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Urban kibbutzim plant seeds for improving city life

The old socialist model gets a modern twist as intentional communities make educational and social inroads in underprivileged Israeli neighborhoods.

Members of Kibbutz Mishol in Nazareth Illit.


Guy Gardi, a founding member of 25-year-old urban Kibbutz Beit Yisrael in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo Aleph, doesn’t consider himself a pioneer like the founders of the nearly 100-year-old Kibbutz Ein Harod in the Jezreel Valley, where he grew up.


Those original egalitarian communes (kibbutz means “gathering” or “collective”) struggled to establish fertile farms in long-barren soil, while today’s urban kibbutz is an intentional community working to improve quality of life and education in underserved neighborhoods. It’s a different kind of pioneering.


“The unique idea of an urban kibbutz is to take the old idea of a kibbutz — a group of people living together and sharing their resources to help each other accomplish a mission – and apply it to a social environment rather than an agricultural environment,” explains Gardi.


Five secular and religious families started Kibbutz Beit Yisrael in 1993. They moved into a former immigrant absorption center in a rundown part of Gilo and extended a hand to residents of the surrounding public-housing projects.


“We’re working with amazing people who happen to have a lot of troubles. To understand them we have to live among them, respect them and build trust. The connection has to influence both sides,” Gardi tells ISRAEL21c. “Of all the things I do, the most important is just to live there and be a caring friend and neighbor.”

Guy Gardi, center, speaking at an event in the community garden built by members of Kibbutz Beit Yisrael for local residents.

Members founded the Kvutzat Reut nonprofit as a vehicle to promote social action and religious pluralism in Gilo Aleph.


Kvutzat Reut-Kibbutz Beit Yisrael offers informal education programs for all ages; revitalizes public preschools and elementary schools with declining enrollment; and founded Mechinat Beit Yisrael, a pre-army leadership, study and local volunteering program that attracts students from Israel and abroad.






“Kibbutz Beit Yisrael was one of the first to invent this model and a lot of people have come here to learn about it in the past 25 years,” says longtime member Omer Lefkowitz. “Israel is full of people looking for vision, for a life of meaning. Mission-driven communities give them a way to do that.”


A new social movement

Nomika Zion, founder of urban Kibbutz Migvan in Sderot. Photo by Yossi Oren

Nomika Zion, founder of urban Kibbutz Migvan in the blue-collar southern town of Sderot, estimates that more than 200 urban kibbutzim or similar intentional communities exist across Israel. More are springing up all the time.


“It’s a new social movement,” she says.


This movement includes Garin Torani communities of religious young families; student volunteer villages of the grassroots Ayalim Association in the Negev and Galilee; and non-Jewish (including Druze) intentional communities.


“What they have in common is that they are extremely involved in their city or town’s social welfare and education,” Zion tells ISRAEL21c. “Most don’t have a sharing economy like classic kibbutzim but they often work and live together.”


Zion frequently hosts foreign visitors, reporters and university students wishing to understand the phenomenon. She starts with her own story as a third-generation kibbutznik.


“Israel is full of people looking for vision, for a life of meaning. Mission-driven communities give them a way to do that.”


“I was raised on social values of equality, but nearby there was a development town of North African immigrants we never met. I wanted to break down the metaphorical wall,” Zion says. “I wanted to bring the kibbutz into the city and share my life with people of different backgrounds, and try to build relationships not based on patronizing anyone.”


Six young pioneers followed Zion to Sderot in 1987. At that time, many children of the town’s original Moroccan immigrants were growing up and taking leadership roles to improve life in Sderot.


“There were exciting changes happening and we wanted to be part of that,” says Zion. “When we started we got no support from the Kibbutz Movement or the government. But we wanted to create a new kind of communal model in Israel.”


Kibbutz Migvan members lived in public housing for 14 years before buying land and building their own houses and community center.

Members of Kibbutz Migvan in Sderot built their own neighborhood within the city.

They established the first high-tech company in Sderot. The owners from the kibbutz and the workers from town earned equal salaries and made management decisions democratically.


In 1994, they founded the Gvanim Association to provide equal employment and education opportunities for Israelis with special needs. In 2008, they built houses for about 20 people with physical disabilities to live among them.


Today, the high-tech company and Gvanim are independently run. Many of Kibbutz Migvan’s 100 members are involved in these enterprises but are free to work wherever they choose.


Without sacrificing shared activities such as meals, childcare, holiday celebrations and educational seminars, the economic and social structure has become more flexible just as it has on many of the 250 traditional kibbutzim across Israel.


“Over the years many families joined us but didn’t want to have a shared economy, so today only six families are in that shared economy and the rest are not,” Zion explains. “Everyone is very close to one another despite their differences. People contribute in different ways.”

Four generations of the Simon family, all Kibbutz Beit Yisrael members, on the steps of their communal home in Jerusalem. Photo: courtesy

A similar shift has taken place at Kibbutz Beit Yisrael in Jerusalem. Its 10 core families are supplemented by an economically independent group of 60 to 80 families who help carry out Kvutzat Reut’s programs. Mechinat Beit Yisrael currently has 60 men and women in the first year and 25 in the second year.

