First Observations of the Kibbutz

I arrived at the kibbutz Ma’agen Michael yesterday. Thus far my time has been spent meeting the other Ulpanists (students in the five-month hebrew language program), getting oriented and acclimated to the program, and exploring the kibbutz’s physical space.

It’s quite an impressive place. Absolutely gorgeous grounds, with plumeria blooming everywhere (the only place I’ve ever seen them outside of Hawai’i). Warm weather, nice despite it’s tendency to make people run a bit hot. The beach is ten minutes walk from the Ulpan dorms, and the dining hall (set up very much like a camp cafeteria) overlooks the sea. People ride their bikes around everywhere, and none of them are ever locked. There’s a small dock by the beach, with a handful of sailboats. There’s a sculpture garden straight out of a storybook. The buildings are very Modernist in their design, with lots of unadorned angular white surfaces, exterior walls extending out at about 45 degrees–the works. If Corbusier could have designed a Mediterranean utopia, it might have looked like this place.

Kibbutz Garden

As a kibbutz, this place is meant to be run as a type of cooperative. As someone with a relevant background, I came here very curious to understand the social and mental infrastructure with which this place is organized. I wanted to know what it takes to make a place like this: the sacrifices that must be made, the balances and imbalances that organizes the relationships among individuals, the mechanisms and processes that structure life here.

Having been here for a little over a day, there are many things that I’m likely unaware of. Here are a few things I’ve picked up on, both specific processes and large trends, which I think are interesting.

The Ulpan

Twice annually (August-December, February-June) the kibbutz runs a 90-student five-month intensive Hebrew language program, called an “Ulpan.” The participants are known as Ulpanists and come from all over the world (my class, Ulpan 109, has students from Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, England, Australia, Russia, Hungary, the Netherlands, the United States, and more). Ulpanists work on the kibbutz for 24 hours a week and study for 18 hours per week and are housed in dorms in the center of the kibbutz. The program costs $5,000, although most participants end up paying far less (I ended up forking over around $2,000). The program cost ostensibly goes to covering food, housing, and tuition–understandable and perhaps reasonable for a five-month program, until you factor in the fact that each participant works 24 hours per week (equivalent to a part-time job). It seems to me (but merits more investigation) that the Ulpan is a significant moneymaker for the kibbutz. I’m fairly certain that the kibbutz gets paid by the Israeli Government to run the Ulpan as well, so once you factor in the work my hunch is that the kibbutz ends up pocketing nearly all of the program fee. At $2,000 per student times 180 students per year, the kibbutz might reasonably be pocketing between $200,000 and $300,000. Unfortunate for the students, but we should reserve judgment until we see how this fits into their overall budget.

Ulpan Labor

One of the first things the Ulpanists were asked to do was list their preferences for their job.  In my past coop experience, ever member submitted their week’s schedule and listed their preference for every job that was available: the “workshift manager” then went through and assigned everyone a job that best fit their schedule and interests. In addition, members were given a week to try various jobs to see what they enjoyed and didn’t enjoy before submitting preferences. Finally, members were given a variety of jobs to fulfill their requirement. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked reasonably well. The process here is different, and in my opinion, significantly inferior. There are twelve or so possible jobs listed, with no information given beyond the name of the job and whatever hearsay can be gathered from kibbutz members and staff. Ulpanists are given only a first and second choice, and are required to decide upon arrival. Selections are made based on the needs of the kibbutz, and once made, are fairly hard to change.

I see a few problems with this system, all of which compound each other:

– The speed of selection means that people are unsure of what they are selecting, and they lack enough time to inform themselves about their options.

– Two preferences limits the ability of the staff to match desire to need, meaning that potentially favorable arrangements are not made due to inadequate information on Ulpanist preferences.

– The duration (4 hours a day, 6 days a week, for 5 months) and monotony (the same activity almost every day) of the job means that people are relatively stuck for a very long time, making this one of the highest-impact decisions of the program.

The consequences of all this is that many people end up assigned jobs they did not want nor particularly enjoy, and which they must work at for hours per day for five straight months. If my experience with cooperatives has taught me anything, it’s that while you can compel people to work through policy and punishment, that approach will get only the bare minimum. If you want to tap into people’s creative energy and drive, you’ll need to assign them tasks that they find meaningful and rewarding.

From what I’ve heard, many people end up really disliking their job. I frequently hear past participants say that “Work sucks, you just have to deal with it.” I heard one story of someone who stole pepper from the dining hall and sprinkled it in their eyes during one of their shifts so they could claim an allergic reaction to the job and be reassigned. It seems that there is little concern on the part of the Kibbutz that the Ulpanists enjoy their jobs, and are content with getting the minimum out of them. While the culture here might have adopted that attitude in the face of the situation, that kind of defeatist stance I fear prevents people from making some very simple changes that could have a major impact on the quality of life for the Ulpanists, and increase the quality of labor they contribute to the Kibbutz.

If my experience this session runs counter to what I’ve speculated here, I’ll make sure to write about it. So far though, things seem to be matching up fairly well to what I’ve layed out.

Laundry

I had been initially unsure as to how the kibbutz would deal with the problem of laundry for a thousand people–it seemed like a staggering amount of things to keep track of. They employ a clever solution though, which upon reflection is likely not so innovative and is probably standard in institutions such as the military where mass laundry is common (and is probably borrowed from the Israeli Defense Forces, now that I think about it). They provide every person with a large supply of iron-on numbers, and each person is expected to (using a small communal heat-press) stick the number to every article of clothing they own. Then they take the laundry to the laundry drop-off room (and sort accordingly). The launderers then wash everything en masse and sort everything out again using the numbers. It seems effective, I’ll let you know if I find any major problems with it.

