If you are wondering what a kibbutz is, I hope that this post will give you a better idea of how this unique environment functions. It has changed a lot over the years, however, it still holds many of its core characteristics!
I grew up in Israel. My parents are 100% city people. When I was six years old, a first-grader in the city’s public school, I just about died of boredom, suffocation by overpopulation, and claustrophobic disorder due to extended hours in a classroom…
Ok, ok, maybe I’m exaggerating just a bit, but the bottom line is… I was miserable!
My parents, bless their golden hearts, realized that there wouldn’t be much left of me if they didn’t act fast, so before the year ended they started looking for an alternative.
That year was the first year that a tiny kibbutz, close to the city we lived in, opened its school doors for “outside” kids. The school was simply too small and had to recruit a few more kids in order to keep getting financial support from the government.
The moment I stepped in that little village that was surrounded by crop fields, chickens, cows, and horses, I knew that I had found my home. My brother and I were accepted to the school and that kibbutz became our home.
What is a Kibbutz?
A kibbutz is a communal agricultural settlement. In other words, a small village of maybe 100-300 families that chose to live together. The word “kibbutz” in Hebrew means “gathering”.
You will only find kibbutzim (plural for kibbutz) in Israel. There are about 270 kibbutzim in Israel. A member of the kibbutz is called a kibbutznik.
A kibbutz is a gated community where you pretty much have everything that you need for everyday living. It’s a place where you know everyone and everyone knows you.
It’s a place where kids are free to roam around, and the elderly are taken care of. It’s a place where holidays are celebrated together and meals are shared.
How Did a Kibbutz Come to Be…
In 1881 major anti-Jewish pograms swept Eastern Europe. This resulted in the First Aliyah, Aliyah means immigration to Israel (just remember that at that time it was not Israel yet).
It’s called Aliyah, which means, in translation to Hebrew, “ascent” or “the act of going up” because it’s said that by moving to Israel a person travels up metaphysically.
Approximately 35,000 Jews immigrated to the land of Israel between 1882 and 1903 and established little agricultural towns (those towns are big Israeli cities today). Many of them didn’t survive and either died or returned to their countries hungry and sick (it’s said that only 2% stayed in the land that became Israel).
A little later, between 1904 to 1914 was the second major immigration wave called the Second Aliyah. About 40,000 Jews immigrated to the land of Israel mostly from Russia, again because of anti-Jewish pograms.
These guys were a bit different from the Jews before them. They were idealists, heavily influenced by socialist ideas, and didn’t believe the old employer-employee way was for them.
The members of the Second Aliyah wanted to work the land, become farmers, and create a community where all its members are equal. They wanted to create a utopian community.
This sounds really great, right? Well, there were a few little problems….
The northern part of the land was swampy, the middle rocky, and the south a desert. Most of the settlers didn’t have any farming experience, sanitary conditions were poor (think Malaria, Typhus, and Cholera), and the neighbors (the Arabs) weren’t the least welcoming…
The bottom line? There was no way to settle individually. The land wasn’t safe, there was simply too much work, and there were no resources. It was either settle in groups or not at all…
And this is how, Degania, the first Kibbutz was founded in 1909. The land (right by the Sea of Galili) was purchased by the greater Jewish community of Europe and the almost unbearably hard work of creating something from absolutely nothing started.
It is said, that 90% of the immigrants of the Second Aliyah returned to their countries. One founder of Degania wrote, “the body is crushed, the legs fail, the head hurts, the sun burns and weakens” (from Wikipedia). However, against all odds, by 1914 Degania had 50 members.
Over the years, more kibbutzim were founded in the land of Israel with the majority of them after World War II.
Characteristics of a Kibbutz…
In order to make these settlements work, the members of the kibbutz had to work together. To give you an idea of what this looks like, here is a list of a few of the kibbutz’s characteristics and values…
Self-sufficiency – the goal was self-sufficiency and therefore, agriculture was the main focus. For many years, agriculture stayed the main source of the Kibbutz income. Today all the Kibbutzim in Israel have big factories and other profitable businesses.
