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Israel’s Urban Kibbutz Movement Lands in North America

It’s not easy for a commune to adopt a dog.

That’s what six members of a new urban kibbutz in Brooklyn learned at the animal shelter.

“They said, we don’t adopt out dogs to people in dorms,” recalls Jamie Beran, 26, a founding member of North America’s first kvutza, or collective, affiliated with the Zionist youth movement Habonim-Dror.

Beran and five friends, all young Habonim graduates, since last July have shared chores, a bank account and a five-bedroom duplex in the Kensington section of Brooklyn.

“We told them, have you ever heard of a kibbutz in Israel? We’re something like that,” Beran recounts.

“We’re not a category that exists,” she acknowledges. “We’re in our 20s, we all have full-time jobs and yes, we live together.”

But, she asks rhetorically, “what’s a kibbutz without a dog?”

Beran’s collective, along with two similar kvutzot established last October and affiliated with the socialist Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair, are the first North American imports of Israel’s urban kibbutz movement.

The idea dates back to the mid-1980s, when Israel’s traditional kibbutzim began to lose steam, plagued by financial troubles and loss of morale. Some idealistic younger members left the land and moved into Israel’s inner cities and development towns.

Instead of plowing fields and milking cows, they worked as teachers, activists and social workers, living communally as they tried to better the lives of those around them.

Today there are eight to 10 “classic urban kibbutzim” throughout Israel, along with an unknown number of smaller kvutzot set up along the lines of the three in North America, says Avigail Shaham, the 24-year-old maskira, or secretary, of Hashomer Hatzair in Israel.

Shaham estimates that 2,000 to 3,000 young Israelis aged 19 to 35 live in these small-scale urban collectives.

It’s a growing trend that has helped revitalize Israel’s Zionist youth movements, says Shaham, who lives with 11 friends in a Haifa kvutza they established after their military service. Most of the groups are affiliated either with Hashomer Hatzair or Noar Oved v’Lomed, the Israeli equivalent of Habonim-Dror.

“It’s an alternative to the original kibbutz, an attempt to create a new version that is sustainable,” she says. “We are still young, so we’re building it as we go along.”

The founders of the three North American kvutzot — Orev in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Piratz in Toronto were the ones established in October — took their cue from Israel. Kvutzat Orev coalesced two years ago on Hashomer Hatzair’s Shnat program in Israel when six young movement graduates lived together on kibbutz and taught in a nearby development town.

“We found that the kibbutz as it exists today in Israel is not something we’re looking for,” says Tal Beery, 23. “We’re looking for something fresher, more relevant to addressing today’s challenges.”

Setting up these collectives in North America represents an overhaul of the Zionist youth movement ideal. Whereas in the past these movements functioned more or less like farm teams, preparing young American Jews to settle in Israel, aliyah is no longer the goal.

“Judaism has always been a global reality,” says Jane Manwelyan, 25, of Kvutzat Orev. “Zionism is the collective potential of the Jewish people. Israel is just one of the physical representations of that, certainly not the only one.”

Rather than a physical destination, Israel “is central to our idea of Jewish peoplehood,” says Gil Browdy, 25, of the Habonim kvutza.

He notes that the Israeli kibbutz movement still isn’t sure what to make of the North American upstarts.

“It’s a tension,” Beran acknowledges.

But these young urban pioneers wanted to stay at home, to help revitalize Jewish life in the Diaspora, become involved in community-based activism and build good lives for themselves based on the values with which they grew up, even after they age out of their youth movements.

“We’re not trying to create some sort of alternative to aliyah,” Browdy says. “We’re saying that no matter where we are, we have these values as people and as a movement. This is meant to be an example of people living out their values and creating positive change.”

Several members of each kvutza work at movement headquarters as national leaders, and they also run educational and social welfare-oriented nonprofits.

Kvutzat Orev, for example, runs Without Walls, an educational outreach initiative that takes its youth movement ideals about community service and collective responsibility into synagogues and schools — Jewish and non-Jewish.

“Our Judaism is our responsibility to our community and the world,” Beery says. “That’s tikkun olam. We mix it very strongly with tikkun adam,” or the imperative to repair people. “Collaborative youth-led community action ought to be a cornerstone of Jewish education.”

Piratz members received a grant to implement green energy projects on Ontario school rooftops. They also created Project Equity, an overseas work-study program in the Middle East and Africa.

Also distinguishing these new urban collectives from the original kibbutz system is the lack of financial coercion. While each kvutza maintains a joint checking account for group expenses, such as rent, bills and food, most members also have personal accounts.

“You have to want to do this,” says Daniel Roth of Orev. “We see from 100 years ago that it’s not sustainable to force people to share.”

But although it’s the idea of sharing money that startles most outsiders, members of these collectives say that’s no sweat. At their age it not only fits their ideology, it gives them more disposable income.

“The hard part is really trusting each other,” says Orev’s Yotam Marom. “The economic side of socialism is only a tool for living together as a healthy community.”

Trying to create more intimate relationships is tied to how they approach Jewish values. The kvutzot try to have Shabbat meals together and maintain kosher-style vegetarian households, but community activism is as much a part of their Judaism as ritual behaviors.

“In our generation, people are looking for something deeper in their Judaism,” Beery says. “You see a lot of people connecting spiritually, non-denominationally, connecting with the green movement, a new relationship with the earth. It’s the whole ‘yes we can’ Obama thing.

“We come from the best universities in the U.S. and Canada, we’ve thought very deeply about our commitment to our religion, our society, our friends,” he adds. “We’ve made the decision to devote ourselves to our community ahead of ourselves. That’s the most revolutionary thing we could do.”

The groups don’t know how long their collective arrangements will last. The four members of Kvutzat Piratz are still in college, and in August, the four members of the Habonim kvutza who work for the movement will finish their two-year commitment and don’t know how the job change will impact their lives.

Whatever happens, they say they’ll talk about it as a group.

“We’re fully committed to the present,” Browdy says. “We don’t have a five-year plan.”

For now life is good, they’re accomplishing their goals and their parents are proud.

“Most parents are just happy if their kids are doing well in school,” says Daniel Berkal, 19, of Kvutza Piratz. “To see us pay rent from our grant money, doing the work we do in society and making Shabbat together, they’re really supportive. They don’t quite understand it all, but that’s OK.”

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