My Kibbutz Life, Past And Future

My father enlisted in the military upon graduation from high school when he was 17, and was jumping out of airplanes behind the 38th parallel during the Korean War by the time he was 18. Once on the ground, he would help to set up mobile army surgical hospitals (made famous by the show, M.A.S.H.) where he would serve as a medic. When I was 17, my parents’ good friends offered me the opportunity to volunteer on a kibbutz for the summer before my senior year in high school with their son, a friend of mind since first grade. My mother wasn’t so sure about the whole “letting go of my kid” thing. She and my father loved Israel and raised me and my siblings with strong Zionist loyalties. But Israel was so far away, I had never traveled on a plane before, I would be on my own, and she would not be able to do what any good parent does, or thinks she has to do: worry about me four feet from where I was standing. However, my father understood the importance of helping young men to jump from the mother ship, open their parachutes, and land on their own two feet. That June, after junior year ended, I flew to Israel.

From the beginning, this adventure had the potential to be a disaster. My friends’ cousins were pleasant but taciturn young men who had been raised as serious socialists in Ha-Shomer HaTzair, the Marxist/secular kibbutz movement that was producing much of Israel’s military and cultural elite at the time. They were army veterans, and at least two of them had fought in the Yom Kippur War. I was a timid, religious young boy from Queens, New York, who barely knew the difference between the two Marxes, Karl and Groucho. I was underage for the volunteer job I was supposed to be doing for them, the kibbutz kitchen was non-kosher, and Shabbat on kibbutz, while a lovely day to rest, was hardly of the “make kiddush and go to shul” variety. The cousins picked us up from Ben Gurion Airport in a jeep, set us up in a shack, and gave us work clothes that looked like they had been picked out of the costume wardrobe of a prison movie. That night, my friend was snoring away by the time his head hit the pillow. I cried myself to sleep in my pillow, wondering why I was there and if I would ever see home again.

Sleep, necessity and freedom pushed me to try things that before had intimidated me. Over the next several weeks, I made a place for myself on the kibbutz. I found food to eat, and I never had work assignments on Shabbat. I went exploring one Shabbat and found nearby a tiny village of Moroccan olim (immigrants) and their descendants, where I spent nearly every Shabbat thereafter. I experienced the challenges and pleasures of hard work in ways I had never had to before: up at dawn to get dew-drenched, picking cotton, or plucking oranges and lemons from the trees until my fingers blistered. This was in the days when hitch hiking was safer in Israel, and hitch-hike I did around the country, something that I made sure to forget to tell my parents about in my long pre-internet aerogrammes. I emerged from my shell, and slowly kicked its fragments into the garbage can.

My brief stint on kibbutz helped me to mature as an adult, a Jew and a Zionist. My friend’s great aunt and uncle, vatikim (long time veterans) of the kibbutz who had lived in Israel since before 1948, guided me with love, patience and respect that upended my sheltered stereotypes about non-religious Jews; they helped me to understand what Ahavat Yisrael, love for one’s fellow Jews, means in its broadest, most inclusive sense of Judaism as life in an extended family. Most important, kibbutz life helped me to understand that to fully reclaim our independence, dignity and self respect, we the Jews needed to transcend our alienation from the earth by reconnecting with the land of Israel in a way that revived our physical, emotional and spiritual wholeness. We needed to assert our dignity and our own destiny in the larger context of humanity and the global environment.

The world of today’s kibbutzim is quite different from that of the visionary days of early Zionism, yet the spirit of kibbutz culture is alive and well in Israel. As the Kibbutz movement website writes:

At present there are 256 Kibbutzim in Israel (including 16 “religious kibbutzim”). Most of them are located in peripheral areas, from the most northern tip of the State to as far as the Deep South (Arava)… [The]registered Kibbutz population amounts to approximately 106,000 people, of whom a total of over 20,000 are children under the age of 18….After almost two decades of an economic and social crisis in most sections of the Kibbutz Movement, resulting… in a sharp decline of Kibbutz population, the last few years are indicating a fresh and a new trend. Many Kibbutzim report of growing numbers of youngsters – singles and families – seeking to join Kibbutzim, either as permanent members, or as non-member inhabitants.

One dimension of this fresh, new trend is also emerging among young American Jews like my own children who are increasingly connecting with Jewish and general farming, food justice and environmental stewardship programs and communities. These endeavors are part of a larger endeavor among young American Jews to practicing Jewish values repressed by the domination of urban life and an aggressively toxic food industry. Some critics dismiss this as yet another form of American Judaism Lite: a do-gooder environmentalism divested of Jewish content and Zionist commitment, with some Jewish “warm fuzzies” thrown. I suggest that, to the contrary, young American Jews are drawing from the same communitarian, earth loving spirit that has promoted kibbutz culture, from the early 20th century until today. Like their kibbutz counterparts, they are also motivated by a sense of deep urgency about a Jewish people alienated from community, land and environment, who will grow sicker, along with the rest of humanity.

The commitment to Shmirat Ha-Adamah, land stewardship, among American Jews has vital potential to rebuild or sustain their love for the land and State of Israel, as visionary models of community with other people, all species, and the earth. Our challenge is to help them build the bridges that will get them there.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in April 2020.