Residence -everything was shared in the kibbutz except for personal residence. Each family had their home but it was not owned by them and they didn’t have to buy it. It was the Kibbutz’s property and they got to live there because they were members of the kibbutz.
Even though each family had its own residence (think a tiny house, we are not talking villas here…) the children of the kibbutz did not live at home with their parents. They were divided by age and each group lived in its own “children’s house” with a couple of caretakers.
I know that this might sound horrifying, and, if to be completely honest, you can still find adults in Israel that deal with emotional trauma because of this communal arrangement, but it was absolutely necessary.
A parent could not perform his duties in the field if he or she didn’t get a decent night’s sleep. It was just not possible. So parents had access to their children anytime, but there was always someone there to take over when they had to go to work. Then, at night, there was a night guard to take care of the babies and kids.
Shared facilities – among the shared facilities was (and still is in most Kibbutzim) one big dining room, one big laundry room, a community club, a library, a community pool, a small communal grocery store, a small medical clinic, a school, a nursing home, a pub, a gym, and a cemetery.
In later years when cars became available, the Kibbutz purchased a number of vehicles. If you were a member of the Kibbutz you would have to sign up to use one of the vehicles.
Let’s say you wanted to go to the beach on Saturday. Earlier that week, you’d sign yourself up to use vehicle number 7 between 10 am to 3 pm. This means that you’d go to the “car rental” room Saturday morning and pick up the keys, go do your thing and return the keys, and the car, by 3 pm.
If you didn’t return the keys in time, Martha, who reserved car number 7 from 3 pm to 7 pm would make sure the rest of your life would be miserable, and she might even poison your food when you leave it on the dining room table to go grab a drink…
Dividing the income – every member was to give the best of himself to the community. And every member earns according to his/her needs not based on the work that he or she does.
This might be the main and most important point about the old Kibbutz. The settlers wanted to create an equal community, remember? So it didn’t make a difference if you were the manager of the dining room or the one washing everyone’s clothes, your position (and later, your higher education) did not affect how much money you made.
What did affect this decision was your situation. For example, if you had 5 kids you most likely were given a bigger home and a bit bigger budget than a 19 years old single guy who is serving in the Navy and coming home once every two weeks.
Working inside the community – most of the kibbutz members worked inside the commune. Some did everyone’s laundry, some prepared the food or washed dishes in the dining room. Some took care of the kids, some took care of the elderly, and the majority worked in agriculture.
In later years, some of the members of the kibbutz took jobs out of the commune, however, whatever salary they earned was to be deposited into the kibbutz’s bank account and they continue earning according to the communal budget.
In addition, any money that you might have received from anywhere else had to be handed to the commune. If, for example, your grandma from Alaska was eaten by a grizzly bear and left you a million dollars, well, you would have had to hand the fortune over to the Kibbutz.
A Typical Day in the Kibbutz…
Over the years, the kibbutz changed quite a bit (more on this later). But let’s say that you lived in one of those shared communes in the 70’s or the 80’s, after Israel was declared a country (in 1948) and the hardest part of breaking ground was over. Here is what your day might look like…
You wake up in the morning and get your child ready for school (during the 80’s, many of the kibbutzim terminated the communal sleeping arrangement and sent the kids back to their parent’s house. Children’s houses still exist and are more of a children’s club these days).
You get on your bicycle (which is the main transportation inside of the kibbutz) and drop your child at school, or he might ride his bike there by himself if he is old enough (I’m talking 3 or 4 years old…).
Then you stop at the dining room for breakfast. You have a buffet of food to choose from. You enjoy breakfast with your friends, neighbors, or family before you drop your dishes at the giant washing machine to be washed by whoever is working the machine that morning.
From there, you head over to your job. Maybe you milk cows, or you work at the office and do the bookkeeping, or maybe you work in the commercial fish farming operation.
Maybe you work in the fields, at the grocery store, or the pool, or the nursing home… There are a whole lot of different jobs around the village.
Lunch is back at the communal dining room and aside from the food, everything is pretty much the same. After lunch, it’s back to work.
