The kibbutz for many of us is the quintessential creation of the Jewish settlers of Israel, long a symbol of their pioneer spirit. In a prior article, I recorded my impression of the Israelis we encountered and their amazing journey to Israel from many lands, including the little known Kurdish Jewish community. The trip took place in late February 2015 and I volunteered with 14 others, including my wife, Diane, in schools and on an experimental farm in the Beit Shean area. The trip was organized and supported by the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, as part of its sister city efforts to promote the region for tourism and to help in its development.
Our Federation is involved with Beit Shean in several ways. It funds several important initiatives including a program for at risk adolescents and with others in community planning. Also, it has encouraged local synagogue groups to include Beit Shean on trips to Israel.
In this segment, I provide added details about the town of Beit Shean and kibbutz life, from the standpoint of a recent visitor, who spent two weeks in the city and at Kibbutz Shluchot (sometimes spelled Sheluchot). Few Clevelanders have actually lived on a kibbutz or gotten to know members of the community. I thought it would be useful to record my impressions.
Contemporary Beit Shean and Kibbutz Shluchot were established in the 1950s, though Beit Shean was an ancient crossroads. They housed the new immigrants pouring into the State, protecting its fragile and potentially porous borders. Over this short period, the region has hardly had time to establish a history or settled traditions. It is in fact still growing and developing, dealing with community issues, planning improvements.
What are the attractions of Beit Shean, our Sister City, and what was it like to be housed on the kibbutz?
The town and Kibbutz Shluchot, close to Jordanian border, below Lake Tiberias, were off the usual modern tourist routes in Israel, adding a sense of adventure and importance to the program. Our encounters there also gave us a more intimate view of the country than one limited to the major historical and religious sites in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, which of course are also very appealing and meaningful
Israel’s development remains striking to me even after many trips. The country began to take shape only after the World War I and the Balfour Declaration. While its population rose sharply in the 1930s, it was still miniscule, even with a steady influx of refugees from Europe, trying to escape the Nazi menace. After the State was established in 1948, population influx and development accelerated. No other country has built a functioning democratic and efficient society in such a short timeframe (67 years), from a diverse group of impoverished refugees forced to exit their homelands.
And this development in Israel continues, as can be seen in the main cities, with improved housing and a dynamic private sector.
Beit Shean, New/Old Town
This brings us to Beit Shean, one of world’s oldest human settlements, dating to the Iron Age of Man, including key markers of the Ancient Egyptians, especially from the time of Ramses II. Also, nearby, there are the remnants of an ancient synagogue, Beit Alfa, dating from Byzantine times. By 1922, while still an Arab settlement, a few Kurdish Jews, less than 100, tried to settle there; they left after the anti-Jewish violence in 1929. These outbreaks led Zionist leaders and planners to secure these borderlands with fortified Jewish settlements; they were organized as self-sufficient kibbutzim and moshavim (privately-owned farms grouped into a settlement), including Beit Josef, Kfar Ruppin, and Nir David; the later kibbutz housed us for one night, in excellent facilities.
The new settlers also had to defend against attack by hostile neighbors, creating a stockade and tower security system, one of which we toured on our visit and is pictured above.
Even as late as 1947, Beit Shean was sparsely settled, with the Arab population leaving after Israeli independence. The Jewish Agency placed new Jewish immigrants there, primarily from Arab lands. Housing was primitive, since resources overall were limited.
For a few years thereafter, the town was largely a transit camp for newcomers. Most settlers worked on government sponsored projects, such as afforestation, or as agricultural laborers. In 1954, the Israeli government got serious about providing housing for the newcomers, constructing 450 housing units, but this was still inadequate for the 4,500 residents, mostly from Iran and Iraq.
Beit Shean at that time did not have paved streets; only a small number of homes had electricity; there were no factories. One school was in operation, providing classes up to the 8th grade. The surrounding agricultural settlements were not able to provide much help since they were themselves underdeveloped and struggling.
But no more. Beit Shean in 2015 has progressed and now has a population of approximately 18,000. It now has adequate housing, good schools and teachers, as well as places for organized sports. It has attracted some commercial life, with amenities such as serious restaurants, coffee houses, a shopping center and outdoor bazaar. It has been described as “stark with a standard look of all new urban sites [in the region], light stones, hard concrete sidewalks, a sense of efficiency and simplicity imposed by practical bureaucrats…People seemed perfectly adapted to it.” (Gerald Green, Stones of Zion) That said, it is a relatively new settlement and it works for most people, improving their lives and outlook, with progressive schools and dedicated teachers.
It will get a boost from the Haifa rail connection that will be completed in the near future. This link will enable residents to take jobs or conduct business more efficiently in Haifa and along the coast; it may also encourage some families to settle in Beit Shean from elsewhere in Israel. (Beit Shean was also connected by the rail in the nineteenth century as a station on the route from Damascus to Cairo.)
The town also benefits from the archeological park containing ancient ruins of Greek and Roman settlements, including a marvelous first century Roman amphitheater intended for use as a hippodrome. There are now streams of visitors bused in daily from Israel’s main cities to see its wonders, which are extensive and well-preserved.
