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The New Kibbutz

Kishorit, a self-described neurodiverse kibbutz, is redefining Israeli communal living at a time when these communities are on the decline

Matti Friedman
July 27, 2022
Kishorit via Facebook
Kishorit via Facebook
Kishorit via Facebook
Kishorit via Facebook

The kibbutz, one of the greatest ideas ever put into practice, has fallen on hard times. Having pioneered a new country and wrought a revolution in Jewish history, most of these communes no longer subscribe to radical Zionist egalitarianism and have resigned themselves to life as suburbs, leaving a hole at the center of the country’s consciousness that we haven’t managed to fill with anything better. I’m always happy to hear a pulse—like the few kibbutzim that have prospered and stayed socialist, or like the scrappy guerilla activists of the “urban kibbutz” movement, who pool resources and work for the common good but live in cities. For the past few years, I’ve been hearing about one unique evolution of the idea on a hill of grapevines near the border with Lebanon. Last week I drove up to visit.

Kishorit was founded 25 years ago, just as the kibbutz movement finished its remarkable 90-year run. By that year, 1997, the Israeli free market was conclusively on the rise, and by 2000, Palestinian suicide bombers had blown the old Labor Zionist peace dream into oblivion. The next year, the last kibbutznik prime minister, Ehud Barak, was voted out of office, and the movement largely faded to the margins of Israeli society. This community was founded on the site of an abandoned kibbutz, Kishor, which had dissolved itself after years of failure.

I passed the goat-milk operation, the country’s third-largest, and the winery, which produces 50,000 bottles a year. There were the usual bomb shelters, a reminder that the Hezbollah missile crews were just a few miles to the north and were unlikely to make an exception for the people here. In the members’ meeting room near the communal dining hall, a man named Oren asked me if I’d like to sit down and discuss a book. The greenhouses here looked like the ones you’d see at any other kibbutz, with rough tables and hanging tools and sweaty workers in cargo pants. I noticed signs of cognitive disability only when two of the workers walked over to say hi and see how I was doing; one of the differences between Kishorit and a typical kibbutz is that the people here are much friendlier. Not far from the goat sheds, a man in a red T-shirt stood in the shade of a terebinth, jerking his arms as he carried on a forceful discussion with himself.

Kishorit thinks of itself as a kind of neurodiverse kibbutz—that term, “neurodiverse,” being the one preferred here to older ones like “mentally disabled” or “special needs.” Many communal decisions here are taken in a plenum by democratic vote, in the kibbutz style, including both the 186 neurodiverse members and the 45 member families who are “neurotypical,” the term for what most people might call “normal.” Some members can work full days, others can barely work at all—the place runs on the old kibbutz precept that you give what you can and get what you need. In the winery, for example, I met Yaron Biran, 50, who was born in Emek Hefer on the coastal plain. He was hauling a crate of bottles and stopped to chat. His job changes with the seasons, he said—pruning, picking, packing. He was busy, and had to go. In the kibbutz grocery, an elderly worker named Haya encouraged me to try the cherry tomatoes. Another member is an adherent of Chabad, and has decided that his job is to help other members perform religious commandments like putting on tefillin. That’s OK too.

Yael Shilo, one of the two founders of Kishorit, was born in 1948, the same year as Israel, at Kibbutz Kfar Szold in the Galilee panhandle. The idea for a neurodiverse kibbutz came to her after she married a man whose son fit that description, and she has dedicated the rest of her life to making it work. Shilo’s parents, like the other founders of her own kibbutz, had escaped places like Germany and Poland for lives of physical hardship in the Land of Israel. They spent a full decade hauling basalt rocks just to clear fields so they could start farming. “They worked themselves into the ground,” Shilo said. Her father was from Vienna, her mother from Krakow. Back in Europe, most of the founders’ families had been removed from physical labor, but that world was gone, and the kibbutz and the nation needed a generation that was muscular and hardy. There wasn’t going to be much room for the weak or disabled. That was Shilo’s world as a child.

The capable body was always a preoccupation of the kibbutz and of the Zionist movement: the bronzed pioneer of the Jewish National Fund posters, or the old newsreels with hundreds of brash New Jews performing calisthenics in unison under the blue-and-white flag. “Your first glance when you meet a young native-born man will reveal a flourishing, muscular, tall body,” wrote the pioneer Yaakov Cohen in 1933. “The hunched back and the bent gait that many scholars have identified as almost racial trademarks seem to have vanished, and the anxiety and fear of the ‘gentiles’ and the feeling of inadequacy and inferiority that were the lot of the young Jew in the Diaspora seem to have been pulled out by the roots.”

Just as the sabra, the prickly pear adopted as a symbol for the native-born Jews of Israel, grew wild here, wrote the historian Oz Almog in his book The Sabra, “so were the native-born Israelis growing, so it was said, naturally, ‘without complexes,’ in their true homeland.” My own first kibbutz memory was at a swimming pool at Kibbutz Kfar Blum in the late 1980s, when I was 11 years old, visiting Israel with my family from our home in Toronto. I was standing on the blistering stone floor by the pool when my attention was diverted by the sudden arrival of a raucous horde of boys and girls—it was kibbutz gym class. They hit the water like a dolphin pod and churned it like beautiful torpedoes, another lap and another. They were all foam, tan, and muscle, and to my Canadian eyes, they seemed like another species. It was like being a house cat wandering into a zoo and happening upon the cheetah pen.

