The Kibbutz Movement

Then and now.

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Life on a Kibbutz

Daily life for kibbutz members today is very different from what it once was. Originally, kibbutz members had very little discretionary spending and made almost no personal economic choices. For example, if a child on the kibbutz was a talented musician, the entire kibbutz would vote on whether to send her to a specialized music school. Today, kibbutz families have much larger budgets and can make many more economic decisions--including whether to make meals at home or eat in the dining hall, and whether to spend money on fancier clothes or exotic vacations.

The area of labor also underwent a revolution. One of the central values of the early kibbutzim was working the land. Starting in the 1920s and 30s, the kibbutzim moved to a combination of agriculture and industry. The bulk of kibbutz industry is focused in processed foods (including the well known Tirat Zvi deli meat and Yavneh pickles), plastics, and metal. 

kibbutz kfar masaryk

Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk

 Today, only 15% of kibbutz income is from agriculture, and most of the physical agricultural work is done by foreign workers--an idea which would have been anathema to the original kibbutznikim. A substantial amount of kibbutz income still comes from industry, but now kibbutzim are also running commercial services that are increasingly profitable. Kibbutz-run commercial tourism has been particularly successful, and many kibbutzim boast beautiful guest houses and hotels.

Family life on the kibbutz has changed significantly as well. The founders of the first kibbutzim saw the family unit as a remnant of the individualist bourgeois lifestyle they had left behind, and they considered doing away with it entirely. Although they quickly recognized that this extreme was not feasible, they did believe that the community could take over many of the child-rearing functions traditionally performed by parents.

In the early decades of the kibbutzim, babies and children grew up together with their peers in children's homes, where they were cared for by professional care-givers. They visited with their parents daily. However, since the 1970s, children on kibbutzim live in their parents' homes. Today, kibbutzim are making more allowances for parents who choose to spend more time with their young children and less time in the workforce.

The Future

Young Israelis are also building new kibbutzim following new models of communal living, most notably urban kibbutzim. Members of this kind of kibbutz, sometimes called an irbutz (ir means city), live communally in a developing urban area and work to strengthen their neighborhood population. Members mostly retain their own assets but often share meals, discussions, holiday celebrations, and a common cause of working to improve their surroundings. These kibbutzim are associated with Israel's national kibbutz movement.

Although socialist communities also existed in the Unites States and Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, Martin Buber asserted that the kibbutz was the most impressive of these experiments in communal living--"an experiment that did not fail." Over 50 years after Buber made this statement, the verdict is still out on the success of the kibbutz movement.

The original Degania members may well have considered the current privatization of kibbutzim to be a failure. Yet for Buber, the success of the kibbutz movement lay in the fact that, unlike other socialist utopian communities, kibbutzim were tied to the concrete needs of their place and time. In Buber's time, that was the need for the Jewish people to rebuild its social fabric following the destruction of the Holocaust. In our time, perhaps kibbutzim are an answer to the challenge of living communally in an era of globalization, individualism, and capitalism.

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Rachael Gelfman Schultz

Rachael Gelfman Schultz holds a B.A. in religion from Harvard University, and completed her M.A. in Jewish Civilization at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She is a Jewish educator in Karmiel, Israel.