Gary Brenner, a California-born oleh (immigrant to Israel) who has lived most of his life there, served as shaliach (representative) of the left-Zionist Kibbutz Artzi (National Kibbutz Movement), Hashomer Hatzair and Mapam/Meretz, to North America (based in New York) during the early 1990s. In 2003, he co-authored Our Hearts Invented a Place: Can Kibbutzim Survive in Today’s Israel? with American writer Jo-Ann Mort, a veteran activist associated with the democratic left and with Americans for Peace Now. This book applauded a more enterprising and economically efficient model for the kibbutz.
Ralph Seliger’s review at that time in the New York Press is briefly quoted at Amazon’s website as follows: “The authors of Our Hearts Invented a Place . . . suggest . . . that in the absence of exceptional times that inspire people to transcend themselves in the service of overriding social goals—in the case of Israel, the building of a new nation and efforts to create a more just society—materialism trumps idealism.”
Yet this small excerpt may pose the issue more starkly than intended. A more complete understanding would be that once the “heroic” generations had done their vital work of establishing and securing this new country, younger generations (especially within the context of a larger economy that is creating prosperity and a consumer culture) will naturally be more individualistic and less idealistic. Still, many people value living in a caring and supportive community, which allows more freedom of choice and diversity than did the classic kibbutz.
Mort and Brenner’s book was written during a period of upheaval and population decline in the kibbutz movement. Most kibbutzim are very different now, providing members with ownership equity in their homes and no longer requiring kibbutz residents to work there or to surrender their outside earnings to the collective kibbutz treasury.
In the meantime, Gary Brenner’s younger son, Yermi, has earned a graduate degree in journalism at Columbia, and is now living in New York where he’s written a number of pieces for The Jewish Daily Forward. His recent article, “Kibbutz Culture Changes — and Kids Come Back,” reports on the return to kibbutz of its young generation, as a nice place to raise their families rather than as members of the all-encompassing communes of old: “After years of stagnation, kibbutz populations are growing. Young families are drawn by a new tolerance for family independence — with a strong community spirit.”