DEGANIA ALEF, Israel (Reuters) - This year’s harvest was especially merry at Degania Alef, Israel’s first kibbutz, founded in 1910 on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The community celebrated the birth of 11 children, its largest crop of babies in a quarter century.
Twenty-five years ago kibbutzim, collective communities traditionally based on agriculture, seemed all but doomed.
The pioneering socialist and Zionist spirit that drove the movement in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s ran head-on into the consumerist, free-market 1980s and came off worse.
The kibbutzim were hit hard by financial crisis that gripped Israel in the mid-1980s and youngsters abandoned the communal dream and headed to cities. Kibbutzim found themselves graying and failing.
But the last few years have seen a surprising turnaround, with young families seeking to escape the high cost of living and alienation they find in cities for a cheaper, rural lifestyle in a closely knit community.
In some cases the new “kibbutzniks” are those who left to try something different only to return later in life. Others include career city folk who want a complete change of lifestyle.
At the annual harvest festival in Degania, girls donned white dresses and danced with flower wreaths to their heads. Tractor-carts carried children and fresh crops past stacks of hay, and the new babies were presented on stage.
“Instead of old people’s mobility scooters, you’re suddenly seeing so many babies’ pushchairs rolling along,” said Bosmat Viner-Shwarzbard, 38, as she nursed her baby daughter.
“It’s brought a spirit of renewal to the kibbutz. I’m happy that what my grandparents began here will go on.”
Viner-Shwarzbard, a pastry chef, left Degania for the Tel Aviv suburbs when she was 16. She returned with her husband 17 years later and became one of the kibbutz’s 350 members in May along with 16 others, another record high.
In the kibbutz courtyard where Degania’s founders built its first barn, her spouse, Oded, runs a restaurant that looks like any high-class dining spot in Tel Aviv.
“Financially, building a home and family is much easier than in the center. There’s also no stress, it’s protective, everyone knows everyone, there’s a community, values, it’s different from the city,” Oded said.
There are 274 kibbutzim - mostly in Israel, though around 20 are in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Golan Heights - and their population is growing rapidly, at 3 percent last year versus 1.1 percent a decade ago.
The national average is 1.9 percent.
Sociologist Shlomo Getz of Haifa University said the impact of young people returning was tremendous. “They are reviving (the movement), bringing with them many children, contributing to the culture of the kibbutz,” Getz said.
Kibbutz residents make up less than two percent of Israel’s 8.3 million population. But the communities have spawned much of the country’s political, military and cultural elite and account for more than 40 percent of national agricultural output.
Addressing their economic problems a decade ago, kibbutzim began a process of “privatization”, incorporating free market structures while retaining a strong social safety net, including attractive health, welfare and education benefits.
In 2007, after years of demographic stagnation, the trend turned with more people moving into kibbutzim than leaving. Some became members while others rented or bought homes in new neighborhoods built on kibbutz land to generate income.
The number of kibbutz newcomers has been growing since, spiking in 2011 when a social protest swept the country and hundreds of thousands of middle class Israelis took to the streets to demonstrate against soaring living and housing costs.
Though some kibbutzim are still struggling financially, most are stable, if not thriving. Their main income now comes from industry, including from leading companies in Israel. Some communities have grown rich selling off land.
The privatization changes in kibbutzim and housing prices that can, in certain areas, be half those in the center of Israel, have made moving there more attractive.
In most of the communities, members no longer have to work largely in kibbutz-assigned jobs for a modest monthly allowance. Instead, they can pursue their own professional paths and earn their own wages, a portion of which may go back to the kibbutz.
“The kibbutz shed some of the characteristics that had put people off, the collective would decide on your life - where you work, what you studied, whether you could travel abroad,” said Eli Ben-Rafael, sociology professor at Tel Aviv University, who headed a 2002 government panel that oversaw kibbutz restructure.
About a third of kibbutzim are still mainly collectives. Kibbutz Ortal, a settlement on the Golan Heights with fruit plantations, advanced dairy technology and a small winery, is one of them.
Salaries go to the kibbutz and members either get half the sum back or an allowance based on family size and seniority.
Micky Neron, a freelance reporter, and his wife moved in 2012 from Tel Aviv to Ortal, where the chirping of birds contrasts with the occasional rumble of explosions from Syria’s civil war nearby.
“Working all day chasing a salary high enough to cover the rent seemed pointless,” said Neron, 31.
Nir Ortal, 43, whose surname happens to be the same as the kibbutz, was sent in 2004 to New York by his hi-tech company. He and his wife chose to move and raise their two children in Ortal, where he works at a nearby start-up company.
“My kids won’t grow up to be mere consumers,” he said. “They’ll understand the value of work - that money doesn’t grow on trees - community values, mutual help.”
Additional reporting by Ronen Zvulun and Rami Amichay; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Dominic Evans