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Reclaiming the Values of the Kibbutz Movement

January 8, 2013 4:55 pm 0 comments

The first house of the first settlement in Israel in Um Juni, later to become kibbutz Degania. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

On Oct. 29, 1910, a group of 10 men and two women founded the first kibbutz in Israel: Kibbutz Degania, not far from the Kinneret. Joseph Baratz, who had the first child to ever be born on kibbutz, was one of the 10 men, and in 1960, he wrote his memoirs of half a century of kibbutz life.

Eleanor Roosevelt, who visited Deanna, wrote an introduction to the book. The social experiment fascinated her, and she observed that the “desire to live in common and share in common” represents “high thinking and unselfishness of action.”

I recently saw the kibbutz and found an English translation of Baratz’s book, and could not put it down. Looking around the green fields and early kibbutz stone buildings, it is hard to imagine what it was like to come to a desolate expanse of swampland, unprotected and rife with malaria. Baratz left his family in the Ukraine with the passion of a young Zionist at age 16 to become a peasant of the soil of British Palestine. He writes of reacting against his upbringing and the surrounding culture, believing that “in order to construct our country we had to first reconstruct ourselves.”

He was afraid to tell his parents. When he finally confessed his desire to go to Palestine, his father went straight to the rabbi who offered an emphatic “no.” A boy of 16 should not undertake such a journey; he might “fall among free-thinkers” and drift into irreligious ways. But his parents eventually broke down and gave him the money for the journey. His mother called out as the train left the station: “Joseph, my child, be a good Jew,” and Joseph was off to a new life.

Joseph found a group of like-minded new friends who wanted to work the land. All the theory that they had discussed about nature and human nature was then put to the test. Growing food was not about supporting people, as necessary as this was to a country that was not yet a country. It was a philosophical statement for these fledgling Zionists about “the wholeness” they lacked in exile.

The group was totally committed to its goal of living collectively and tending the land and had a heated discussion about putting off marriage and children for at least five years until the kibbutz had initial success. One of the chief debaters against marriage at the time fell in love a month later, married and had the second child born on the kibbutz: Moshe Dayan.

The idea, radical as it was at the time, was that people would lack nothing because they possessed nothing; strength would come from the community and go back into the community. “Nobody would have to be ambitious or to worry for himself.”

Degania, which means cornflower in Hebrew, would, over the next decades, attract some of the most famous Zionists and politicians, including A.D. Gordon, Joseph Trumpeldor, and the poet Rachel. It became a flagship kibbutz, spawning other kibbutzim and collective projects. In Baratz’s words, it fulfilled a dream of what the Jewish nation could become on its own terms: “The land had lost its fertility, and it seemed to us that we ourselves, divorced from it, had become barren in spirit. Now we must give it our strength, and it would give us back our creativeness.”

The heyday of the kibbutz movement is long past. Much of the social experiment failed, but we also failed it. We have traded group laundry for the iPod, shared dining for Facebook networking. But we cannot forget Baratz’s youthful enthusiasm, which turned into a mature philosophy of obligation to land and country. In its largely secular flavor, the kibbutz movement imprinted Israel with values that twinned the deepest biblical connection to the earth with the Talmudic sensibilities of collective responsibility.

What will our modern ideologies build to replace what we have lost?

Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. She is the author of In the Narrow Places (OU Press/Maggid); Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist; Spiritual Boredom; and Confronting Scandal.

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