September 16, 2019

It Takes a Kibbutz (or Two)

The cafe and gallery of the Kamah Association at Kibbutz Harduf looked like a place plucked directly from Berkeley, CA with high ceilings, natural wood tables and shelves filled with ceramic bowls, plates and cups, plus multi-colored textile placemats, bookmarks and wall hangings. The food was vegetarian, all organic, and locally-produced. I shook my head, and reminded myself that we were in northern Israel, visiting the Beit Elisha “community within a community” that is home to 65 adults with developmental disabilities, from quite severe to high-functioning. Most live in housing on the Kibbutz, but some live in satellite apartments in the nearby town. of Tiv’on. Along with a separate group of at-risk youth, called Tuvia, these two groups who need special care are part of the larger Kibbutz Harduf, with a total of 650 residents.

This Special Needs Study Mission to Israel is sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles, and is comprised of parents, professionals and young adults with autism. Together, we toured some of the on-site workshops where the residents with special needs work—the ceramics studio, weaving room with multiple looms of many sizes, a bakery with incredibly soft whole wheat bread, and the restaurant itself, which sells to the students who attend school there, and the other Kibbutz residents. As we looked around, an infant crawled on floor near her Dad drinking expresso while a young mom read aloud from the Hebrew picture book “Miriam B’Yam” (Miriam and the Ocean) to her delighted toddler. Seeing that picture book took me back in time, with my husband reading it in Hebrew to both of our kids (it has some great rhymes) when they were small.

Kibbutz Harduf is affiliated with the Waldorf Schools in Israel, also known by the tongue-twisting concept of “anthroposophy” which, to quote from Wikipedia, “The educational philosophy’s overarching goals are to provide young people the basis on which to develop into free, morally responsible and integrated individuals and to help every child fulfill his or her unique destiny”. This same philosphy is applied to their work with adults who have developmental disabilities, and each adult is encouraged to express him or herself to the fullest. In addtion to their work duties in the various workshops, the residents also engage in text study, and therapies for their individual needs. Two key challenges are finding enough private donations to pay for all the expenses not covered by the Israeli government funding, and also reducing staff turnover. Their solution: ” You neeed to feed the souls of the staff.”

Our second kibbutz experience at Kishorit was quite different, although a similar setting. Located near Carmiel, Kishort is in their own words, “a caring community of adults with special needs” with 148 adults with developmental disabilities and mental health issues, accompanied by 175 staff. Aside from the beautiful landscaping and great views, Kishorit is distinguised for its ten on-site businesses which include prize-winning dog breeding/kennels, horses, goat milk products, wine, organic eggs, fruits and vegetables. Residents can choose where they want to work (or if they want to work at all) plus can choose from 45 different afternoon activities such as video production, computer training, basketball, dancing, the gym etc.

Their challenges were very similar to those faced by every direct social services program—not enough government funding, and finding, training and retaining the best staff. Their secrect to getting the right staff? “We pay our staff more than other places,” was the answer.

These two different kibbutz models of communal living gave us lots to think about, and to ponder how we might create something similar in Los Angeles. Our heads are already getting filled up with facts, approaches, ideologies, and this was only Day 1 of our site visits!

Follow along with us here.