, about 2.5 percent of the country's population. While on their face, Kibbutzim evoke thoughts of Lancaster, Pennsylvania or even Communism, but there is something refreshing and nostalgic about living life in a small community where everyone knows and cares for their neighbors.

Selah Award finalist Sherri Stewart loves a clean novel, sprinkled with romance and a strong message that challenges her faith. She spends her working hours with books—either editing others’ manuscripts or writing her own. Her passions are traveling to the settings of her books and sampling the food. She traveled to Paris for this book, and she works daily on her French and German although she doesn’t need to since everyone speaks English. A widow, Sherri lives in Orlando with her lazy dog, Lily. She shares recipes, tidbits of the book’s locations, and other authors' books in her newsletter.
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  1. Thank you for posting this interesting look at the kibbutz system!

  2. Thanks, Connie. I stayed at one near the Sea of Galilee, but really didn't understand what they were all about.