Recent Mechinat Beit Yisrael graduates at the site of Khirbat Arza, a new archeological park they helped to create in Gilo.

Lefkowitz, now 40, graduated from the first class of Mechinat Beit Yisrael and came back after the army in 2002 to join the urban kibbutz. He teaches at the academy and directs the activities of alumni who have so far started six similar urban kibbutzim around Israel.


Many of the at-risk neighborhood kids who benefited from Kvutzat Reut programs also come back after the army and become partners in improving the neighborhood.


“The social projects we do touch more and more people,” Lefkowitz says. “It’s not a project; it’s life. You need people that see it as a mission.”


Building Israeli society together


In an impoverished neighborhood of the northern town of Nazareth Illit, 150 members of urban Kibbutz Mishol — half of them children – reside in an eight-story former immigrant absorption center.


About 20 percent of their neighbors are senior citizens. Immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Arab Muslims and Christians are the predominant populations groups here.

The former immigrant absorption center that houses Kibbutz Mishol in Nazareth Illit.

“We started about 20 years ago,” says founding member James Grant Rosenhead, 44, a 1999 immigrant from the UK. “We work with all the populations together, in a neighborhood where there’s a lot of racism, and bring kids to an ability to build Israeli society together.”


Members of Kibbutz Mishol run and staff the local elementary school, the flagship project of its NGO, Tikkun, whose projects also include children’s afterschool programs and a drop-in youth center. They will build an educational greenhouse at the school this year.

Kibbutz Mishol founding member James Grant Rosenhead.

Tikkun took over HaMahanot HaOlim, a national youth movement founded in 1929 to help establish agricultural kibbutzim, to prepare young Israelis from its 50 branches to found intentional urban communities.


“We now have a network of six activist kibbutzim – ours in addition to kibbutzim in Rishon LeZion, Eilat, Migdal HaEmek, Haifa and the Jordan Valley,” Rosenhead tells ISRAEL21c. “We help them establish educational and social projects in their neighborhoods.”


Eighty percent of adult Kibbutz Mishol members choose to work in Tikkun projects locally and nationwide. Rosenhead, formerly the joint CEO of Tikkun, recently retrained as a computer programmer to work in the kibbutz’s database development startup.


Hazon, the US-based Jewish Lab for Sustainability, is launching a project to introduce potential diaspora intentional communities to existing Israeli ones. Rosenhead will be a guide for these visits.


“People think human beings don’t share and cooperate well, but it turns out that it is possible to compromise, cooperate and form an intensive community life,” says Rosenhead.


Adds Zion, from Kibbutz Migvan: “When you create a new social model for life, it’s very romantic. Then you meet reality and there are many compromises and disappointments. And yet, I couldn’t have dreamed 33 years ago that the reality would be better than the dream.”

Dror Israel Movement - because only together we make a difference

Dror Israel is an educational movement, social and cooperative that was established in 2006.The movement includes children and teens, youngsters and adults that come from over the country. Since its establishment the movement makes has various activities that are designed to promote equality, peace and the democracy among the people, and create an open dialogue that is based on respect, attentiveness and understanding all the parties that exist in the society.

Through its many and varied activities, raising awareness and the support it gives, the movement believes that it will be possible to create a better society that fights against the violence and racism.


Most of the movement members live in a new unique collaborative model- Urban Educators Kibbutz – it is about a renewal of Kibbutz idea, which played a key role in the establishing of the state of Israel, while modifying to the 21st century. Educators Kibbutzes work in autonomous small cells and the movement provides an additional safety net for the kibbutzes. The educators Kibbutzes are located within the cities and many members are engaged in educational activities at schools and the activities' scope reach hundreds of thousands of children and teens a year.

3 groups that operate for the peace, the equality and the democracy

During the 80's and 90's to the present the state of Israel has had accelerated privatization processes. This policy has led to the wide gaps in the Israeli society and even to poverty. Even the various factories in the labor movement have changed the faces and the people were afraid that there will be no place for the socialist Zionist idea in the Israeli society.

Out of these changes Dror Israel movement has grown: The members of the youth worker and learner movement that grew up and wanted to keep and educate and experience a cooperative way of life, established thousands of continued frames that will allow to thousands of young people and adults to renew the cooperative idea and set up dozens of unique educational frameworks.

Dror Israel on-line

Dror Israel movement is active on-line, making information and participation approachable. The movement keeps an open channel of communication via its Facebook page. The page keeps followers up to date about activates, workshops on writing and composing and more. Dror Israel also post photos, videos of varies events.

More information about Dror Israel can be found on kvutzot.net, kolzchut.org.il and calcalist.co.il.

Dror Israel works with over 200,000 young people from different backgrounds in order to increase tolerance, equality and democracy in Israeli society.

Nouveau kibbutz movement taking root

September 10, 2015

jaffa, israel | Zohar Avigdori walked into a typically disheveled staff room of an atypical summer camp in Israel and sniffed appreciatively. “Always the smell of chocolate spread and sweat,” the 33-year-old remarked nostalgically. “Summer in the youth movement.”

