The Kibbutz Maagan – Changing with the Times

View of Sea of Galilee from Kibbut Maagan Holiday Village Hotel

As a teenager, I was drawn to the idea of the Israeli kibbutz – a community of like-minded residents who worked hard, celebrated often, and contributed to the greater good of the country.  It was romantic in a foreign sense of the word and I envied those who got to join one. But how has the communal setting aged in the modern world of individual rights?  On a recent trip, I was impressed the kibbutz still played an important part in Israel’s culture and economy but with a different model.

The Sea of Galilee is ringed with kibbutzim.  It is here they first began with Kibbutz Degania Alef, established in 1910.  Based on a socialist idea and manned by secular Zionists, the first kibbutzim were developed for protection as well as communal working of land.  The farmer-warrior image continued from the 1948 War of Independence to 1982 when many northern kibbutzim used their bunkers for protection from Syrian missiles just a few miles away.  During a tour of the Kibbutz Maagan on the south end of the Sea of Galilee, much of this history played out in the lives of the residents.

Our guide, Eli Kedem

Our guide Eli Kedem, a small, fit man in his early 60’s, was born and raised on this property.  His parents were early residents who, like many pioneers, helped Israel stake out territory for the eventual drawing of the country’s boundaries.  After World War II,  citizens of Hungary and Romania came as a part of the Jewish Youth Movement.  Some were Holocaust survivors.  .

As was customary, Kibbutz Maagan began with agriculture, relying on all residents to help in the fields.  This program was instrumental in turning the desert lands of Israel into many productive fields and orchards.  Throughout the Jewish world in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, speakers and rabbis encouraged young adults to volunteer and work at a kibbutz in the new country. We heard many such stories.  Eli met his wife who came from Holland to work at Maagan.    Our native Zimbabwean guide in Jerusalem started her life in Israel on a kibbutz.  A family friend from Ohio also met her Russian husband on a kibbutz and now lives in Israel with her family.  The kibbutz served as the Facebook of its time, connecting Jews from all parts of the globe.

Communal bicycles

It also tested the idea of a socialist economy on a small scale.  The first model had three principles – equal income, no private property, and direct democracy.  Eli and his wife raised their three children on the kibbutz.  Although Eli had lived apart from his parents at a children’s house, their children remained in their home.  School was held on the premises and children were expected to work.

The big changes at this kibbutz occurred six years ago. The commune was losing members.  Individuals wanted their own cars, homes and careers.   None of Eli’s children remained on the kibbutz.  After a passionate vote, rules changed.   Salaries are no longer equal although there is a minimum wage.   A member can earn more if they work longer or have a better job.  They can now work outside the kibbutz. And each family has its own budget. Major decisions for the kibbutz are still made by direct vote from each member but day to day ones are controlled by an economic manager and a social one.

Workshop Participant

Communal laundry

Elderly Workshop Gifts 

Vestiges of the socialist era remain – a common dining room, laundry room, daycare, and a workshop for elderly people.  Bicycles are scattered around for anyone’s use.  Sadly,  no more young volunteers work there. As Eli commented “paid employees stay longer”.  Some of the members continue to farm 400 acres for bananas, avocados, and grapefruit but most of their income is from the Kibbutz Maagan Holiday Village hotel where we stayed.  Eli now works with Christian and Jewish companies in the United States who sponsor tours of Israel and send their filled buses to the hotel. From Maagan, many holy and historical sites are available.  Since membership is no longer required to stay on the kibbutz, many students from Tel Aviv and Jerusalem attend a nearby university, work at the hotel, and rent an apartment on the kibbutz.

Buses in front of hotel

Maagan is not alone in making changes.  Today, only 15% of the country’s Kibbutz membership work in agriculture.  Laborers from Thailand now pick the crops. Some kibbutzim have branched into such businesses as diamond cutting, drip irrigation systems, plastic and medical tools, and even a Naot shoe store down the street from our kibbutz.  Many own hotels.  And despite their small number (only 1.5 % of the Israeli population), kibbutzim produce 9 % of the country’s industrial production as well as one half of its milk and 40% of its agriculture production.

Front yard of kibbutz home
Renovated kitchen

As Eli led us toward a line of duplexes that faced the Sea of Galilee, a woman waved us into her home.  Her front yard was filled with flowers and the door open to the cool morning air.  Inside, she proudly pointed out her newly renovated kitchen and introduced her husband who was just finishing breakfast.  They laughed easily, especially about us getting to meet real live kibbutz residents.  Both were artists and sold their sculptures and handbags in the marketplace.  They clearly enjoyed the beautiful, communal setting and were thriving in its new economy.

Eli smiled warily as we left.  He loved growing up on the kibbutz and raising his family there.  But he knew the changes were necessary.  Encouraged by the slight up-tick in members since the rules were revised,  the kibbutz expects more will be enticed to work there. Maybe even Eli’s grandchildren will continue this century old tradition.  He can only hope so.

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