By Nicole Sivan
Kibbutzim financially thrived until the late 1980s, early 1990s when high inflation and interest rates caused an economic crisis throughout Israel, hitting many of the kibbutzim particularly hard. Several kibbutzim declared bankruptcy and thousands of members left the kibbutzim for better financial opportunities in the cities and abroad. While kibbutzim at this time still relied heavily on agriculture for income, many began switching over to industry to keep their communities financially viable. Factories dedicated to anything from water pipe manufacturing to processed foods became the bread and butter of the kibbutzim as did the hospitality industry. Today kibbutzim are now known throughout the country for their hotels and holiday cottages and they are very popular destinations among native Israelis and tourists alike.
Many kibbutzim also began to privatize at this time. Members were given individual salaries for their work, and salaries were decided on by the type of labor performed. Kibbutzniks started to seek employment outside of the kibbutz in order to earn a higher salary, and workers from outside the community were hired to fill vacancies within the kibbutz. Community programs, schools and other needs are paid for equally by each kibbutz member via a monthly or yearly tax, similar to a HOA fee. This money helps to maintain community grounds and buildings and recreational facilities like the swimming pool. Housing was expanded for community members and children were sent home to be raised by their parents. Children’s houses continue to remain open during the day as daycare centers, preschools and afterschool programs , although now parents pay tuition to keep their children there during work hours. Meals are still available in the dining halls of most kibbutzim, but members pay for the cost of the meal, and many members prefer to eat at home. However, both childcare tuition and meals are heavily subsidized and do not compare to the cost of food or childcare in towns and cities.
My husband and I moved to his childhood kibbutz shortly before our daughter was born. I returned to work when she was four months old and placed her during the day in the kibbutz “baby house.” The house’s set up hasn’t changed much from the time my husband was a baby and I was surprised at what a fantastic place it was for her to spend her days. The warmth she received in the baby house quickly extinguished any guilt I had for needing to place her in daycare and I have yet to see a baby daycare superior to the kibbutz baby house anywhere else in my travels.
One of the most traumatic changes kibbutzim have undergone over the past fifteen years is the privatization of member’s homes. This process is still being implemented in many kibbutzim and when complete, members will own their homes and use their own money to maintain these homes and/or renovate them. Many kibbutzim have suffered extreme infighting over this process–some communities emotionally torn apart as members battle it out over who gets which house or apartment. One of the main issues is, “How will it be fair?”
In my husband’s childhood kibbutz, where his parents still live, this change has only recently begun to take place. Since the 1970’s his parents have resided in the same 750 sq. ft. apartment, one without a real kitchen. When the apartment was constructed, children still lived in the children’s houses and all meals were eaten in the communal dining hall. Each house or apartment only contained a small kitchenette where one could make mini meals, snacks, store food, or bake for Shabbat. My in-laws have upgraded the kitchen a bit since then, adding a full-size stove top/oven and a refrigerator. However, the size of the kitchen is no bigger than a 2-piece bathroom and no more than one person at a time can fit in the space. For their new “permanent housing,” they have been assigned to another building which currently contains four 2-bedroom apartments, two downstairs and two upstairs. They have been given one of the downstairs apartments as well as the apartment directly above it. They can then renovate the apartments to create a two-story attached family home. My mother-in law is almost giddy about designing the kitchen for her new house. She is sixty-eight years old and this will be the first real kitchen she has ever had. She is an enthusiastic cook and baker so this is really an exciting time in her life. For “children” who left the kibbutz after serving in the army, a new neighborhood will be built where they can purchase homes and re-establish themselves as kibbutz members, although it is a kibbutz quite different than the one in which they grew up.
While in many ways kibbutzim today in no way resemble the kibbutz of yesterday, they are still some of the best places an Israeli can choose for raising a family. Almost every kibbutz in the country has a waiting list a mile long of Israelis who hope to buy or rent a house. Modern kibbutzim are very desirable because they still provide many of the benefits of early kibbutzim: good schools, safe and secure communities, rural landscapes, a sense of community and recreational facilities including swimming pools, playgrounds and sports centers. However, unlike their predecessors, they now also allow for independent, capitalist living. Members still contribute a portion of their income to the greater good, including community upkeep and social endeavors, but they are also financially independent. Members are no longer required to seek the permission of the kibbutz to send their child to art class or university or to buy new clothes or take a trip. Since members are financially independent they can buy whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as they have the means to do so.
The kibbutz today can best be described as a capitalistic society with a socialistic safety net set within the landscape of a classless country club. And while early kibbutzim were isolated communities set on reclaiming barren and neglected farmland, today many of Israel’s quickly expanding cities have expanded up to the kibbutzims’ gates, turning some of these communities into much sought after suburban destinations. While work is still an elevated ideal among the senior members of the kibbutz, we are desperately, without success, trying to encourage my husband’s mother to cut down to a forty hour work week before she turns seventy, the younger generations of kibbutzniks know how to relax and enjoy the benefits living in a kibbutz offers.
If traveling within Israel, make it a point to check into a kibbutz hotel and take the time to wander around to get a feel for this unique community that played such an important role in building and shaping the modern State of Israel.
You can find a full listing of kibbutz hotels here: http://www.kibbutz.co.il/
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