Summertime in the desert: A new way of life

Janine '15 participated in the Summer Signature program and designed an experience at a kibbutz in Israel.

Hi, I’m Janine and this summer, I spent most of my time in the desert. For 6 weeks, I learned Chinese and Arabic in Provo, Utah, but here I’m going to talk about my Summer Sig experience in the Negev Desert, in southern Israel.

desert and date orchard

I’ve always been interested in Israeli culture, as I have family living in Jerusalem and have spent time in their city whenever I have visited. However, while Jerusalem is certainly unique for its religious significance, I wanted to explore a different part of the country. With this goal in mind, I found myself considering staying on a kibbutz with my “outlaws”, or my uncle’s brother and his family, in Ketura, Israel--about a mile from the Jordanian border and 3.5 hours by car from Jerusalem.

Camel pets on kibbutz Ketura
So, what is a kibbutz? A living structure almost exclusive to Israel, a kibbutz is the ultimate democracy. Essentially, kibbutzim run on communist-like values: members turn over all their savings to receive a specific salary based on family size and needs, adults are assigned jobs--usually agricultural--to work, and in the beginning of the kibbutz movement, even the children were shared among all members and spent their nights in children's house. There is no kibbutz president or set government; the "CFO" and other lead positions are elected by the community and rotate among members every few years. Kibbutzim value opportunity and equality over all. There are about 250 kibbutzim in Israel today.

While I could be telling you about the time I was labeling bottles in a shed when a salamander jumped out of a box onto my worktable and led me to label the remaining bottles with my backpack on in case I needed to make a quick escape, I thought I would touch on the economic and social structure I experienced while there.

In terms of economics, the kibbutz's principle of economic equality for all directly competes with the notion of the American Dream and the self-made man. The very mention of these communist values makes any captive audience I have cringe and ask why anyone would voluntarily give up their affluence, thus limiting future opportunities to travel or indulge themselves. With a pre-determined dividend, kibbutz members get what they need and not much more; this means no smartphone, no name-brand clothing, no excessive family vacations. But this also means there's no socioeconomic divide. So this microcosm of kibbutzniks--as they're called--are truly living in utopia.

A walkway through part of the kibbutz
As a side note, I was able to visit a nearby kibbutz named Kibbutz Samar, which the internet has nicknamed the "anarchist kibbutz". There, members can keep their savings from before, but must turn over their salaries into a communal bank account from which anyone can take any amount of money they deem necessary. I interviewed a member from there,and she said while the lack of rules and structure is an obstacle, it is worth the enlarged freedom.It might seem crazy, but somehow it works and this kibbutz has been thriving since 1976.

Nonetheless, the real distinguishing characteristic of kibbutz life to me is the sense of community that exists. Kibbutzim originally served as somewhat of a refuge for Jews all over the world after the Holocaust. Although their whole life previously had crumbled, the kibbutz structure provided creature comforts and a new support system for those who had no family left.

Grofit, a nearby kibbutz
In a sense, that caring mentality hasn't changed a bit. I was welcome to tag along and be an awkward seventh wheel with my family. I attended parties, meetings, and holiday celebrations as if I had lived on the kibbutz my whole life. I even got to celebrate a harvest festival called Shavuot there, a holiday typically best celebrated on kibbutzim because of their agricultural roots. Although I did not stay up all night as my cousins did in order to emulate the Israelites' anticipation in receiving the Torah, I attended services and cheese tastings with members of the community. In a sense, I felt like I was at Peddie: no person or activity was off limits to me. I was able to do what I wanted--within reason--and someone was always there to back me up.

All in all, I experienced a whole new way of life while on Kibbutz Ketura. It was a whirlwind exposure to religion, freedom, and community.   I was able to discover a whole new part of a land I thought I knew, and I look forward to returning in the near future.

my desert sweet 16 experience!