Kibbutz Yahel: A Community for the New Millennium in Israel’s Negev
By: Jennifer Tzivia MacLeod
You may have heard about kibbutzim making the desert bloom, but don’t make the mistake of thinking you’ve heard this Israeli story before. Pulling up to the entrance of Kibbutz Yahel, visitors are greeted by varying forms of flourishing life: flowers in every color imaginable, fountains, and pools. But behind the scenes, this modern kibbutz is part of a revolution in green living, nestled in the gentle sands of Israel’s Central Arava Valley.
Located a mile from the Jordanian border just off Highway 90, the main artery connecting the Arava to Be’er Sheva, the Negev’s capital to the north and the resort town of Eilat in Israel’s far south, Kibbutz Yahel was founded by the Reform movement in the 1970s with a creative, pluralistic vision for Israel’s future. Today, thanks to Jewish National Fund-USA (JNF) and its revolutionary Housing Development Fund, five new families have made their homes in Kibbutz Yahel in fully-equipped, modern houses.
“It’s like a small village,” said Tzvika Klein, who, along with his wife and three children, moved into one of the new houses built by JNF. “There aren’t a lot of fences dividing people.”
Kibbutz Yahel is building a unique future in the middle of the desert, one that offers room for creativity, diversity, and most important of all in a tiny, crowded country—room to spread out and grow. For years, JNF has championed the south as part of its Blueprint Negev initiative, a crucial and groundbreaking campaign to develop Israel’s Negev Desert and to draw 500,000 residents to the south and relieve pressure off the country’s overcrowded central areas.
Jewish National Fund’s Housing Development Fund, a crucial part of the initiative, was established to develop 1,000 new lots in underdeveloped regions and border communities like the Arava, as well as the Western Galilee and communities along the border with Gaza. Thanks to the new housing developments in Kibbutz Yael, there is an expected boom of 50% in population in the region, and an increase in employment in various local sectors like tourism, research, industry, and the arts. These changes will ensure that new residents can continue working close to home and retain population in the Arava.
Traditionally, these areas have had a tough time keeping residents due to a lack of employment in desirable fields, like high-tech. Now, that’s changing as Israelis from all over the country— Eilat, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and beyond—have found their way to this unlikely spot and discovered the home they’ve always dreamed of in Yahel, a community founded on openness and inclusivity. The kibbutz has been more than welcoming, expanding to embrace the new families and their children.
For Klein, Yahel offers a better lifestyle than he had living in a large city. “I was working around the clock, and looking for a way out,” he said.
Tolerance is an important catchphrase here, and it comes as a relief to Israelis used to being classified by religious or political views. “They’re just nice people,” Klein said. “They’re not looking for things to argue about.”
From the very beginning, Yahel was built around the principles of religious pluralism and tolerance, which the new residents have been eager to embrace. Though Klein didn’t enjoy going to synagogue much when he was growing up, living in Yahel has changed his attitude. “I remember going to synagogue being something like a scary thing—a place where you had to be quiet all the time or had to listen without understanding anything. In the kibbutz, we can sing and everybody understands it; I don’t have to pray certain words. I don’t have to put on a kippah. I can be at ease and nobody will judge me for it. That’s the spirit of the kibbutz.”
Another discovery for the new arrivals is how close they are to nature. While many think of the desert as a wasteland, those who call it home quickly come to realize it’s much more diverse than expected.
Efrat Arzil, a social worker and who moved to Yahel from the center of Israel with her husband, Itai, an accountant, and their two children, initially lived in Ein Yahav, which is also part of JNF’s Housing Development Fund and has recently expanded to include 84 new housing plots. After living on Ein Yahav for four years, the Arzil family decided to remain in the Arava but to relocate to Kibbutz Yahel. “The Arava is the best place to raise children in Israel,” Arzil said. She compares her kids’ experiences with those being raised in cities. “I’m raising children who are free. They have more confidence and independence.”
“Kids can run free on the kibbutz,” agreed Klein, who now works as security manager for the kibbutz; his wife, Anat, is a kindergarten teacher. “Nature is great. They can see animals, feel the rain, see the mountains, and it’s amazing.”
While life in Yahel is certainly rural, for anyone who still imagines kibbutz life as it was in the 1950s, they’re in for a few surprises. Since Kibbutz Yahel was privatized in the early 2000s, members and residents no longer have to work for the kibbutz and its industries, which include a sizeable date production and packing business along with dairy and vegetable farming operations. “Everybody works wherever they like,” said Klein.
Industries on the kibbutz are now run on a modern business model, and the Central Arava produces over 60% of Israel’s fresh vegetable exports. Contrary to popular perceptions, fewer than 2% of Israelis actually live on kibbutzim, yet they contribute to 40% of the country’s agricultural exports.
A key project of JNF’s Blueprint Negev, Kibbutz Yahel continues to focus on green energy, tourism, and agriculture, and farming. Thanks to leaders like Kibbutz Yahel, the United Nations has even selected the Arava as a global model for water sustainability, and many international researchers visit the area to study Israeli innovation in desalination, drip irrigation, and more.
The kibbutz has also opened itself up to non-member residents, offering a new approach to sustainable, contemporary kibbutz existence. Non-members say they enjoy the same warm, mutually caring relationship with their neighbors that kibbutzim have always boasted. Though with only 80 member families and 80 residents—250 people in total—Yahel is a very small kibbutz, especially compared to nearby dairy giant Kibbutz Yotvata, which has nearly 1,000 members and has never privatized.
Still, Yahel residents don’t lack for company thanks to community events, like weekly sushi nights that attract visitors and residents from other nearby communities. “We’re from the center of the country,” says Arzil. “We know what good sushi is.” Better still, she says, is the good company. “It sounds crazy; the community is smaller, but you end up knowing more people here than you do in the city.”
For Klein, relaxing into life in Kibbutz Yahel has truly been a life-changing experience, one that has allowed him to expand, personally and creatively. “I feel like I’m in a different place sometimes. It’s the best thing that’s happened to me. It’s like good karma.”