A Kibbutz Re-Imagined

By Batya Greenman

Edited by April Selditch and Raella Abel

Change happened almost overnight. For everyone. Everywhere. As more and more countries were affected, the pre-pandemic cruise control mode we were used to was no longer effective. We were forced to change everything, from our day-to-day routines to our ways of thinking. The COVID-19 pandemic pulled us like a taut elastic band extended to its maximum. Communities were challenged to respond to a new reality without snapping.

I live on a kibbutz, a collective community in Israel that was traditionally based on working the land, Socialism, Zionism, and Democracy. There, I watched a community response to an emergency unfold. As a member for over 30 years, I witnessed with interest, surprise and sometimes delight at how we dealt with change, manifested resilience, and expressed compassion during this challenging time. 

I live in the center of the country about mid-way between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, about a half hour drive from each. We have a membership of 217 and an additional 87 children. This is considered a small kibbutz – some having a population of between two and three thousand. It was established in 1945, mainly by immigrants from Europe and was modeled on the principles of Socialism.  In 2000, the collective became more privatized in response to the needs and desires of the members.

I witnessed with interest, surprise, and delight at how we dealt with change.”

In retrospect, I felt like our kibbutz residents had become self-centered, took much for granted, had stagnated creatively and were less considerate of others’ needs. We suffered from some of the maladies of a small-town mentality; often concentrating on petty issues and being overly critical of our fellow kibbutz members.

Once the pandemic took hold, so was our consciousness re-activated. Community kindness began to spread, and many wonderfully creative ideas flowed.

We helped ourselves and one another, making this time less fearful for all of us. A meaningful way of living together strongly emerged. ‘You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.’  John Lennon asked us to imagine a brotherhood of man. I am hoping that sharing the lessons and gains that I witnessed and participated in on the kibbutz “will make the world a better place.”

Responding to the Challenge

Corona became a fact of life in Israel. In response, our kibbutz immediately set up a Corona committee to spread relevant news to our community – who was infected, who was in isolation, the national health ministry rules and how to get tested. Available housing on the kibbutz was found for those needing to be in isolation. Eventually, we were told how to secure an appointment for the COVID-19 vaccination.

At the onset of the pandemic, I was asked to sew masks for all the residents of the kibbutz who wanted them. This turned into a mammoth project. After finding instructions for making suitable masks on YouTube, I organized a group of people who had sewing machines at home.

Masks could be ordered online for adults and children alike through a collaborative document on a Google drive. Simultaneously a fun and labor-intensive project, we gained more than masks. Kinship was an unanticipated bonus. People expressed much appreciation and were pleasantly surprised when they realized that this was a voluntary project – no payment was involved. It also jived with our green environmental policy to not use disposable masks.

Our general membership and committee meetings were conducted on Zoom and are still being done that way. It was easy to get used to wearing slippers and comfy clothes to these meetings, with a warm beverage made in the comfort of my own kitchen. The attendance was higher than usual – maybe because we were all in need of social interaction…even if only through a screen.

An advisor to the kibbutz on welfare matters visited once a week to help people file for and receive the benefits they were entitled to from Bituach Leumi (National Insurance). Those who were not entitled to funds were granted financial assistance from the kibbutz. Those of us who had jobs we could do from home continued working. Nobody went hungry. In fact, many people complained about putting on weight.

If we couldn’t go out to shop, the shops could be brought to us. Someone arranged for a clothes and shoe sale to be held in an open space under the dining hall. Another sale of kitchen equipment and interesting culinary items was also arranged by one of the kibbutz members. Local businesses with delivery and takeaway services were promoted. The older population could WhatsApp or make orders telephonically from our kibbutz grocery store. Items were promptly delivered by teenagers who were available due to school closure. How could you beat the convenience and safety of this system?

Nurturing the Spirit

Social events were dreamed up and driven by a most creative cultural committee, which thought about activities that could take place outdoors and with the required social distancing. One of the many successful events offered was a movie screening on the large grassy area in the center of the kibbutz. Chairs were generously spaced. The refreshments, laid out on long tables, included individual bottles of beer, large paper cups of popcorn, and cupcakes – no one needed to touch anyone else’s refreshments.

In our reform synagogue, chairs were placed at a distance from each other and only up to 10 people were permitted to sit inside, with additional seating arranged on the outside deck. The weekly Sabbath service was broadcast live on Zoom and Facebook. During the High Holidays, similar arrangements were made, and the festivity of the New Year was palpable, as people arrived clad in white holiday attire.

One of the best examples of the creativity of the rabbi occurred on the holiday of Shavuot. The customary joys of filling the synagogue, merrily singing and dancing in concentric circles were not permitted.  The rabbi, instead, organized a few congregants to hold the Torah scrolls and to drive around the kibbutz in golf carts, with music booming out of a roof-mounted speaker. People heard the music and saw the scrolls from their homes. By the general reaction and feedback, many coming from non-members of the synagogue, it was deemed a success for one and all.

The gardening and landscaping branch of the kibbutz suggested we work on our gardens as a way of making the best of our time at home. The initiative provided creative vision as well as free plants and seeds for those who took up the challenge. Families and children participated together and the beautification that unfolded could be seen in peoples’ gardens as well as around the kibbutz.

Only allowed up to 1000 meters from our houses? No problem! Vast fields right on our doorstep yielded a feeling of fortune and abundance and provided a ready-made exercise area to walk, run or cycle. For kibbutz members, closed gyms posed no problem.

I personally felt the unity of community after undergoing a hip replacement operation during the pandemic. When I returned from the hospital, my neighbor had built a handrail at the entrance to our house that assisted my climb up the two steps at the front of the door. There was an organized list of people who cooked us dinner each night for three weeks. And what delicious food!  I was very grateful, but it was even more appreciated by my husband, who had suddenly become a full-time nurse. Some people unexpectedly arrived with a cake, cookies, or some homemade soup. Someone lent me a walker; another put safety rails in my shower. The advisor on welfare issues assisted with filing the appropriate forms for National Insurance. Her know-how enabled me to hire someone that could help me with chores around the house till I was capable of doing them myself.

It seems that the pandemic actually brought out the best in us.”

I am proud of what my community has learned during the pandemic. Perhaps building an active, concerned, generous world society can find its blueprint on a small kibbutz in the time of Corona. “I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world can live as one.” Imagine.

Looking back, it seems that the pandemic actually brought out the best in us. I think many of us ask ourselves why that is. On the kibbutz, we are thinking about what changes we might want to hold onto before those familiar habits of cruise control start to return. I hope we remember that while the priorities in our lives can and do change, a community can put fellowship and the needs of individuals at the top of the list. There will always be people in need and there will always be people in the position to give. Hopefully, our kibbutz will perpetuate some of this special community spirit in the future.

About the author:

Batya Greenman has lived in Israel since 1978. She worked as a teacher and has recently retired from her administrative position at the Weizmann Institute of Science.  Batya enjoys music, outdoor life, writing, freelance editing and spending time with her family.

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