Menu JTA Search

Bucking Tradition, Immigrant Family Chooses the Desert, and Kibbutz Life

The Simners are a rare breed of immigrant to Israel: After making aliyah from Uruguay in December 2002, they went to live on a kibbutz. In fact, the family is now on its second kibbutz, and plans to stay there.

“We were socialists and Zionists in Montevideo,” said Daniel Simner, 40, referring to the Uruguayan capital. “It was natural that we try the kibbutz experience.”

Very few new immigrants these days settle on a kibbutz, but many of those who do come from South America. That dovetails with a drive by the United Kibbutz Movements to attract new members, especially young families.

The Simners made aliyah as part of a group of about 500 people from Montevideo. Ten families went to live in various kibbutzim, all but the Simners in the north of Israel.

“At the Jewish Agency, they thought we were crazy when we said we wanted to live in the desert,” Simner said — but it’s far from the terrorist attacks that have plagued other Israeli cities during the intifada, and close to the beaches of Eilat.

The Simners now live on Kibbutz Grofit, about 30 miles north of Eilat. The kibbutz sits on a large, round hill; the date trees at the far end of the fields below sit on the border with Jordan.

The kibbutz offers spectacular views of the high, rocky cliffs just beyond the ribbon of highway that snakes south on the Jordanian side. At sunset, the cliffs turn purple.

Claudia Simner, Daniel’s wife, works in the Timna Park tourist center at nearby Kibbutz Elifaz, the site of Solomon’s Mines. Daniel pumps gas at a gas station next to Kibbutz Yotvata, several miles south of Grofit.

“We were clothing manufacturers in Montevideo, but we didn’t want to do the same thing here,” he said. “For the moment I pump gas, but I am looking into getting a diploma to teach mathematics in high school here.”

Simner studied economics in Uruguay and gives math lessons to Ethiopian students in the kibbutz at night.

“With my help, they get good grades,” he said. “We’ll see what happens next with the teaching.”

The Simners do have things to complain about, but more than anything else they’re grateful. They’ve learned to speak relatively good Hebrew and are convinced they made the right choice coming to Israel and to the desert.

“The same economic crisis that hit Argentina also hit Uruguay, so it seemed like a good time to leave,” Simner said. “The Jewish Agency was very active in Montevideo, and has given us everything they said they would in terms of preparation and aid. But as new immigrants we need patience, and that they cannot give us.”

“The Israelis tell us to be patient, but they are not patient with us,” added Claudia Simner, 42. “And, as for most olim, the first big test is the language. The agency paid for language classes, and we really needed them.”

The couple’s daughters, Romina, 12, and Melina, 7, laugh. Melina speaks effortless Hebrew; Romina speaks Hebrew well and also has learned good English. They both go to school at Yotvata.

“I love it here,” Romina said. “I have good Israeli friends and we go to the swimming pool every day. I know we are in the desert here, but it doesn’t feel like a desert. We have MTV, we do barbeques and we spend a lot of time outdoors.”

On a visit from Montevideo, Claudia’s father, Gregorio Eidelman, was impressed by the kibbutz lifestyle.

“It’s obvious that our grandchildren are very happy here,” he said. “The educational structure is good, and they have freedom of movement. Myself, I am too old to make a change like this from Montevideo, but I think Claudia and Daniel will find their place here.”

It was his first visit to Israel.

“For me, the in-your-face style of the Israelis, especially on the kibbutz, is too direct and informal,” Eidelman said. “We older Uruguayans are more formal than that. But I think that the Jewish Agency and other Israeli organizations have been very helpful with their integration. It has really made a major difference for them. They were wise to choose the desert, and they got the help to do it. I don’t think they would have been happy in Jerusalem, for example.”

“We visited Jerusalem once,” Romina said. “There were too many religious people there, and too many Arabs.”

The Simners plan to apply for membership on Grofit. If accepted, they probably will receive a slightly larger apartment than their current one.

Their first kibbutz experience wasn’t great: They spent six months at Kibbutz Ketura, just north of Grofit, but weren’t recommended for membership.

“It was an uncomfortable situation,” Daniel Simner said. “They said we were not intellectual or professional enough. I used to wonder why the Jewish Agency didn’t send more people to live on kibbutzim, but perhaps it’s because many of them are very restrictive about membership. Honestly, there were many Americans living on Ketura and because we don’t speak English, I think they felt we were not good enough to be members there.”

The reception on Grofit has been better: The native Israelis and several American and British-born members have been helpful. The family also has a Spanish-speaking neighbor who originally is from Argentina.

According to the Jewish Agency, few new immigrants think about living on kibbutz.

“You have to understand,” spokesman Michael Jankelowitz said, “a vast majority of Israelis themselves would never live on a kibbutz. And we do not have precise figures about exactly how many new immigrants have gone to live there.”

According to Aviv Leshem, spokesman for the United Kibbutz Movements, about 5,000 immigrant families have spent their first year in Israel on a kibbutz in conjunction with the Absorption Ministry.

“In that time, more than 600 of those immigrant families have stayed to live on the kibbutzim,” he said. “Most of them are Russians, but there are South Americans and Americans, as well.”

Leshem said emissaries from the kibbutz movement have been sent to Russia for a number of years to convince aliyah candidates that kibbutzim are good places to raise their children, “with green grass, good education and a nice atmosphere in which to find work and learn Hebrew.”

NEXT STORY