Israeli group pushes for peace one kibbutz at a time

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Establishing a kibbutz can be an exhausting endeavor. Just ask Gary Levy and Gilad Perry, who helped found Kibbutz Eshbal in the Western Galilee in 1997.

It was Israel’s first new kibbutz in nearly a decade — and one that is quite different than most of its predecessors.

Kibbutz Eshbal aims to give at-risk youth a Zionist education while also providing a framework for Jewish-Arab coexistence.

Gilad Perry and Gary Levy in front of mural at Kibbutz Eshbal.

And Levy and Perry are still tirelessly at it. “We have less sleep at night because we’re working on establishing [two] new kibbutzim,” Perry said on a recent stop in the Bay Area.

“There is no limit of what we can do or fix in Israeli society,” he added. “Our vision is to be in a utopia, and you have to try and fulfill it.”

Perry and Levy traveled to the United States to bring attention to the Dror Israel Movement, which focuses on issues of Israeli-Arab equality and cooperation among Jews and Arabs.

To that end, Dror Israel has been establishing

education- and volunteer-based kibbutzes — including Eshbal and 14 others — throughout Israel over the past 12 years. Many of them are in areas that are predominantly Arab.

In all, the kibbutzes have about 1,000 teachers, most of them between the ages of 22 and 35; many are graduates of the HaNoar HaOved VeHaLomed youth movement in Israel.

Kibbutz Eshbal is a good example of Dror Israel’s aim of creating social change through education.

The kibbutz is home to the Eshbal Youth Society, a boarding school built in 2000. The school has about 40 students; most of them are Ethiopian immigrants, but some are Russian immigrants and others are Israelis.

Students live in dorms on the kibbutz and study there, but they also attend a nearby high school that brings together not only those students but also at-risk teens from the surrounding area, which is 80 percent Arab.

The education is “very different” from the normal lectures students are used to, Levy noted. Instead, the lessons are interactive, with sports, music, animals and art integrated into the curriculum.

The kibbutz provides social workers and psychologists for students when needed, and offers financial assistance for things such as clothing, dental treatment and home visits.

Graduates are “absorbed into normal Israeli society,” Perry said. Many serve in the Israel Defense Forces, which is uncommon given their at-risk backgrounds, have steady jobs and become leaders in their own communities. 

“We tell all of our students to do three major things,” Perry said. “Identify their values and beliefs, ask what the reality is around them, and bridge the gap between the two. It’s important for us that they gain knowledge, and also learn how to be a mensch.”

That ideology impressed Rabbi James Brandt, CEO of the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay, who got a first-hand look at the value-based education at work while visiting the Eshbal Youth Society over the summer.

“It is exactly the kind of work we are trying to do in our schools and camps,” Brandt said of teaching with an appreciation for Jewish and Zionist values.

About 100 people join the Dror Israel Movement annually, according to Perry, and its members work in all sectors of society.

In addition to working with at-risk youth, Dror Israel educators mentor Sudanese refugees who fled genocide, Arab Muslims and Bedouin tribes.

 “We talk so much about the importance of establishing community,” Brandt said. “All of the members of the movement are living communally in the same way that the pioneers in Israel made their lives their work.”

He added: “In addition to all the incredible work from an educational standpoint, there’s this revitalization of the kibbutz movement that originally brought Israel to life.”