Actualizing Timeless Ideas in the Face of Current Reality

Today there are more than 1,000 young adults in Israel who choose to be pioneers in education through reinventing the Kibbutz concept. Here is a personal take on Dror Israel’s Educators’ Kibbutzim.

by Yoav Rimer, Jerusalem

” … As bread and water are for the individual, so is the idea for the public. Our Zionism which has brought us hitherto … is an idea with no end nor bounds”. Theodor Herzl

Though this article does not intend to be a historical analysis, the Educators’ Kibbutz cannot be described without touching on the ideas which drive its existence. What exactly is Herzl’s “idea with no end nor bounds?

The father of the Zionist idea sought to redeem the Jewish People from the perils of Exile. This redemption was not meant to be purely physical, but aimed towards profound change in Jewish lifestyle, thought and psyche. An inert connection, believed Herzl, existed between the individual and the community. Therefore, the new Jewish society had to be based, utilizing the most modern of instruments, on the most fundamental ideas of Judaism – justice, freedom and equality.

These three concepts were the foundation of Herzl’s vision and the basis of his utopian novel, Altneuland (Old-New Land). They were to be realized in the shape of a social organism unlike any seen before – a progressive and socially responsible, free, democratic community, open to anyone who wishes to live out this dream.

Herzl’s followers, the pioneers of the early Zionist movement, attempted to realize this Zionist vision and added a dimension of personal actualization, “Here on the face of the earth, not up in the clouds” as the pioneer-poet Rachel wrote. The Kibbutz Movement, which in time became a crucial instrument in the establishment of Israel, was an attempt to build a community according to Herzl’s guidelines. In the Kibbutz, free-spirited Jewish pioneers could live out the just social form of their dreams, while fulfilling the tasks necessary for the creation of a true national home for the Jewish people in the land of Israel.

Three generations after the foundation of the State of Israel, the concepts which guided the pioneers seem to have lost some of their appeal. Many Jews today see the existence of the State of Israel as the final fulfillment of Zionism. Some even go as far as arguing that since Israel is a fairly strong country, the Zionist movement should seize to exist.

For us, graduates of a pioneering Zionist youth movement – the Zionist idea cannot stop at “just” building a strong state. It was Herzl (again) who said “Those of us who gave it all for the (Zionist) movement, would be most upset if we were only to build a new society, and not also a better one.” The Zionist idea has “no end nor bounds”, does it not? So how could it have ended?

Seeking ways to actively live out the values in which we so strongly believe, and, consequently, attempt to bring these values and ideas to greater fulfillment in the general public, we created the Dror Israel movement.

Like early members of the kibbutz, we asked ourselves what is the field of activity which would best allow the re-building of an Israeli society with the values of Justice, Freedom and Equality at its core. The old Jewish idea on the equal value of all man had to take new forms. The Educators’ Kibbutz was born as a cooperative community with an educational mission. But what exactly does it mean?

To understand our movement one has to first examine its scope and dimensions. Not that size is everything, but it teaches that we are not dealing with a fringe phenomenon, but with one of the largest social and educational NGO’s in Israel. More than a thousand young men and women in 16 “Educators’ Kibbutzim”, in cities, villages and development towns throughout Israel, operating educational frameworks reaching over 100,000 children and teenagers in both formal and non-formal education. Our work spans the full spectrum of Israeli society – Jews and Arabs, students and youth at risk conditions, army personnel and African refugees. All of our educational work is based on the same core values – and “tailored” in manor to suit the needs and abilities of the population with which we work.

To be a member of an Educators-Kibbutz is to live an intense life. To give a clue I’ll use my own Kibbutz as an example. In our “Jerusalem Kibbutz”, live some 60 Dror-Israel members aged 23-29. What do we do? Work in municipal education departments, teach in schools in Jerusalem, run the youth movement in several places around the country, run social clubs for Jewish Ethiopian teenagers, organize public and media activity on contemporary issues, work with war-refugees from Africa, give seminars on democracy, Zionism and activism to students and school teachers, run an assistance center for working teenagers, and more.

In addition, a tight community has its own schedule. Cultural activities, turbulent ideological debates, joint decisions making on our lives (should we rent another car?) and missions (another teacher is needed in one of the schools, should someone change position and do it?), and taking care of the communal household. About one day each week is devoted to academic studies undertaken in a specially organized course in the “Beit Berl” college. Periodic conversations in smaller groups are devoted to introspection on life, work, relationships and what not.

This all might sound deterring, but a fundamental rule for us is that all participation is optional. There is no rule-book governing our lives and each one is free to make his choices. Close relationships and honest conversation replace the strict protocol of the old Kibbutz movement, and when tensions arise, well, you deal with them. A meaningful life is never conflict free.

Our choices sometimes seem odd, compared with those of others in their late 20’s. Making a living on educational work means choosing a very modest lifestyle. Giving up, in many cases, on the “traditional” post-army trip abroad seems bizarre. Not pursuing our individual material success appears to be a sacrifice. Some of our classmates already have families whereas we are only beginning to plan how to start a family within the communal framework (other Kibbutzim already have couples with children in them).

However, we feel that we are living out our dreams. The satisfaction gained from our work, and from knowing that we shape a lifestyle not dictated by any but ourselves, is irreplaceable. With an open eyed look at Israeli society – we know our lives’ project is essential for the continuation of the Zionist project, and for the creation of a better place for our generation, and future ones. The Zionist dream is timeless, and the ideas it pronounces have found in the Educators’ Kibbutz, so we believe, their most potent means of actualization for the 21st century.