Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Kibbutz Spectrum

At the celebration of Simchat Torah, the harvest festival, Sukkot, concluded in its usual fashion this week. Akin to the US, Israel's climate changes around this time of year, and certain fruits and vegetables are ready for picking. Sukkot represents the appreciation of this year's crop and Judaism's agricultural roots. Before exile, the Jewish people were mainly farmers. Although many in the Diaspora, including myself before this summer, classify Israel and the region's as arid, uncultivable desert, the country's 1948 founders sought to work the soil, planting forests and rows of produce fields. Certain members of the Zionist movement in the 20th century believed that Jews needed to recreate their worldly reputation. From the Middle Ages to that point, gentiles believed Jews belonged in law, banking, and business, explaining where the modern stereotype derives. Led by A.D. Gordon, labor Zionists founded collectivist farming villages (kibbutzim) throughout present-day Israel, then-Palestine. Gordon imagined a "new Jew", a muscular individual known for great cultivation of the land. The kibbutz movement flourished from 1900 through much of the century. Kibbutzim were seen as a cornerstone of Israeli society until 1978. When elected prime minster, Menachem Begem denounced the kibbutz movement, equating with a plague on Israel's people. The conservative government ceased subsidation of the kibbutzim after that point, and the struggle to modernize was one faced by each kibbutz during the 1980's all the way to the present day. As I observed in my travels this summer, each kibbutz responds to the calls of modernization differently.  

Two weeks in the program, we visited Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, my kvutzah's (age group's) namesake. Ein Hashofet symbolizes the classic kibbutz. Founded in 1937, the kibbutz endured the movement's heights and its fall in 1978. Still, it survived into 2013 with a population of about 800. The other kibbutzim I visited stem from a newer generation, founded with an everpresent connection to the modern era. Ein Hashofet possessed all the features of the original kibbutzim: a boarding school, a children's house (where the children live-children were raised by the kibbutz, not their parents), and the large dining hall. No one withheld personal property on Ein Hashofet before Begin-not even appliances, food, toys to name a few. On the kibbutz spectrum, Ein Hashofet lies in the middle. About half the kibbutz now practices a private lifestyle, and the other maintains the socialist one. Their "middle model" allows for choice. For instance, certain individuals work off the kibbutz, pay for their food, and own individual cars. Interestingly, our namesake kibbutz inspired and disappointed me. The facility retains the communal spirit; people act so warmly to their fellow kibbutzniks. The spark of communalism remains on Ein Hashofet, whether one views it full bulletin board of community events or paintings that represent the communal culture on several buildings.  On the contrary, their attitude towards guests was distasteful by the majority of the community. We ate in the filled dining room for three or four meals, but the only people who conversed with us were kvutzah friends who happened to be on the kibbutz. The split in lifestyle choice divides members as well, creating a hostile environment when kibbutz politics come into discussion. Ein Hashofet additionally lacks the youthful spirit of the other kibbutzim. The majority blame this inequity in age on the forced boarding in children's houses; several children of the olden kibbutzim resent their elders for disrupting the traditional family dynamic. While maintaining its classical charm and standing as a testament to the initial wave of kibbutzim, I observed that Ein Hashofet struggles with modernization more than the other kibbutzim I visited.

After a tour of Israel's northern borders (I promise to discuss this ordeal in a few weeks), we traveled to Kibbutz Pelech. With its oldest child being only 8 years, Pelech more than compensates for Ein Hashofet's deficiency in youthfulness. Kibbutz Pelech was founded in the 1980's, and therefore, it always realized the impact of modernism in its development. Pelech stands atop a hill (with a gorgeous sunset at dusk) that allows one to view the entirety of Israel's North. Most members are 30 years old, trying a socialist lifestyle in their post-army years. Of the three, Pelech is the most privatized. Their communal dining room no longer functions for any event beside a special occasion. Instead of communal pool of money and resources, each household/collective (kvutzah) works together to contribute to the kibbutz. The parents raise their children, and they regard a number of items as private property. Admirably, the kvutzah structure works well for Pelech. People seem happier, their attitude being less biting about kibbutz politics than those at Ein Hashofet. Much of the kibbutz is still growing, which was inspiring to see when the majority appear in decline. Kibbutz Pelech's 1980s roots wonderfully contribute to its currentness; I call it, "the practical kibbutz". The communal atmosphere exists, yet the aggressive push toward utopianism does not. Due to its remoteness and population of 30 families, I do not picture myself there. For the rural folks who want to experience semi-socialism at its best, Pelech is a wonderful place to go. 

