The atmosphere on Kibbutz Yagur, located on Mount Carmel to the southeast of Haifa, is placid and affable. When I walk into the office of senior kibbutz member, 74-year-old Benny Shiloh, a formal introduction is not necessary.
As I approach the desk to shake Mr. Shiloh’s hand where he sits, I ask him what book it is that he is peering into. Smiling slyly with proud eyes, slightly glazed, he responds it is the history of the world. We both laugh at his sardonic sense of humor, so ordinary among the good people from the kibbutz.
The grey-haired gentlemen whose laughing eyes light the office with a glow of wisdom explains, all kidding aside, the book is a scrapbook of sorts that is published in honor of the 40th anniversary of the founding of Kibbutz Yagur. It is a collection of thoughts, poetry, stories and photographs by people from the kibbutz. The date of publication: 1965.
I point to a photograph on the wall, an old black and white shot blown up to poster size and ask him what the picture is and when it was taken. The photo displays a young man hanging from the roof of the heder ocel, the kibbutz dining room. He laughingly recalls that the photo was taken sometime in the 1950s. The mischievous young man was Shiloh. “Avitai and I were preparing the kibbutz for Purim,” he warmly recalls, and Avitai (now in his 80s, still a kibbutznik on Yagur) the bystander in the picture calls up to him, “Benny! There’s no need to climb all the way on to the roof to hang the Purim decoration!”
Kibbutz Yagur has been central to absorbing Jewish immigrants and teaching Zionism since the beginning of time. Mr. Shiloh explains that there has been an ulpan on the kibbutz since the 1960s, when the term was applied to the makeshift Hebrew language classrooms; however, Yagur has taught Hebrew and absorbed Jewish immigrants since long before then.
Established in 1922, Yagur is Israel’s second largest kibbutz after Kibbutz Ma’agen Michael; and among the first, Kibbutz Degania being the true pioneers. Yagur was founded by the Zionist group, the Achva, who came largely from Poland. Many of the kibbutzim of the era were founded by socialist Zionist youth movements such as Betar and Dror. The Achva group arrived in the area of Yagur, a swampy marshland surrounding the Kishon River, pitched their tents and the rest, as they say, is history.
Amit Shiloh, 42, is Benny’s son. He comes from the third generation of Yagur kibbutzniks, today he is in charge of the Jewish Agency sponsored ulpan and immigrant absorption program which falls under the umbrella of the masa program.
The Shiloh’s have been on the kibbutz since the 1920s. The family originates from Lithuania, Poland and Russia. Amit’s grandfather on his mother’s side, Ben Tzion Copland was a member of the British army during the Second World War. His grandfather on his father, Benny’s side, Joshua Venger, was sent to Poland as a shaliach to bring Jews to the new state. After World War II, explains the younger Shiloh, Jews were not allowed in the country, so he became a ‘skipper’, a naval commander sent by the Haganah to help sneak refugees from Europe, flagged out in Cyprus, back to the homeland.
During the era of the British Mandate, Yagur was an important center for the Haganah and became a Palmach training ground. On June 29, 1946, Operation Agatha was a major raid conducted by the British army on the kibbutz grounds. The British discovered a major weapons cache. The guns and ammunition were confiscated and many kibbutz members were subsequently arrested. Today, the cache still exists in a bomb shelter on the kibbutz ground and is a veritable treasure trove of historical magic.
In another corner of the sprawling kibbutz are rusty old train tracks piled up which pre-date the aforementioned British Mandate incident known today infamously as “Black Sabbath.” The rusty train tracks belonged to the old Ottoman Empire. They were blown up with explosives by kibbutz members under the auspice of British forces after World War I; around the time of the founding of the kibbutz. Many of the events that played out on Yagur before the founding of the state of Israel were used as a setting by novelist, Leon Uris, in his classic, Exodus.These specimens of the history of modern Zionism that are evinced on the grounds of Kibbutz Yagur are also poignant indeed in other ways, as the kibbutz continues to play a central role in continuing Theodore Herzl’s dream of a modern Jewish State in ancient Palestine.
(In the clip shown below — the 1960 feature film adaptation of the novel by Leon Uris — a Kibbutz in the North, one of the oldest in Israel is supposed to be Kibbutz Yagur: an unnamed center for absorbing fugitive Jewish immigrants who had travelled to British detention camps in Cyprus from France and originally from annexed death camps in Poland when their ship the Exodus, manned by Aliya Bet, was overrun by Her Majesty’s navy.)
While the economy on Yagur is still based, as it always was, on agriculture and diversified industry, Yagur is one of thirteen kibbutzim that work in concert with the Jewish Agency for Israel to absorb new immigrants and teach them Hebrew, just like in the old days.
The Jewish youths come to Yagur from India, South America, the United States, Columbia, France, Russia, Ukraine, Holland and elsewhere to “work, learn and drink” explains Amit Shiloh, with the same dry sense of humor that his father uses.
