Returning city families usher kibbutz renaissance


Hadar Shlomo remembers a childhood in Kibbutz Nir-Am in southern Israel as an experience "lacking self-expression and freedom".

She recalled with distaste how all the families ate in the same dining room, received the same allowance, and were provided with two pairs of shoes per year - one for the winter months, and a pair of sandals ahead of the summer.

Since 2012, however, Mrs Shlomo, her husband, and her three children are proud Nir-Am residents. "The kibbutz I came back to is not the one I left," she said, "and that's a good thing."

Mrs Shlomo is one of a growing number of young, middle-class Israelis looking to escape the soaring housing prices and rat-race mentality of the Tel Aviv area for the natural environment, laid-back atmosphere and higher living standards on kibbutzim.

Interest has skyrocketed in kibbutzim like Nir-Am, with the names of new families constantly being added to the years-long waiting lists.

According to the Israeli Bureau of Statistics, more than 150,000 live in the country's 274 kibbutzim, reflecting a growth rate of 3 per cent (compared to 1.1 per cent a decade ago).

And while Nir-Am has abandoned its "communist" structure and now allows families financial independence, Mrs Shlomo still appreciates it feels like a community that celebrates holidays and special occasions together.

That collective spirit is most meaningful in her children's daily lives. In Kiryat Ono, a city near Tel Aviv where the Shlomo family lived before relocating, she had been concerned with scheduling play dates and carpools. Here, she does not think twice about her children playing soccer outside, or walking to their grandparents' house.

"I see my children discovering their freedom," she says.

Moreover, rent in Nir-Am is about half of that in the Tel Aviv area, and because of its proximity to Gaza, its residents are eligible for government benefits. When it is quiet, it is idyllic, says Mrs Shlomo, but when rockets from Gaza start to fall in Israel, as they have over the past weekend, "I can't say there is no fear," she said.

The revival in kibbutzim in southern Israel, as well as throughout the entire country, is an unexpected surprise, especially as only a decade ago many questioned whether the movement would even survive.

A nationwide economic crisis dating back to the 1980s that reached a peak around 2000 put much of the kibbutz movement "on the verge of bankruptcy", says Eli Ben-Rafael, Tel Aviv University sociology professor. In 2002, he led a government commission that promoted reforms on the kibbutzim, allowing new residents to own their houses, earn their own salaries and work outside the kibbutz.

"Many think this is the end of the kibbutz, that it has lost its ideological message," said Ben-Rafael, who was born on Kibbutz Hanita near the Lebanese border. But because kibbutzim now allow the wider population to register as residents rather than members, "there's a wider diversity, more cultural life, more children", he added.

While mostly foreign guest workers man the fields, according to Ministry of Agriculture figures, most "returnees" continue to work in the same companies or sectors they left behind in the big city.

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