What is it that can be so blinding about youthful idealism? When I stood atop that barren hill about 15 years ago, I remember being filled with worry as I listened to my hosts, aged 20-something, share their dreams of establishing a new type of educational kibbutz there. I imagine my immediate response was due to a combination of a parental concern for their well-being and a built-in skepticism after too many years in evaluation research. Well, you can almost guess the fairy tale ending here…
Fast forward to today, and my hosts from Kibbutz Eshbal have flourished- raising families and raising a community, everything growing at a dazzling pace. As members of the Dror Israel Educational Movement, they have spent their twenties and thirties reconfiguring what it means to build idealistic communities, millennial style. Over the years, these young adults have established a boarding school for Ethiopian-Israelis, a shared Arab- Jewish educational center, and they are operating a high school for at-risk youth in nearby Karmiel.
More recently they have opened a campsite on the kibbutz, used regularly by high schools and youth movements for outdoor education and field study seminars. And that is just the start of the many ways these educators are helping youth in the region to tap into their own magic.
These Kibbutz Eshbal educators are some of the many inspired graduates of one of Israel’s largest youth movements, “HaNoar Ha’Oved Ve’Halomed” (Hebrew for “The Working and Studying Youth”). Overflowing with ideas on how to strengthen Israeli society, many graduates of this youth movement joined Dror Israel, a movement of over 1,000 young adults who are pioneering bold educational communities all over the country. They are pooling their salaries, resources and enthusiasm and are using education as a key tool to advance principles of social justice and greater equality.
Years ago, this notion of an educational cooperative seemed wildly implausible. After all, kibbutzim have generally stayed within the traditional radius of agriculture, factories and industry. But Dror Israel challenged this paradigm, asking whether a kibbutz community could sustain itself financially with education as its primary marketable product. These days, of course, skepticism has turned to appreciation as these young adults have dotted the map of the country with vibrant communities near and far.
The first such experiment, Kibbutz Ravid, was established at an abandoned kibbutz in 1993, and is still going strong. On my recent visit, it was easy to fall under the spell of the place. It is as if they have deconstructed all of the parlance we tend to throw around in academic research – leadership development, youth engagement, civic responsibility -and allowed us to actually see it in practice.
You will find young adults who can tell you the stories of how the livestock barns had been transformed into living quarters for educators, empty fields turned into mango orchards, and carpentry sheds converted into classrooms, eventually housing a 3-D printer and a laser cutting workshop. Along with the pre-army leadership program and oodles of educational projects, their Dror Galil High School has distinguished itself in educational circles, attracting Jewish, Arab and Druze youth from over forty communities around the Galilee region.
And the educators of Dror Israel didn’t stop once they came up with the unconventional idea of an “educators’ kibbutz.” Seeking places where the societal needs were the greatest and there were untapped pockets of leadership potential, they established educational kibbutzim in disadvantaged city neighborhoods and development towns around the country. Now as one of the leaders of a growing trend of urban cooperatives, Dror Israel’s outreach presently extends to over a dozen urban kibbutzim from Sderot and Mitzpe Ramon to Rishon Le’Zion and Haifa.
So while some members of Dror Israel are busy hosting students, teachers, border police and soldiers at their educational centers or taking study trips on the Holocaust to Poland, you can also find them running a neighborhood basketball league for teenagers in South Tel Aviv, working with new immigrants from the former Soviet Union in Beer Sheva, or helping kids with homework at their after-school center for youth at-risk in Akko.
The sparks of their efforts go far and wide. Their educators reach over one hundred thousand youth through the “HaNoar Ha’Oved Ve’Halomed” youth movement, Dror high school network and dozens of educational initiatives all over the country. And after all you have heard by now, it likely will not come as a surprise to learn that Dror Israel, grounded in principles of building a more inclusive society, is the largest social movement in Israel that reaches out to both Jews and Arabs.
So really, what is their secret launch code? We already know what the research tells us about leadership, that it starts with strong values. We need to know who we are, what motivates us, and that leadership is both a responsibility and a privilege. We have to see what is around us, not be complacent by allowing societal ills to become part of the scenery that we take for granted. We must ‘learn by doing’, by working on real life problems. We need mentors and role models who can help us find our own way. And we need an ongoing network of support, a safety net that stands by us when we trip and fall, and then helps us get back up again.
Somehow the infrastructure of Dror Israel, together with the built-in foundation and collaborative efforts with the “HaNoar Ha’Oved Ve’Halomed” youth movement, gives its members the freedom to have magical thinking, to turn their ideas into a decidedly inspiring reality.
Visit any of these educators’ kibbutzim around the country, and I’m sure you can find these elements in practice, both in how they live and how they educate. The young members of Dror Israel who I have met are changing the landscape, literally and figuratively. Their effort is grounded in tons of hard work, commitment and maybe just a little bit of fairy dust sprinkled in the air. These educators are reminding us that leadership is not limited to the few, but can be found in all places and at all ages. The world is calling for their input, and for ours too.