One current ulpanist on Yagur is Kim Braam. She is a 21-year-old from Grootebroek, a Dutch province in the North of Holland. Only Kim’s mom is Jewish, yet she explains, “I feel more of a connection with Israel than with Holland.” Kim, a college graduate who works at the Kibbutz kindergarten explains to me that she cannot wait to go to the army.
Another fresh Yagur-born Zionist is 26-year-old Milton Martinez Gurin. The young Columbian speaks to me in Hebrew, yet he is not even Jewish. “When I was a kid” he explains, “I read the Diary of Ann Frank and after that I read about Jewish history.” His fascination with Israel did not stop there. An avid reader, Gurin became fascinated by Jewish writers. He cites JD Salinger and Marcel Proust as some of his favorites. “I like to live in Israel” he explains as his reason for choosing kibbutz life. “Everyone is working for the same good.”
There are two ulpanim per year. For each semester “forty students usually begin and thirty usually finish” explains Amit Shiloh, the director of the program. Thirty-five percent come as new olim. Most participants request, while in the middle of the program, to join the army. While the IDF gives new immigrants a one-year grace period before mandatory enlistment, many new immigrants seek to waste no time. Anyway, this is the case on Kibbutz Yagur.
The kibbutz does not make any profit from the Jewish Agency ulpan program. Amit explains, “Kibbutzim, in general, do okay. We are holding our heads above the water. No one is getting rich. We don’t make a profit. No one is a millionaire on Yagur.” On the other hand the Jewish Agency for Israel pays the kibbutz ulpanim $1800 per student for each five month program, according to Ariel Rodal-Spieler of the Jewish Agency.
The positive effect Kibbutz Yagur has on teaching and instilling Zionist values in young Jewish immigrants seems to work elsewhere as well. Yehudit Shams is the director of the ulpan and absorption program on Kibbutz Mishmar HaSharon, a post she has held for some 31 years. She estimates that ”since the 1980s we [Mishmar HaSharon] have had 1500 olim hadashim. Most of them were between the age of 18 and 26.” She tells me in a brief phone conversation that “most of them served in the IDF for different periods of time and according to their age.” Mrs. Shams continues, “We also have had the same number of young adult Jewish tourists that went through our ulpan program. I can tell you that 300 of them changed their status during the program and stayed in Israel as olim hadashim. I believe” she concludes “that the same number became olim only a few years after completing the program and live in Israel still.”
The Jewish Agency has been providing kibbutz ulpan for fifty years in order to inspire aliya. “It has been consistently successful” says Ariel Rodal-Spieler. She explains, “Specifically from Western countries aliya has grown. From North America, an increase in aliya of nine percent over the past Jewish year has been recorded. 4070 new olim were recorded this year as opposed to 3720 last year.” She continues, “aliya from the west has definitely been on the increase.”
But all of the immigration coming from the West has not always been the case. When asked how the Kibbutz Ulpan program on Yagur has changed over the years, Amit Shiloh of Yagur explains, “in the early 90s it was mostly Russian immigrants from the old USSR. Today only half are Russian speakers. After World War II” he continues “most of the members of Kibbutz Yagur were immigrants from eastern Europe. Some survived the camps. I can say that the Holocaust directly affected every family on Yagur.
Benny Shiloh recalls from his youth when members of the kibbutz helped to hide Syrian and Turkish Jewish boys from the British back in1948. Mr. Shiloh also recalls that there was a time when the Jewish Agency threatened to cut off funds for the Ulpan. There was an argument about whether the funding was worth it or not. Thankfully the kibbutzim won the argument.
When asked about any financial rifts between the Jewish Agency and the kibbutzim Rodal-Spieler, the spokeswoman for the program explained that “over the years there have been budget cuts. Certainly, we would like more kibbutz ulpanim. As many as we can, but there is not enough money.”
Nonetheless, the project is as successful as ever. ”We think that the increase of long term programs like masa – which consists of ten months in Israel – and Birthright Israel have brought a lot of young people to Israel for shorter amounts of time which increases the chances that they will come back and make aliya.” explains Rodal-Spieler, adding that ”the reason we think there has been an increase in aliya specifically from the West is because the Israel experience that is offered by programs like kibbutz ulpan and masa is what contributes to the increase in aliyah.”
Rodal-Spieler is in concurrence with the Shilos of Kibbutz Yagur and Shams of Mishmar HaSharon. Times have certainly changed since the Haganah snuck refugees into the country and taught them Hebrew, however, as Ariel Rodal-Spieler of the Jewish Agency for Israel explains, in just the last year, “from last Rosh HaShanah until this Rosh HaShanah” aliyot from the West have increased by some nineteen percent. The kibbutz ulpan plays a natural role in the absorption process. They always have, and it looks like they always will.