KIBBUTZ KRAMIM, Israel (Reuters) - With its socialist doctrine of shared possessions — down to your underwear — and love of the land, the kibbutz for years symbolized Israel’s earthy Zionist ideals.
But Israelis abandoned the collective farms in droves as socialism fell from favor in the 1980s, urban centers flourished and many kibbutzim sank into debt as they struggled to weather hyperinflation and soaring interest rates.
Now the kibbutz is staging a tentative comeback by embracing reform and eco-friendly practices to attract young families looking for an alternative to the daily grind.
“It’s no longer a commune,” said Udi Nathan, who moved his family to Kibbutz Kramim in Israel’s Negev desert in 2006 after a decade of living in the country’s secular metropolis Tel Aviv.
“It has its socialist aspects ... but we don’t share our wallets with people, which I think is good and is in tune with what’s going on today.”
Traditionally, the kibbutz was an agricultural settlement founded on Zionist-socialist principles, where everyone worked the land and shared income and possessions. The first collective farm was founded in 1909.
Besides initially being a practical venture in group living, the kibbutz played a central role in Zionist settlement of the land before and after the founding of the Jewish state.
Despite its idealistic image among many Israelis, others see the kibbutz — some of which were founded on deserted Arab villages after the 1948 Arab-Israeli War — as part of what they call the Zionist “land grab” of the last century.
Some 50,000 people left the collective farms between 1984 and 2004 as the egalitarian way of life lost appeal and the farms struggled with the economic crisis of the mid-1980s.
But many kibbutzim have improved their finances over the past decade thanks in part to government help, and have relaxed rules on sharing income and possessions.
Tiny Kibbutz Kramim was founded in 1980 with an eye toward “making the desert bloom.” Today, it has a large vineyard and plantations, rents out dozens of cabins for tourists and co-owns a gas station with another kibbutz.
Like some two-thirds of Israel’s 273 kibbutzes, Kramim became a “renewed” kibbutz when it underwent privatization, meaning members now earn and keep differential salaries, are charged for services like food and laundry, and pay taxes.
The taxes provide a safety net for the most vulnerable and pay for the kibbutz’s share of communal services and other mutual aid, such as a portion of members’ healthcare and education expenses.
Since it was privatized in 2006, the number of families at Kibbutz Kramim has doubled to 33 and it has plans to add some 100 families in the next five years.
It has also adopted a new eco-friendly focus: new construction will be energy-efficient, use solar power and recycle water. There are also plans to phase out conventional agriculture and replace it with organic farming.
This new blend of financial freedom with community values suits families like the Nathans, who also enjoy the wide open spaces, a sense of community and freedom to shape their lives.
“We did not come to live in an old school kibbutz,” Nathan, who works as a freelance editor from home, said. “I think that is the key to the new interest in kibbutzim.”
Some kibbutzim, like Kibbutz Ein HaShofet in northern Israel, have resisted major reforms for ideological reasons and are also thriving.
Members of this largely industrial kibbutz receive an allowance instead of a salary, and get all of their healthcare and education needs from the kibbutz.
“The kibbutz idea is based on the concept that there are no better people that should receive more money to live a better life than others,” said kibbutz secretary Yaniv Sagee.
“This basic concept hasn’t changed throughout the 71 years that Ein HaShofet has existed.”
The Kibbutz Movement in Israel says it has seen a slight population increase since 2005, in part because of the return of Israelis who grew up on a kibbutz but left as young adults. The Movement is preparing its first advertising campaign in a decade to attract more members.
“They are coming back not because of Zionism and socialism,” said Aviv Leshem, spokesman for the Kibbutz Movement in Israel. “They are coming because they think the kibbutz has a high quality of life.”
The Movement’s advertising campaign, which it will launch by August, will focus on 140 kibbutzim in the north and south of Israel, where fewer economic, social and educational opportunities make it harder to attract residents.
Adverts and billboards will tout the benefits of kibbutz living and so far more than 40 collective communities have said they are willing to accept new members.
Industry, including the hi-tech sector, has replaced agriculture as the main source of income and small businesses generate about 10 percent of kibbutz income, Leshem said.
Industry ranges from manufacturing food to plastics, rubber, electronics and glass.
But some note that the new approach to kibbutz living has increased the economic gap between members — which is exactly what traditional kibbutzim fought against.
“The change has been taking place for many years already, a slow change into less collectivism and more individualism,” said Michal Palgi, sociology professor at Emek Yezreel College.
“You can see it as children go to sleep in their parents’ houses and in payment for meals in the dining hall, payment for electricity and other things.”
Traditionally, children lived apart with professional caretakers in communal children’s homes, a phenomenon which has petered out in recent decades. Communal dining halls still exist but are closed or only partly open in “renewed” kibbutzim.
Thirty-five percent of kibbutz families now have private cars rather than sharing a community vehicle.
Many kibbutzim are even on their way towards granting members ownership of their homes.
And despite the growth planned for Kibbutz Kramim, some members can’t help but feel nostalgic for the past.
“The old kibbutz had some kind of inner beauty” says Yoram Sahar, a founder and member of Kibbutz Kramim. “It had a different environment ... It was like a big family. In the new kibbutz, everyone is more for himself.”
Writing by Brenda Gazzar; Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile