Kibbutzim struggling to retain their ideology

KIBBUTZ KFAR RUPPIN, Israel — Bicycles are lined up outside the communal dining hall here. Nearby, a handful of teenagers gathers outside on the lush green grounds of the kibbutz, which is nestled between the town of Beit She'an and the Jordanian border in northeastern Israel.

But the near-perfect setting masks a disturbing reality: Kfar Ruppin, like many of the other approximately 270 graying communal settlements across the country, is having trouble attracting children who were raised on the kibbutz to settle there as adults.

"There's no social life, no place to have fun and it's distant from employment opportunities," says Dana Levy, 17, who will soon join the Israeli army. "Changes or no changes, it will make no difference. This kibbutz is going to become a retirement home."

Her statement is not far from the truth. On Kfar Ruppin alone, about 25 percent of the 180 members are pensioners.

The kibbutzim, the first of which was founded more than 75 years ago, never attracted more than a small minority of Jews. But kibbutz members played a vital role in building the Jewish state in its early years, providing a disproportionate number of Knesset members and soldiers in elite defense units.

In addition, the kibbutz played a large role in the national psyche as a symbol of a strong, pioneering Israel.

But that symbol has largely vanished, and the kibbutz is no longer considered a viable alternative lifestyle by Israeli youth, who are drawn to the prosperity and excitement of urban centers.

Kibbutzim, once considered bold social experiments — where everything from money to meals was a communal enterprise — have changed their ideology periodically to fit their members' needs.

For example, communal children's homes, in which children lived almost from birth, began to disappear long ago. Last year, they became extinct when Kibbutz Baram in the Galilee shut down the last existing children's home.

But according to Shlomo Getz, a sociologist at the Institute for the Research of the Kibbutz at Haifa University and a member of Kibbutz Gadot, the kibbutzim are now facing their greatest crisis.

The problems began in the mid-1980s, when the kibbutzim encountered a major financial crisis. Billions of shekels of bad debts to the banking system, says Getz, "created a feeling that the concept had failed."

Kfar Ruppin had already begun to move away from the agriculture that was the traditional source of kibbutz income. Today, the kibbutz has thriving fishponds that generate more than $4 million in annual revenues and a plastics plant that takes in about $8.5 million a year.

And Kfar Ruppin has almost as many paid workers as it does kibbutz members.

About 140 workers are residents of Beit She'an, a neighboring development town. At the same time, some 40 kibbutz members work off the kibbutz.

Indeed, most kibbutzim employ workers who are not kibbutz members, and some 80 percent encourage their members to seek outside employment, according to a recent survey conducted by Getz.

There have been social changes as well. In recent years, many kibbutzim have taken steps to "privatize" various elements of their social life. At about half of all kibbutzim, members now eat dinner at their private homes and pay for lunch at the dining hall out of their monthly allocations.

These moves aim to give kibbutz members more freedom in deciding how they spend their share of the communal pie.

On some kibbutzim, even the pie is no longer cut into equal slices. At Kfar Ruppin, and about 30 percent of all kibbutzim, members are now paid wages based on their jobs. While the difference between high and low earners at Kfar Ruppin is not that great, the concept marks a radical shift from the socialist dogma upon which the kibbutz was founded.

Michael Lanir sees no other way to breathe life back into the kibbutz than to sacrifice some of its sacred cows. As secretary of Kfar Ruppin, he is responsible for organizing its social life. Lanir is also at the vanguard of efforts within the United Kibbutz Movement, which represents about 60 percent of all kibbutzim, to adapt to the times.

"At the end of the 20th century, it is very difficult to have an egalitarian kibbutz," he says. "It simply doesn't work."

Lanir, 57, was born at Kfar Ruppin. His family left for 12 years and then returned in 1954. He sees it as his personal mission to ensure the continuation of the kibbutz movement.

"The challenge today is to mold the kibbutz into something different without turning it into Tel Aviv," he says, toying with his watch while speaking, as if he knows that time is running out for kibbutz life.

But what will remain of the unique collective lifestyle after the changes are made?

"I hope a happy person will remain," says Lanir. "Because at the end of the 20th century, people are no longer happy without property and the ability to help out their kids. Today, kibbutz members only own their furniture. After 38 years of hard work, I own nothing."

Lanir is now trying to forge changes that could be the kiss of death to some of the kibbutz's founding principles.

A new neighborhood is being built adjacent to Kfar Ruppin to attract outsiders who are interested in enjoying rural kibbutz life without becoming members.

In addition, Lanir would like to see kibbutz assets, such as homes, allocated to members. According to his plan, even shares in kibbutz industries would be distributed to members.

Plans like these, however, were recently rejected by the Kibbutz Artzi movement, the most devoutly socialist group, which represents approximately 85 kibbutzim

There are also about 19 religious kibbutzim.

At the Kibbutz Artzi movement's last annual meeting, the group reaffirmed fundamental principles of the kibbutz, such as common ownership of assets and communal distribution of social services and education. They also rejected the differential wage system.

Avshalom Vilan, that movement's head, says the kibbutz does not have to sacrifice socialism in order to revitalize itself.

Meanwhile, on Kfar Ruppin, Hana Raz, 71, contemplates the changes she has seen since she arrived at the kibbutz in 1949 as a young idealistic socialist from Czechoslovakia.

Raz has seen much hardship. Her parents died in the Holocaust. She survived because she was sent to live with a Christian family in England.

And life was not easy on Kfar Ruppin in the early days. She remembers that for years, there was no running water or bathroom in her home. Later, the kibbutz endured cross-border shellings from Palestinians in Jordan.

Today, her house has an air conditioner, television and stereo — but is sparsely furnished in the tradition of simplicity of the old kibbutz days.

Socialism may be withering, but in her heart, Raz is still a socialist. The recent changes — especially wage policy — have been very difficult to digest. "The changes have been very drastic, and in a way they have touched upon the basic principles of the kibbutz," she says.