Toward the end of our trip, we finally made it to the desert. Very few people live in the Negev (the name for Israel's southern desert). Along the border with Jordan, we arrived at a third kibbutz, dotted with some of the only foliage (beautiful palm trees) in the surrounding area. Kibbutz Ketura looked and felt like an oasis. Ketura represents the perfect old model adapted to the new age. More than Pelech or even Ein Hashofet, Ketura has retained many of its socialist roots. The members continue to pool resources and capital for the community; they share all income for the kibbutz. Arriving on Shabbat, we saw communalism on Ketura at its finest. The spirit of the communal dining hall at Ketura energized even us, exhausted travelers from a 4am desert hike. Ein Hashofet possessed similar spirit, but the folks here welcomed us with open arms. From a conversation with any strange, I felt sensational pride in the Ketura community and their kibbutz's model. These conversations differed from hearing about Ein Hashofet's inevitable privatization. How does Ketura thrive after the kibbutz movement's near-bankruptcy? The members of this kibbutz recognize their role as socialist in the context of a capitalist economy. While the community in the desert lives communally, they realize that the rest of the world still functions for profit. Ketura's members have constructed a kibbutz economy that fits in the context of the 21st century. Ketura's income comes from hundreds of date palms, the construction of solar panels, and the raising of algae used in many Israeli and American cosmetics. All Ketura industry depends on its chief resource, the blazing, desert sun. The majority consider living in the desert a curse, but these kibbutzniks call it a blessing. In addition, "Ketureans" think of themselves as some of the most democratic people in the world.  The community decides on everything together, its government consisting of an executive and specialized committees and a general assembly. The kibbutz, not any one individual, makes the decision. Ketura is also uniquely pluralistic. It hosts Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and secular Jews from all over the world and Israel. In my opinion, Ketura is the ideal kibbutz, but I still find certain aspects of it troubling. Being in the desert, Ketura uses a lot of energy to obtain water. Its green lawns and magnificent palms represents a waste unimaginable in other parts of the Negev. The kibbutz also hires immigrant labor to harvest the date palms, defying A.D. Gordon's belief about the "new Jew" not to mention encourage the social subordination of these new-comers to Israel (not Jews who possess "the right to return"-the large number of these immigrants are young southeast Asian men looking for work in Israel to return to their family). Overall, it troubled me how such a powerful socialist institution endorsed the broader capitalist world. Kibbutz Ketura was a magnificent place in many aspects of the word magnificent, but this oasis in the desert possesses its own problems as well.     

The lesson from this trip? No kibbutz is exactly the same. Each adapts to modernization in its own way. For some, the lifestyle on Ein Hashofet suits them. Others enjoy the remote bliss on Pelech. For those who can endure the desert sun, Ketura could be a future paradise. The kibbutz lifestyle attracts certain individual. While I do not picture myself living such a rural lifestyle in the near future, my experiences on all three of these kibbutzim were wonderful. I adored learning first hand about these modern practices of socialism and the realities they grapple with, and I recommend that any visitor to Israel explore the kibbutz spectrum.

Friday, September 06, 2013

The Year of Personal Activism

Happy Rosh Hashana! The past two days we "celebrated" the holiday of Rosh Hashana. We blew the shofar to ring in the new year, dipped apples and honey for a year's sweetness, and shared nice meals with families and friends. Some of us went as far as to make the trek to synagogue yesterday and today. Praying, eating, and listening to the shofar all appropriately celebrate the holiday, sure. Observing the holiday, according to the Torah, is to be a "holy convocation"(Lev. 16:24). The observation of this holiday extends beyond the meals and the blasts, for the shofar represents much more than the "Jewish ball drop". The final long roar of the instrument, the tekiah g'dolah, signifies a new time in our lives, a kima nefesh (soul awakening). The time from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur, the ten holiest days of the year, constiute a period of self-reflection, self-actualization, and a personal movement forward. Each moment during this time holds a sacred value for the year ahead. We talk so often about "finding ourselves" in the modern day, but Judaism sets aside time each year to perform such a daunting task! Ten whole days exist on the Jewish calendar to emerge from Yom Kippur a more determined, ready-to-be-fulfilled human being. Annually after Rosh Hashana, we continue with our lives as normal until Kol Nidre arrives, complain a little about our hunger on Yom Kippur, and check our school agenda or work schedules for the next point on the agenda. The High Holy Days start the Jewish new year, and the year occurs constantly, not just until the next Rosh Hashana, where the cycle restarts. This year is the end of the Jewish paradigm. Yes, we will continue enjoying the melodies, the treats, and the companionship, but this year is different. 5774 stands as a year for the centuries, for a I declare this year as the year for personal activism.    