Shilo remembers the kibbutz as a wonderful place, even if the community was never as equal as it strove to be. “In our kibbutz, like anywhere, there were strong and weak. The idea of equality is a dream—in reality, there are people who are charismatic and strong, the leaders, and people who are more marginal, and it’s naive to think that everyone was equal and loved each other.” But the kibbutz was nonetheless a great thing: davar gadol, as she put it several times in our conversation. You were never alone, and you always had someone to help you. So what if a new kind of kibbutz could be created, one that would revolve around people who hadn’t been magically cured of “complexes” and who’d never be invited to star in those glorious calisthenic films, one that would harness the power of community but put it at the disposal of people who’d ordinarily be out of the frame?

The idea crystallized when she met her stepson’s social worker, Shuki Levinger, at Kfar Tikva. This was a village for special-needs Israelis that was cutting-edge when founded in 1964 by an irascible nonconformist, the German-born educator and agronomist Dr. Siegfried Hirsch, on the site of a failed kibbutz near Haifa. The young state already had institutions for Israelis suffering from mental disabilities, but they resembled hospitals, with people’s conditions medicalized and their lives regimented in almost every way. Ignoring much of the common wisdom, the German doctor declared Kfar Tikva to be a village not for charity or babysitting, but for professional training, like the agricultural villages where he’d taught in the past. According to Levinger, the doctor used to joke that he founded the village mainly to get his neurodiverse stepdaughter, Yehudit, out of the house; except he didn’t say “neurodiverse,” of course, he called her “retarded,” in the style of those times. “He seemed crazy on the surface,” Levinger recalled, “but that concealed a deep understanding.”

Levinger and Shilo developed the idea together and spent a few years wrangling the Israeli bureaucracy, which had a hard time understanding what they were talking about. But by the end of the summer of 1997 they’d been given the site of what had once been Kibbutz Kishor and the first four members moved in. Today members range in age from 18 to 71. Some have physical disabilities as well. About two dozen couples live together. Members have their own apartments—they get the medical help they need, but live as they wish. There are no visiting hours or unnecessary limitations on anyone’s independence. The village is meant to be a permanent home: A member named Arik Gilad, who’d lived here for 15 years, recently died of a heart attack at 59 and became the first person to be buried at Kishorit. The kibbutz’s agriculture doesn’t turn a profit, although that, too, doesn’t make it much different from a regular kibbutz. Most of the funding comes from Israel’s Welfare Ministry, with smaller sums coming from private donations.

Outside the winery, I met Mark, 34, originally from New Jersey. (He preferred not to give his last name.) He accompanied me on a tour of the bakery, past a half-dozen people kneading around a metal table. Their mental condition wasn’t clear, and didn’t seem to matter. All I could see is that they were covered with flour. Mark has been here for 13 years. In the U.S., he said, his family put him on a waiting list for a home and was told it was likely to be 30 years. “There’s nothing like this in America,” he said. It’s not just the community, he said, or the beauty of the location, but the fact that it’s not run for profit.

I wondered aloud if this place could ever be reproduced in other countries. It would be nice to think the answer is yes, but Israelis have a communal attitude and a talent for improvisation that they often take for granted, but which is unique and hard to imitate. Mark didn’t think so. “A place like this takes so much heart,” Mark said. “You can’t just copy it.”

Kishorit is an innovation of the kind Israelis like to celebrate among themselves and display to outsiders, along with pioneering successes like the rehabilitation village known as Adi Negev, founded a few years later in the southern desert by Doron Almog, an IDF general, father of a son with severe mental disabilities, and, as of last month, the new chairman of the Jewish Agency. But in housing neurodiverse adults, Israel actually lags behind other Western countries. In many European states, particularly in Scandinavia, there are no longer large institutions for people with mental disabilities, and nearly everyone is housed in the community, said Dr. Lital Barlev, an expert at the Jerusalem think tank JDC Brookdale. In Israel, by contrast, of 11,286 mentally disabled Israelis who live outside the home, according to her research, about two-thirds are still in institutions. Even the United States is ahead of us.

“The trend is moving people to regular residences, not to neighborhoods of disabled people or kibbutzim of disabled people, but to life like everyone else,” said Barlev. “You’ll have a regular neighborhood in the city, and every once in a while you’ll have an apartment with people who have disabilities. This is correct not only for people with disabilities, but for everyone else, who need to see these people as part of society.”

But life in the city can mean acute isolation. “If we put people in apartments, then they’re alone in their apartments,” said Levinger, Kishorit’s co-founder, when we spoke on a bench outside the village’s little office. “The kibbutz is one solution for loneliness.” Dalia Peleg, a counselor and resident, moved to Kishorit after her daughter Tal, 50, came to live here 20 years ago. “What these people lack most is company,” Peleg said. “At home people are nice to them. They’ll say hi. But no one will ever invite them over for coffee.”

A short walk away, in the swimming pool, a man with twisted limbs lay on his back in the water, moving with the help of an instructor. A tractor puttered between the rows of vines: The old kibbutz may be gone, but the grapes are growing. At the greenhouses the tools went down. It was time for a coffee break.

Matti Friedman is a Tablet columnist and the author, most recently, of Who by Fire: Leonard Cohen in the Sinai.