I’ve always heard about the Kibbutzim (plural of Kibbutz) in Israel, but honestly knew virtually nothing about them or exactly what they were except some kind of collective farming communities. I recently spent a few days on the Ketura Kibbutz in the Arava desert of Southern Israel and it was so much more than I realized or expected.
Kibbutzim started in Israel around 1910. In the most general sense, a kibbutz is an Israeli commune or intentional community. They are communal farms or projects staffed by volunteers who are compensated with food, housing, and a small stipend. The essence of work on a kibbutz is that it is voluntary. Everyone receives the same amount of money, regardless of the type of work or amount of hours spent at work. The members are thus motivated by conscience, responsibility, and a sense of bettering their own community, rather than personal economic gain. Though kibbutzim have undergone many transformations over the years and have never accounted for more than seven percent of the Israeli population, the kibbutz has immense cultural significance and remains a viable Israeli institution today.
In the early days, kibbutzim held fast to socialist ideals. There was no private property, not even tools or clothing, all work was shared, and land was owned communally. The bulk of the work was agricultural. Kibbutzim attempted to build a self-sufficient economy, but this proved unfeasible. Instead, they were supported by subsidies from charities and later from the Israeli government. Today, most kibbutzim are no longer strictly socialist, though they do retain many communal aspects. All kibbutzim, for example, are democratic.
Over time, it became clear that agricultural work was not enough to sustain the institution of the kibbutz. They began to industrialize. Today, some kibbutzim have even turned to the tourism industry. The kibbutz has a long history of political and cultural contributions to Israel as well. A disproportionate amount of Israeli government and military leaders, artists, and intellectuals have come from kibbutzim.
The kibbutz system has met with controversy over the years. Some groups have been criticized for elitism, while others have been accused of straying from their ideals. Nevertheless, Israeli culture would not be the same without the kibbutz. It is a specifically Israeli institution that has made invaluable contributions to the nation’s political, economic, and intellectual life. Today there are roughly 260 Kibbutz communities around Israel (a country with a population of about 6 million people – less than the population of New York City).
At first glance, it seemed almost like a gated suburban community where everyone knows your name. For two days, I couchsurfed with Roy, Tiki, their daughters Rotem and Shani, and their super friendly dog, Bamia (Okra in English), and their vocal cat, Pizza (Italian for pizza). Roy actually grew up in New Jersey, but came here after college and has lived here now for thirty years. Tiki’s family is originally from Turkey, but she has lived here all her life. This is their home and they are proud of their community. Roy is the business manager for the kibbutz and Tiki is a teacher and also recently took the initiative to build a petting zoo of mainly rabbits for the local kids to enjoy.
The Ketura Kibbutz has a few hundred people living on it. There are actually about 150 members, but when you add in the children and various volunteers that come during the year, the size nearly doubles. Unlike many other kibbutzim, Ketura has not strayed far from its original ideals and has not privatized. To bring in money to the community and members, Ketura has one of the country’s largest date orchards and a dairy farm with hundreds of cows that are milked every day.
Now this looked like a nice humane place for a cow to live its life with a decent amount of room to roam. We even saw a baby calf during his first few hours of life and he was already walking around.
To sustain the kibbutz, Ketura has branched out into other fields. They have built an algae factory or processing plant – literally the only one of its kind in the world processing Astaxanthin, which is a natural ingredient used in cosmetics and some natural remedies. There is also a library, a hotel, a pool, and recreation facilities.
Residents here do not even own their own cars – there are shared cars that you can sign up to use. Those who live here share all of the work and in turn share equally all of the pay. Three meals a day are served seven days a week – all free as part of living and working here. You get a house with money for furniture, clothing, all your utilities are covered, your laundry done for you, a stipend for vacation, use of a store where many things you do not pay for and if your teenage child works for about a year on the Kibbutz, even his college tuition is covered.
But, wait, there is one more amazing thing here on the Ketura Kibbutz – Methuselah. It’s the nickname of a young Judean date tree, long thought to be extinct, which sprouted from a 2000-year-old seed, the oldest ever to produce a tree. And here it sits.
The ancient seeds were found 30 years ago during archeological digs on Mount Masada, the mountaintop fortress on the shore of the Dead Sea where King Herod built a spectacular palace. When the Romans conquered Palestine and laid waste to the Temple in Jerusalem, Masada was the last stand of a small band of Jewish rebels who held out against three Roman legions for several years before committing mass suicide in A.D. 73. The seeds’ ancient age was confirmed by radiocarbon dating to be somewhere in the range of 60 B.C. to A.D. 95. If the tree is a female, it will hopefully bear fruit, the fruit of 2,000 years labor.