The Federation volunteers worked primarily in Beit Shean and were introduced to its civic life, meeting the mayor and his staff; we also toured its budding museum containing photos and artifacts of its earlier civic life.
Kibbutz Shluchot, Base Station for the Volunteers
We as volunteers stayed on Kibbutz Shluchot, a few miles from Beit Shean. The predecessor settlement was founded in 1948 by members of Bnei Akiva Zionist youth movement and Hashomer Hatzair. Some members broke off to form an adjacent secular Kibbutz of Reshafim. Later, three others were organized as Modern Orthodox kibbutz communities, such as Shluchot, which now has 120 families, totaling about 350 people.
It derives most of its income from farming, including its well-known carrot processing factory, as well as a turkey farm. It also cultivates date palms, shipping dates throughout Israel and has developed a successful commercial fishery business from its fish ponds. Among other support functions, it has created a metal workshop to design and produce equipment for the farms.
In order to diversify its income sources further, the Kibbutz has a number of small factories, including Microvue, producing microfilm readers/scanners for export. It has developed a company named Sheletron, founded in 1996, to design and make electronic display units.
Kibbutz Shluchot has established a bed and breakfast facility, where we all stayed. This operation contributes to its growth and income base as other travelers seek an authentic kibbutz experience.
Part of the communal facilities include a very large dining room, where at one time all meals were served. Now most members of Shluchot cook at home and use the dining room on special occasions and for official communal meetings. There is also an attractive synagogue for the members that seat the entire kibbutz community.
We had a chance to meet and socialize with many kibbutz members. Several were originally from the United States, immigrating to Israel in the 1970s. They were then young pioneers willing to forego middle class life in the United States and elsewhere to fulfill their dream of participating in the rebirth of a Jewish nation in Eretz Yisrael. In becoming part of the kibbutz, they undertook any work that was needed, mostly agricultural, developing the land and protecting the borderlands and the country. Of course, they pursued some of their intellectual activities, such as art and literature, but after the daily chores on the farm. Their efforts paid off and the kibbutz is self-sufficient and self governing, enabling the children of members to attend college and professional school. Many of them have returned after their exposure to city life, because the attributes of Kibbutz life were compelling, including serious attention to religion, family and community.
Remaining an Israeli and a kibbutz resident entail responsibility and challenges that we in the United States may not fully realize. A key one is the major commitment to serve in the Israeli army for three years. All young people know that at age 18 they will be required to train and deploy in the field, contributing to the country’s defense. This is a heavy burden for the individual and society, delaying the completion of higher education, marriage, and achievement of career goals.
The Cleveland volunteers distributed “care” packages to young soldiers, men and women, as they boarded buses on Sunday morning, returning to their bases. While there was no time to talk to them in any depth, those we encountered were proud to serve.
One of the Shluchot Kibbutz members, whose daughter lives in Youngstown, is a high school guidance counselor. He helps students choose which part of the military to apply when they graduate rather than which college or career. Some of them will make careers in the military or get training sufficient to qualify them for jobs in the private economy.
The kibbutz encourages family life. The average family has between 5 and 6 children, double the rate of the United States, and well above family formation in Europe.
On this orthodox kibbutz, Shabbat is devoted to serious religious reflection and practice. On Saturday, after services, families are engaged with each other and the community, without the many distractions and schedules in modern American life. But farm responsibilities are continuous; farm and animals need attention every day. Also, there are contingencies such as breakdowns of equipment and facilities, which must be repaired.
Housing from an American viewpoint is modest, but adequate. There are no McMansions. Each housing unit has an attractive kitchen and the dining room merges with the living room. In homes of our hosts, art adorned the walls; many people play instruments, sing or participate in theatre groups, both on and off the kibbutz.
My Impressions of Kibbutz Life
In comparison to the U.S. and its dynamic private economy, the kibbutz may appear to limit freedom of action and personal development. But it still appeals to the pioneer, seeking challenges in developing and maintaining the land and the society with a group of like-minded people. It emphasizes community welfare over private gain. Economic decisions are made on the basis of how they impact the members. If there are breakthroughs in products or services, the benefits are not taken solely by the innovator but shared by the whole community. Also, community life means that all family members are valued; they work in close proximity and their welfare is taken seriously. All members feel passionately about their kibbutz and despite the many attractions of life in cities and private companies, subject to business cycles, they stay put. I think that it is an especially good environment for children.
For me, the insular life would be confining and difficult. Some key personal decisions such as training, business development and travel are made in a communal setting. But to be part of a group with similar objectives in state-building, family development and religion might be very appealing.
It should also be noted that the kibbutz movement seems to be stabilizing after declining for some years; the number of members in aggregate now account for 20 percent of the population. Also, kibbutzim are diversifying into industry and services and provide incentives for innovation; wages are no longer equal but relate to effort and contribution.
Our volunteer group was delighted and privileged to have a brief, if limited, view of this way of organizing economic, social and religious life. After all, it is uniquely Israeli.
Cleveland has built a meaningful partnership with key people in the town and the kibbutz. They in turn strongly encourage and reciprocate the relationship.