During a recent visit to Israel, I visited at a Kibbutz that was 30 minutes north of Eilat, in Southern Israel. I thought I understood what a Kibbutz was and the concept has always intrigued me.

I had romanticised the idea about a life in a shared community. Living with all your friends and family surrounding you. Growing your own vegetables, harvesting your own water, creating your own electricity and being totally off-grid. A self-sustainable life – and also one which revolved around the idea of having a shared purpose.

I was soon to learn that I had actually very little understanding of this unique form of collective living and how it now needed to evolve in order to survive.

The definition of Kibbutz (meaning group in Hebrew) is as follows: a Kibbutz is a collective community in Israel that was traditionally based on agriculture. It was originally organised by young idealistic Jews who came to Palestine in the beginning of the 20th century to set up a new kind of society. Despite many hardships, they succeeded in creating a voluntary democratic community where people live and work together on a non-competitive basis.

“Its aim was to generate an economically- and socially-independent society founded on principles of communal ownership of property, social justice and equality” (Kibbutz Program centre).

Historically, the use of the word communal was not an exaggeration – literally everything was shared, from socks to sexual partners! However, what we discovered at Kibbutz Ketura was something quite different.

On arrival, we were met by one of the Kibbutz directors, Slavik. A friendly, open chap with a weathered face, shrewd blue eyes and long hair. Immediately, he gave an overview of what a Kibbutz was and what his Kibbutz is.

He explained that the modern-day Kibbutz is very different to what existed in the 60s and 70s. “There was no private space; families were separated with children being sent off to live in a children’s home and only meeting their parents for a few hours a day, if that. There was no sense of ownership of anything, even your own children”. The idea of living on a Kibbutz suddenly felt incredibly unappealing. However, Slavik went on to explain that due to the dwindling numbers of people remaining within the Kibbutz community and huge economic pressure, the rules of Kibbutz living have had to evolve. The idea that sending your children off to live separately is no longer agreed with and a degree of privacy is allowed, with separate housing now available for families to live together.

The fundamental idea of equality is still very much in place – whether you are a CEO or a gardener, everyone benefits equally. Slavik acknowledges that for some this was difficult to digest initially; but eventually they realised that everyone is afforded a very good lifestyle within this system. Slavik reiterates that no-one wants for anything. For example, if someone wants to study medicine or music or dance – whatever it might be – they are supported and the community make it possible. 

Today you can apply to become a member of a Kibbutz if you aren’t born into one – although a rigorous process takes place for you to be granted membership. Slavik assures that for him, the benefits of life on a Kibbutz outweigh the disadvantages – particularly with the modern-day changes and the vision he has for his Kibbutz.

Not everyone agrees with this lifestyle. Our guide Gadi was pretty honest about how he felt about the Kibbutz ideal. “It doesn’t work. Many Kibbutz fail and are in financial troubles or all the members have slowly left over the years”. His wife was born and brought up in a Kibbutz – living separately from her parents and only seeing them at meal times for a few hours a day. Although she received the best education and support all the way through to her studies at University, she left the Kibbutz and is no longer a member. Gadi is rather scathing, “I couldn’t stand the lack of personal boundaries, space or privacy. Everyone knowing everyone’s business – no thanks”.

Slavik talks of the ‘democractic’ way that life is run – with committees for every aspect of life. Assemblies are regularly called to decide on matters on the kibbutz, from how money should be spent to how to ask someone to leave who isn’t playing ball! He is also very keen for us to know about how he sees the survival of his kibbutz and some of the extraordinary and innovative projects that are taking place here.

The kibbutz produces dates as a means of making a living; a lucrative industry, if you have the manpower and resource to carry it out. However, there are too many draw backs, as Slavik explained, “with an aging population this is back-breaking work, which we can’t fulfil internally. Plus, you require huge amounts of water – which is hard to come by and very expensive in a desert region.”

Kibbutz Ketura is therefore adapting what they farm by growing argan and marula – both are products that grow well in desert conditions and sell well. However, Slavik isn’t stopping there.

We are shown the rest of their farm, on which there are fields of solar panels. Harvesting the sun’s energy provides them with power by day (and yes, there is plenty of sun in Israel) and they can sell the surplus to the national grid. Currently, they produce 80% of the energy for the Eilat region. They hope to achieve 100% by 2025. They plan to do this by harvesting the sun’s power by day, and then harvesting water power by night. To do this, they will pump water up into the mountains using surplus solar power and then harvest the hydropower by night. Clever stuff.

It doesn’t end there. The biggest and probably most ambitious project that this innovative kibbutz is involved in is producing antioxidants. Slavik’s mother – an incredibly motivated and ingenious individual by all accounts – performed a number of tests on algae. Initially, this was with a view to producing fish food and an eco-option for turning farmed salmon pink (historically farmers used food dyes). However, in the process of producing this fish food, they discovered an extremely strong antioxidant was produced from the algae during the process of photosynthesis. Driving around the kibbutz, we saw huge lengths of piping containing the algae. By exposing it to the sunlight, it was the start of production of the antioxidant. “Our pension plan,” stated Slavik with a wry smile.

I can’t say that I’ll be joining a kibbutz any time soon. But I was impressed by the initiative and innovation of this kibbutz, the determination to survive and their will to want to contribute to the country’s economy. No wonder the government is happy for them to exist and continue doing so.

If you visit Israel, it is possible to stay on a Kibbutz and experience this unique way of living.