Zohar Avigdori
Zohar Avigdori
Teenage counselors were busy getting ready for the 100 Arab and Jewish kids who would soon arrive for a four-day shared existence camp.

Its purpose: To engage children from the heavily segregated Jaffa area, south of Tel Aviv, in fun activities that would build friendships.

The camp is run by Dror Israel, a modern-day, idealistic kibbutz movement devoted to improving Israeli society through education. The program has some 1,200 staff members who live in 16 urban kibbutzes throughout Israel; at nearby facilities, they run schools, camps and other programs that engage Arabs, Jews, new immigrants, at-risk youth and others.

“They basically use Jewish education as a lever for societal change,” said Rabbi James Brandt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay, which this year gave $65,000 to help fund a Dror Israel kibbutz — one located in Akko on Israel’s north coast.

“In a time in Israel when traditional kibbutzim are in such a sharp decline, they’ve developed a new model for the kibbutz where the product of the kibbutz is Jewish education and social change,” Brandt added. “The goal of the kibbutz is to improve Israeli society.”
Mural at a Dror Israel camp in Jaffa  photos/drew himmelstein
Mural at a Dror Israel camp in Jaffa photos/drew himmelstein

In addition to giving money to Dror Israel over the past four years, the East Bay federation has engaged in exchanges with the program — with East Bay community members visiting the kibbutz in Akko and Dror Israel members traveling to the East Bay.

“I find meaning in trying to build a better Israeli society,” said Jonathan Kershenbaum, 23, activity coordinator of the Dror Israel camp in Jaffa. “We believe the key to integration is friendship, meeting, relationships, cooperating. The point of our activities is to get the kids to meet, to interact.”

Dror Israel grew out of the youth movement HaNoar HaOved VeHaLomed, which means “the working and studying youth.”

That’s the movement Avigdori grew up in, participating in after-school activities akin to the Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts and latching onto the movement’s labor activism. The seed was planted, and in the army, he served alongside other youth movement members, then spent 10 months doing national service as an educator.

Now he lives on a Dror Israel kibbutz in Eshbal, in Israel’s north, where he and other members pool their income and make collective decisions about how to run the community. He works in fundraising and helps facilitate Dror Israel’s relationship with the East Bay federation.

He also works on Dror Israel’s Yitzhak Rabin memorial and dialogue project, and will be a speaker and workshop leader at a Lehrhaus Judaica symposium in November marking the 20th anniversary of the former Israeli prime minister’s assassination. He was in the East Bay last year, working as a docent when the Dror Israel project “About-Face: Yitzhak Rabin, His Life and Legacy” was on display at three local synagogues and Berkeley Hillel.

Jonathan Kershenbaum
Jonathan Kershenbaum

Avigdori said Dror Israel is a way to realize the Zionist dream in the 21st century. Though earlier generations of idealistic Israelis moved to rural kibbutzes to farm the land, Avigdori said things are different nowadays.

“Growing up in the late ’90s in a suburb of Tel Aviv, it would seem unreasonable that the way to fulfill myself as an Israeli Zionist would be to move to the Negev and grow capsicum,” he said.

Instead, he said, what felt relevant was to devote his life to education. He invokes the idealism of Theodor Herzl’s Zionist vision, which he understands as “the fulfillment of the Jewish decree to do tikkun olam and to be a light among the nations.”

Teaching young people, he said, is one of the best ways to enact social change and attempt to heal the divisions in Israeli society.

“I believe education is the most radical way to change reality,” he said. “Influencing people in a dialogue, working from the grassroots up. If you’re doing actual education, you’re able to ask people questions instead of giving them answers.”


Here is a video about GRJ (Groups Renewing Judaism) partnership: 6 Israeli movements of young adult activist communities and their Cultural-Zionist approach which holistically integrates their community building, social justice activism and Judaism…



A new kibbutz movement, revisited

An article by JAMES GRANT-ROSENHEAD, a member of Kibbutz Mishol, describing the new communities in Israel that are co-operating to create a new Kibbutz Movement. First written in 2003, and then updated in 2012, here is the all new 2015 version..

A New Kibbutz Movement, Revisited

By James Grant-Rosenhead, February 2015 / Shvat 5775


Every now and again I am surprised to see that the article 'A New Kibbutz Movement', which I wrote way back in 2003, is still online and getting hits. I wrote then about the possibility of the 'Ma'agal HaKvutzot' (Circle of Groups) uniting various new 'kvutzot shitufiot' (cooperative groups) such as urban kibbutzim and 'Tnuot Bogrim' (adult graduates movements) under it's umbrella as some kind of new kibbutz movement.

Looking back now, not only has that article been completely out of date for years, but it was also from the outset overly simplistic regarding the potential of Ma'agal HaKvutzot as a unifying movement. The reality is that whilst that particular umbrella for inter-group contact has indeed grown and developed to become some kind of new kibbutz movement, it is just one small network amongst six new kibbutz movements, all of which are growing in parallel. Furthermore, these six new kibbutz movements exist within a wider context of some eight thousand members of intentional, activist communities from fourteen national movements and networks which together have formed 'M.A.K.O.M.' – the Hebrew acronym for the Israeli Council of Communities for Social Action.