At 4 pm, you pick up your child from the kids’ clubhouse (they finish the school day around 1 pm and go play at the clubhouse or the pool or wherever). If your child doesn’t have an afternoon activity like horseback riding, ballet, soccer, or whatever (which you are not paying for…) he might tag along.
On your way to the little grocery store, you go see if any of the cows had a new calf, then you go to the tiny store where you gather your few groceries (you don’t need much since you eat in the dining room, remember?) while your child is playing outside with his friends.
Rinna debits the total for your groceries from your monthly budget (you don’t even have to have cash or credit card on hand), and then before you leave she informs you that Julie caught Abraham cheating on his wife with Ruth in the bushes behind the dining room. Instantly you know… Dinner is going to be interesting tonight.
You ride your bicycle to your house to drop off the groceries (your child is still playing by the grocery store with his friends) and pick up the dirty laundry. On your way back to the dining room, you drop the dirty laundry at the laundry room and pick up your clean, folded pile of clothes.
You leave the clothes on your bicycle when you go into the dining room for dinner. You take whatever it is you want to eat from the buffet and meet your family and friends at one of the long tables, you eat and gossip, then gossip some more. You drink, gossip, and then gossip, eat dessert, and gossip.
You drop your dishes at the washing machine, do your best to locate your child if he didn’t eat dinner with you, and go home for the rest of the night.
Tomorrow it will all start again, maybe a bit different…. Maybe a holiday is coming and you are a member of the dining hall decore team and need to go shopping for supplies. Maybe your aunt who lives in the city has a birthday party that you are going to attend the next evening. Maybe you have a movie date with whomever…
But at any rate, tomorrow, just like today, there will be no mortgage, no worry about saving for the kids’ college (the Kibbutz will pay for that), no meal planning and cooking, no dirty laundry to wash and fold and put away, no checking the balance in your bank account, no water bill, no electricity bill, and no vehicle expense or maintenance to worry about.
On the flip side, Dina might spread a rumor that your underwear was awfully stinky when you dropped them at the laundry room the day before so watch out. And you might just have to sit through two hours of a communal meeting about yet another mindblowingly boring subject… So you know, it ain’t all rainbows.
The Modern Kibbutz…
The kibbutz has changed a lot over the years. It’s hard to make a list of changes because each kibbutz changed in a different way.
But in all of the kibbutzim, the first big change was the end of the children’s communal sleeping arrangement. Parents wanted to have their babies at home with them, and so the communal children’s house was probably one of the first things to go (it’s still there, just doesn’t function the same way).
Another big change is that the kibbutz’s school is no longer a boarding school. This was a gradual change. It used to be that in sixth grade, you’d get a room that you’d share with a couple more friends (kind of like a collage dorm room).
Then they pushed it to high school and then it went away altogether. We used to love having our own space, away from the adults yet close enough for them to supervise. These days you get your own room in the kibbutz when you finish high school.
Today, in most kibbutzim, the members are allowed to work outside of the village and keep the money they earn. Whoever works inside the community gets paid according to the job and their skill level.
The members can also own their own cars now although the kibbutz still owns a few vehicles that the members can share.
There is still a dining room and it’s still the center of the village but in most kibbutzim, there are only one or maybe two meals served during the day.
Agriculture is still the main business of most of the kibbutzim but there are many more businesses now like different types of factories, little motels, dog grooming, a salon, a spa, and so on.
But at the end of the day, you won’t ever mistake a kibbutz for a regular sort of village. The communal energy is still there. There is still a communal pool, a nursing home, and a community club.
Holidays are still celebrated together, kids are still free to run around and climb on hay bales or hide in a pile of dry corn, and, indeed, gossip is still the main sport!
For me, the kibbutz was an amazing environment to grow up in. As kids, we were carefree and had so many things to do and so much space to explore. We celebrated holidays together and we knew everyone around including every cow, horse and chicken.
I hope that this post helped you understand what a kibbutz is a bit better. I’d love to hear your opinion… Would you live in a kibbutz? Do you relate to the idea of communal living or are you more stay-out-of-my-space kinda person?
If you have a moment, let me know in the comments bellow!