Up in the clear, green spaces of the Galilee, it is easy to forget the stress and backbiting of urban Israeli life.
Rather, what matters in the remote north of the country is harmony, education and economics. Each is inextricably linked. Without education and a decent economy, the already small Jewish population of the region will decrease and decamp to the big cities. And the opportunities for a good education facilitate better relationships between Jewish and Arab citizens — and, ultimately, help to improve investment and thus the economy.
Every Pesach, Britain’s United Jewish Israel Appeal (UJIA), which is closely involved in Israel’s northern communities, runs a visit to its projects. This year, two coachloads of British Jews, who were spending the festival in Israel, took to the roads to discover what the north has to offer.
High up in the hills, south of the Galilee “capital”, Karmiel, there is Kibbutz Eshbal, founded 12 years ago on the site of a disused army outpost by a group of idealistic army graduates who were all in the same youth movement, Hanoar Haoved v’Halomed — loosely translated as “working and learning youth”. It is Israel’s newest kibbutz, a living realisation of Theodor Herzl’s mantra: “If you will it, it is no dream” As Gilad Perry, one of the original founders, explains: “Eshbal is Zionism in action.”
Gilad and Carmit Matiyevich, another co-founder, went to the Ministry of Education with a startling proposal — they wanted to start a kibbutz whose sole “product” would be education.
The pair admit that their idea was not rapturously received initially. None of them had any relevant experience. But they persisted and eventually the group moved into Eshbal and opened a remarkable boarding school, the majority of whose students are Ethiopian boys and girls, who would otherwise fall through the cracks of the state educational system.
The students come from poor backgrounds, and are often involved in petty crime or drugs before they arrive at the kibbutz. But Eshbal gives them one last shot at qualifying for army service, the gateway to a flourishing life in Israeli society. “We now have three groups who have finished school in Eshbal and can get drafted,” says Perry.
The school has many unusual aspects to its curriculum. It works, for example, in partnership with the local police force, offering students the chance to train horses and dogs, and giving them the opportunity to join the police when they finish. So successful has the Eshbal experiment been — supported by UJIA donations for the past five years — that the educators are establishing a special school in Karmiel, and are working with the local Arab population to bring their students into the project. “Judaism,” says Matiyevich, “should radiate tikkun olam” — repairing the world.
Just north-west of Karmiel, another radical experiment, supported by the UJIA, is making waves. Kishorit is about the same vintage as Eshbal, established 11 years ago. It is an associate member of the Hashomer Hatzair movement, but there the resemblance to a conventional kibbutz ends. Kishorit is home to 147 adults aged from 21 to 58 who suffer from a variety of different special needs conditions, both physical and mental, including autism, Asperger’s, schizophrenia and Down’s syndrome. Three of the residents come from the UK.
Dita Kohl-Roman, whose brother is a member of the village, says: “Kishorit was established by a group of parents who were, in many cases, at their wits’ end as to what would become of their children. Today it is a groundbreaking model of rehabilitation, and people come from all over the world to see what we do.”
The starting assumption of Kishorit is that everyone, no matter what their particular handicap, has a skill. The achievement of the village is to draw that skill out of the residents, 97 per cent of whom work each day in one of the kibbutz’s various businesses.
These include a goat farm, which has become Israel’s largest producer of organic goat’s milk; a stable, which permits therapeutic riding for Kishorit members and the wider community; and the kennels, which breed and board pedigree mini-schnauzers and dachshunds — one Kishorit dog even showed at Cruft’s this year.
In an echo of Gilad Perry at Eshbal, Dita Kohl-Roman calls Kishorit’s work “an up-to-date Zionist approach”. And, in keeping with the ethos of the region and a pledge to improve the lot of their Arab neighbours, Kishorit is now building a sister community for Arab adults with special needs.