Kibbutzim and the city

The Migvan Community building includes a dining room used on Friday evenings where families congregate for Shabbat dinner as well as the offices of the kibbutz’s successful high-tech company Migvan Effect. When one thinks of a kibbutz, a pastoral picture …

The Migvan Community building includes a dining room used on Friday evenings where families congregate for Shabbat dinner as well as the offices of the kibbutz’s successful high-tech company Migvan Effect. When one thinks of a kibbutz, a pastoral picture of cow sheds and cotton and orchards chicken coops comes to mind.

The kibbutz, after all was conceived as a way of returning to the land in a social collective. That unique Israeli experiment combined the need to set up working farms with socialist and Zionist ideology.

The idea of an “urban kibbutz” sounds like a contradiction in terms. But in 1986, a small group of kibbutz residents, who still believed in the collective framework, decided they could best fulfill their personal and national goals by becoming part of a larger community.

“We had a common commitment to social action,” says Nitai Shreiber, 44, originally of Kibbutz Nirim, and director of The Gvanim Association for Education and Community Involvement, a non-profit social-service agency in Sderot. Today Gvanim is regarded as the Negev’s model community organization; it initiates and operates projects in education, welfare, immigrant absorption, and services to the disabled.

It all began when Shrieber and his friends from several kibbutzim in the north started meeting once a month to discuss ideas for a new kind of kibbutz.

Inspired in part by two urban kibbutzim in Jerusalem, and one in Beit Shemesh, the group decided that an urban setting would be their best alternative. Shreiber said that the group chose Sderot as their home because, as a development town in the northern Negev, it posed a unique social action opportunity.

Less than a kilometer from the northeast border of the Gaza Strip, Sderot is probably best known as a target of Kassam rocket attacks. The Kassam is the crude but sometimes deadly effective weapon used by Palestinian gunmen in Gaza. Although there has been only one death from a Kassam rocket, scores of attacks severely damaged homes and factories in the town.

But the Kassam attacks are not Sderot’s only stigma. One of a series of poor “development” towns in the Negev, Sderot has few professional opportunities. A large percentage of the city’s 24,000 residents receive welfare benefits. Not surprisingly, many of the town’s young people leave after high school and army service. Half the residents are new olim, mainly from Russia and the Caucasus. The veteran residents of the city are mostly from Morocco.

“Sderot is heterogeneous,” Shreiber explains. “The population is made up of different ethnic and social groups. People here really care about the town – what its image is like.” When he and his friends first came to Sderot, Shreiber relates, he saw there were many things that needed to be done. “It’s not enough to have ideals, the local institutions, like the community centers, don’t really provide what is necessary.”

The original Migvan group had six members; today there are 60. The name Migvan, from the Hebrew word for varied or multicolored, stresses the pluralistic nature of this unusual society.

For the first 14 years of the project, members lived in apartments in the center of town rented from a public housing company. Then they were able to obtain the necessary government permits and bank loans to plan and build their own kibbutz neighborhood.

In July 2000 they moved in: populating an entire city street with 23 semi-detached houses, planned, built and paid for by the kibbutz. Tree-lined Shaked Street, with “Holland-style” sidewalks, is Kibbutz Migvan.

Among the buildings on the street is the Migvan Community building. Still under construction, the building includes a dining room and kitchen mainly used on Friday evenings where families congregate for Shabbat dinner. This summer the space was used for a summer camp for the children of kibbutz members.

Another wing of the building houses the offices of the kibbutz’s successful high-tech company Migvan Effect. The company develops internet solutions for various companies and organizations, specializing in talent recruitment, and employs 12 people, half of whom are Sderot residents.

The second floor of the community building is divided into four small apartments for volunteers and young couples who want to try out the urban kibbutz experience. The offices of the kibbutz and the Gvanim Association are located in another two-story house on the street

Today, nine of the kibbutz’s 16 families are part of the common economy. Members pool their salaries, and the group buys food, maintains members’ homes, and provides pocket money to members according to the size of their families. Unlike the traditional concept of “kibbutz” where the importance of the community was a priority in all decision making, at Migvan, the goal is personal choice – to allow members to develop their personal, family and professional needs and desires as they see fit.

Even the issue of social activism and involvement – in a sense the raison d?etre of the kibbutz – is a personal choice of each member. But most members choose to be involved and active, both in Sderot and in the surrounding areas, social, professionally and personally.

This urban kibbutz maintains an intense sense of a community that is disappearing in most traditional kibbutzim. Members meet every other Friday for lectures and discussions. Educational director Amram Shlomi stresses that the point of the meetings is not the content of the lectures, but “that we do this together. It’s the way, not the what.”

One of the single members is Nomika Tzion, whose pleasant, airy split-level house we sit in. She is not at home today, but in typical kibbutz fashion, her house is open to other members. Tzion’s grandfather was the late Ya’acov Hazan, was one of the founders of Hashomer Hatza’ir in Poland, and remained an ideological figurehead of the movement until his death in July 1992.

The kibbutz’s Gvanim Association, which runs nearly 50 projects, is today a leading institution in the fields of society and welfare, both in Sderot and in the surrounding areas. It employs more than 200 people from Sderot and the area, and has a pool of more than 200 volunteers. Many of the paid employees are retarded individuals living in a protected living framework.

Schreiber describes Gvanim as a sort of “hothouse” or “incubator”. “It’s a framework which cultivates new ideas and projects. If there are local initiatives, we encourage this.” There are eight areas of projects, each one operating fairly autonomously: early childhood, youth at risk, and children at risk, young adults at risk, handicapped, Caucasian immigrants and crisis management.

In the Gvanim projects for Caucasian immigrants, for example, the organization helps the local community leadership of this problematic and alienated sector of the population to get organized. The projects also promote initiatives in employment, such as occupational empowerment and training workshops. In another Gvanim project the organization sponsors ands runs Sheltered Housing For the mentally handicapped, where the residents are able to lead independent lives.

Employees of Gvanim are full partners in giving shape to the community and have opportunities to make an impact on many levels of policy making.

“The people who are involved in these projects, even if they are paid, are very committed,” states Schreiber. “There is nothing like this anywhere else in Israel. Most non-profit organizations consist of a group of people who are trying to solve a particular problem – but Gvanim is providing a framework for a variety of projects for the benefit of the local community, under our supervision.”

How has this bunch of Ashkenazi, college-educated kibbutzniks with their progressive ideas and projects, been accepted by the largely Mizrachi local population?

“The residents of Sderot didn’t like the people who lived in the nearby kibbutzim. Even today, they regard them as elitist, using us as their manual laborers, and looking down on us,” comments Pnina Elya, the public relations liaison for Gvanim. “When the Migvan people came here, the local people looked at them in the same way. But when they saw what they were doing, and how much they helped us, they began to change their minds,” says Elya, who was born and raised in Sderot.

“At the beginning, people here didn’t know whether they could trust us, explains Eric Yellin, today the general manager of the Migvan Effect high-tech company. “But as time passed, we proved ourselves, and now people know they can trust us.”

Amram Shlomi, the kibbutz educational director and principal maintenance man, adds that when the group first arrived, they were very careful not to take jobs that local residents could fill. Today everyone knows that the group has created many jobs for local residents.

Almost all of the adult members of Migvan were born and raised on kibbutzim elsewhere in the country. Now they are writing a new chapter in kibbutz history, adapting the collective ideals they were educated to respect, to what they consider the challenges of a new era.