Alright, the decree was made; we possess ten days to perform rigorous introspection. Go! Activism means the recognition of a belief and the corresponding action to integrate that belief into reality. Personal activism requires the same process. Before we even go into the world a new person, we need to sit in a chair, in the grass, or on the subway. Regardless of location, the first step of proper introspection is writing. While the spoken word stands as a powerful medium for persuasion or conversation, printing ideas creates permanence. Recording goals and thoughts generates proof of their existence, for as memories fade, descriptions remain in the passionate moment of their writing. My challenge to each reader of this blog who wants to explore the year of personal activism is to write every day until Yom Kippur closes. I keep a journal, which I try to write in every once in a while, but on these holiest of holy days, I specifically schedule time to express myself using pen and paper. In the next week, the personal activist should explore and write about the following:

Saturday: What was my personal journey in the last year?
Sunday: Where was I ten years ago? Where am I now? Where will I be ten years from now?
Monday: What are my values? Do I live accordingly to what I believe?
Tuesday: What do I require in friendship? Are my friends an accurate representation of that description? Am I an accurate representation of that description to others?
Wednesday: What do I like about life? What do I want to like about life that is not present in my own?
Thursday: What were the best moments in the last year? Where was I most a fulfilled human being?
Friday: Where have I gone wrong in the last year? How can I nullify these injustices?
Saturday: What are my goals for the next year? When I read these entries in 5775, what do I want to change?

Those prompts lead into Yom Kippur worship. Each day is a stepping stone to fulfillment. These questions appear, at first, lengthy, but the depth depends on the individual. The effort counts more than the number of sentences each day. When satisfied with what is written, one needs to relax the hand, set aside the paper, and onwardly progress.  In traditional Judaism, Yom Kippur represents a solemn day of judgement from God, in which the gates of heaven open for only a moment. The planned introspection above provides a modern context for self-criticism, perhaps a more meaningful form of judgement than the tradition provides nowadays. Yom Kippur pertains to atonement, but in the year of personal activism, it includes goal-setting. This year, Yom Kippur falls on a Saturday. Take advantage of the Sunday afterward. Before resuming the normal activities of the week, I recommend that each of us writers (and I hope there are many of us) takes time on Sunday to devise a meticulous plan to achieve Saturday's recorded goals. In this way, we truly inscribe ourselves in the book of life, our lives.

Now, that ten day process allows for opportunity, but the beauty we describe about our lives, hopes, and dreams is really nonsense. Perhaps, somebody reading this rolled their eyes way back in paragraph one. Sure, introspection happens in January when all those people go to the gym for a month too. The personal activist is disciplined and resilient. With proper planning, the "Yom Kippur Goals" will revolutionize living. Think not of this task as a silly new year's resolution. Rather, the self-exploration that occurs  between now and Yom Kippur establishes a standard for the rest of the year. Strategy and proactivity are the way of the personal activist. Originally, I wanted to deem 5774, the year of the activist. Then, I thought about us going into the world. At Habitat for Humanity, how vigorously can the unfulfilled laborer hammer homes for the needy? Without spirit, how do we serve food for the poor? Certainly, 5774 is not the year of social apathy. We will indulge ourselves this year, take some "us time", but as the doses of self-satisfaction suffuse our souls, as we take part in "kima nefesh", we need to carry that spirit into the unfulfilled world full of the Jewish paradigm and social injustice. Plenty of people will not read this entry, and plenty of readers will not follow my recommendation. Heck, I could be the only one, but we, the personal activists will really taste the sweet new year from the honey and apples, hear the shofar, and awaken ourselves with its call.