Dining

Set up very cafeteria-style, with trays, dishes, and utensils available in racks immediately before reaching several islands of food. You take what you want, and pay at a cashier. Every Ulpanist gets 600 shekels per month (20 shekels, or $5 per day) for food, which works out surprisingly well. You could, for example, get a plate of four different vegetable dishes for four shekels (about one dollar). I was intrigued that the kibbutz would use a metering system, much less one based on conventional currency. In my past cooperative experiences, food wasn’t metered in any way and people could take as much or as little as they wanted. Here, you pay for every serving you take.

At first this system seemed to me to run counter to the communal ethic of a kibbutz, but upon further reflection it seems like an effective and reasonable way to manage these resources. Not everyone eats at every meal, and so by charging people for everything they eat, you allow people to skip meals and maintain their own schedules without having them feel like they are “wasting” the money that they had “already paid” for the meal. It also helps discourage hoarding (taking food for later) and binging (eating a lot to stay full through the next meal), which are two common ways that individuals can exploit an unmetered food system. The system does require a sizable resource investment to maintain (training and paying cashiers, buying the equipment, and setting up the software), which might explain why smaller cooperatives don’t have a similar system.

Population

Chatting with a kibbutz member over breakfast today, I caught wind of the concern that the population of the kibbutz is growing too rapidly. He mentioned the issue of newborns, saying that the kibbutz sees about 45 newborns per year, a rate which is non sustainable over time given the kibbutz’s physical size. I wonder how the kibbutz as a whole thinks about this issue and whether there is any action that they feel that they can take regarding this issue.

The kibbutz is currently “closed,” meaning that it is impossible to apply to live on the kibbutz. The only way in, currently, is to be born into or marry into the kibbutz. From that I induced that the kibbutz was once “open,” but they decided to stop accepting outside people at some point due to population concerns. The kibbutz is very popular, so it’s understandable that they would start to feel a squeeze on their space. I wonder what kibbutz “expansion” looks like– can they just buy up more land and build more houses?

Demographics

There seems to be egalitarianism among the kibbutz members, without any really visible distinctions among people. Everyone seems to dress similarly and ride bikes of similar quality. Some houses seemed slightly nicer than others, but nothing remarkable.

That said, there are a handful of class (and race) distinctions worth mentioning. First, the Ulpanists seem to be a type of underclass. Understandable, because we rotate every five months and therefore have little to no social standing or sway in the kibbutz at large. A kibbutz member would have seen 1,800 of us over the last ten years, so it makes sense that our needs would be less important than the needs of the majority of the kibbutz members. I heard someone say today that if there were a bar scuffle between an Ulpanist and a kibbutznik (kibbutz member), the judgment would almost always go in favor of the kibbutznik, even if he or she started the whole thing. This is not surprising, though, and there is likely very little that can be done about it–it’s part of the deal when you’re a transient population inside of a larger, stable one.

There also seems to be a large Filippino workforce in the kibbutz, people who don’t live here but come during the day to work in the plastics factory and fish ponds, and perhaps more places. I haven’t picked up on any other major ethnic group that falls in the hired labor category, but there may be more. These outside workers (of all ethnicities) pay a bit more than the (very low) rate that the kibbutz members and Ulpanists pay for food, and aren’t able to participate in the decision-making and governance of the kibbutz (neither are the Ulpanists, for that matter, or any non-member resident of the kibbutz). I’m not sure how the compensation of outside workers compares to that of kibbutz workers, but I’d like to find out.

Economy

Everything I’ve heard points to this kibbutz being very wealthy. I’m not sure the specifics of their financial situation (although I’d like to find out), but I can speculate as to some of the forces at work. First, the Ulpan is a large source of income. I can’t say with any certainty what percent of the kibbutz’s annual income this represents, but I would assume it is sizeable. Second, the kibbutz engages in a number of high-value-added industries. They operate ornamental fish ponds, which grow large exotic fish for sale for display at (I believe) premium prices. They operate both a plastics factory (Plasson) and a metal factory (Suron), which seem to be large sources of income. They “export” quite a bit of these and other products, it seems, which brings in a lot of money. I’m not sure how the external workforce affects their margins, but I would like to find out. My guess is that it’s sizable but not enormous.

Governance

As soon as I get a bit more settled, I’ll start looking into the governance aspect of the kibbutz. An understanding of the distribution of decision-making power and the way that mechanisms by which individuals acquire that power will be illuminating and likely help cast the other operations of the kibbutz in a clearer light. From what I’ve heard so far it’s an elaborate committee-based system with elected offices and either two or four-year terms. The top leadership comes in the forms of two co-mayors (reminiscent of the Roman consuls, interestingly).

It’s worth noting that among the Ulpanists who have experience with other kibbutzes, this kibbutz is held in very high regard. People rave about this place, with an overwhelmingly positive opinion. Many people feel that this is the “best kibbutz in Israel.” I’m very curious to see what else comes up once we’ve been here for some more time and experience more of Ma’agen Michael’s processes.

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One response to “First Observations of the Kibbutz

  1. Shalom 🙂

    Thank you for this post, I’m starting the Ulpan at Maagan Michael in February, and I’ve been trying to find more blogs that cover past experiences in depth. So far you’ve been the only one that I’ve found.

    I was wondering, since you were there for a while now…could you perhaps do a post (or message me) about the different jobs offered and which ones are reccomendable? A short review on the pros and cons perhaps? That would be lovely. It could probably help my decision.

    BaVracha

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