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MIRA SUCHAROV: Reminiscing about kibbutz

by MIRA SUCHAROV , May 14, 20012

When I was 10, my grandmother took me to Israel for three weeks to visit my aunt and uncle on Kibbutz Beit Hashita in the lower Galilee. Known for its olive and pickle factory, Beit Hashita was considered a success story. It was a large and thriving kibbutz motivated by labor Zionist ideology, and one of the last to give up its children’s houses. Amia Lieblich immortalized life on the kibbutz in her book Kibbutz Makom, a case study of a single, anonymous collective, but widely known to be about Beit Hashita.

I was thrilled by the freedom afforded kids to run around, gather informally to play basketball in the afternoons and take part in communal holiday celebrations. In wintry Winnipeg, our holidays were celebrated in climate-controlled synagogues and carpeted living rooms. On Beit Hashita, the counting of the Omer was marked outdoors, in the fields, to great fanfare.

Ten years later, while studying for a year at the Hebrew University, I connected with Kibbutz Urim in the northern Negev. I was eager to have a kibbutz experience to round out weekday life on Mount Scopus. Many of us had been connected to the Habonim Dror youth movement, and Urim took us in as honorary-student members. We were provided with a spacious flat, an “adoptive family” to visit and bond with, and assigned to a work branch. Almost 20 years later, the young family I connected with now has grandchildren added to the mix, and we have enjoyed regular visits in Israel, Washington, Ottawa and Vancouver and, of course, on Facebook.

That year, I considered making aliyah, settling on a kibbutz and pursuing an academic (and possibly even political) career. As an extrovert, I enjoyed the constant flow of people and personalities. I didn’t give much thought to the repetitiveness of much of the work, nor to the economic constraints of kibbutz life. In fact, I relished the redemptive feeling of engaging in regular manual labor in the long chain of Zionist pioneers. I happily painted beams in the metal-work shop, content in the process and unconcerned about their final destination. Of course, a highlight was practising my Hebrew over the tea-and-toast break, and dancing to ’80s and ’90s hits at the late-night disco.

Beit Hashita has since been privatized, and Kibbutz Urim is struggling to hold onto a middle ground between the ideals of capitalism and socialism. Many kibbutzim are working to adapt to significant challenges, with an aging population that needs caring for, and where the children of the kibbutz can no longer be counted on to remain once they grow up. Some kibbutzim are creating a special category of membership, which would see the member owning his or her own salary, but retaining voting rights on relevant matters. Others are expanding their property to include the purchase of homes outright by non-members, who are granted some communal privileges but none of the financial obligations. And an entirely different model – the urban kibbutz – is sprouting up around the country, where participants often work in the field of education and engage in other social-action pursuits.

Last spring, we stayed with my kibbutz family, who have since left Urim for another kibbutz where they are not members. Recently, we also took our kids to visit cousins on a kibbutz near the Dead Sea. Our kids were positively struck by the continuous outdoor freedom the children enjoy. “Can we make a kibbutz in the Glebe?” my daughter mused.

When I spent weekends on kibbutz while studying at Hebrew U, we would sign up on Saturday nights for lifts back to Jerusalem on the communal car-sharing sheet in the dining hall. I never gave much thought to the continual negotiation that kibbutz life requires – particularly if members wish to study or work off the kibbutz. I took my desire to pursue a PhD for granted; I never gave much thought to the idea that kibbutzniks must apply for permission to take time away from kibbutz work to pursue a graduate degree or a career in the city.

Still, I loved the physical freedom of kibbutz life, and the easy familiarity of seeing the same faces and watching the same kids grow up together. I loved picking pecans from the tree outside our flat, eating pomelos from the field, and riding a combine harvesting potatoes sprouting from the red earth. I was grateful to be a tiny part of the Israeli pioneering dream of creating a new Jewry, one who was able to help reconstitute the Jewish nation through dint of physical labor – even if only for several memory-building months.

Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at This article was originally published in the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin.

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