Israeli Life: The Kibbutz at Twilight
Once considered the best places to grow up, Israel’s iconic collectives are now known as the best places in the country to grow old.
Shaul and Lydia Eisenberg are taking a leisurely walk along Kibbutz Givat Brenner’s main road, a rustic lane with chirping birds and the occasional whoosh of a passing cyclist. The magnificent ficus trees on both sides of the road form a protective green canopy. Planted 80 years ago, they are—like everything else on this kibbutz—mature.
Lydia Eisenberg, who suffers from severe dementia, stares benignly down the shaded path as her son, Shaul, pushes her along in her wheelchair. Five years ago, at age 81, Eisenberg left Haifa to move here.
She is one of thousands of Israelis who have chosen to spend their twilight years on one of the country’s trademark collectives. Although they are not members, the kibbutz is their home.
Eisenberg lives at beit Almog, a nursing home at Givat Brenner, near the city of Rehovot. In the last decade, dozens of nursing and retirement homes in kibbutzim throughout Israel have opened their doors to the public to help defray the high cost of caring for aging members.
Some 85 kibbutzim (out of a total of 274) run government-licensed nursing homes authorized to take in nonmembers. In addition, several dozen run retirement homes (assisted living without skilled nursing), also open to outsiders. Kibbutzniks make up less than 2 percent of the population of Israel, but they now provide 2,000 nursing-home beds—about 10 percent of all available beds in the country.
Most kibbutzim do not offer luxurious accommodations; nursing homes are often situated in older, patchwork buildings that have undergone repeated renovations, and the décor is usually simple. Prices are reasonable, but not substantially less than the rest of the market, which ranges from $2,000 to $4,000 a month.
But the spacious grounds and tranquil atmosphere draw outsiders. Even more of a factor is the sense that kibbutz nursing homes are more like family enterprises than businesses—a last bastion of caring and decency toward the elderly.
“I don’t think my mother could get better care anywhere else,” says Shaul Eisenberg, an economist from Hod Ha-Sharon, who scoured the country for a suitable place for his mother after she had a traumatic fall in 2002. “The level of care is the best there is. You won’t find that personal touch in private nursing homes in cities.”
“It’s true that profit concerns us less than yahas [how we relate to people],” acknowledges Orit Gal-Or, director of senior citizen affairs for Givat Brenner’s 27-bed Beit Almog and its sheltered living facility, Beit Shikma. “My high school physics teacher is in the nursing home here. So is the woman who took care of me when I was in kindergarten. These people raised us. I have deep respect for them, so I see the nursing home as more of an extended family than a business.
“One reason outsiders want to come here,” adds Gal-Or, who was born on the kibbutz, “is they understand that our guiding principles are equality for everyone and respect for the individual to his or her last day.”
Hagar reeb, the red-haired, freckled and dynamic housemother of Beit Shikma, exemplifies that attitude. Her day begins at 5:30 in the morning when she helps the early risers to shower and then leads them through a flurry of activities until 12:30. Then she races into the kitchen, next emerging with a tray of mushroom and potato blintzes she has baked herself. Beit Shikma gets most of its food from a caterer, but Reeb cannot resist adding to the menu.
A native of Givat Brenner, Reeb asked to work with the elderly nearly 20 years ago. “I love hearing their meises,” she says, using the Yiddish word for stories. She gathered the life stories of most of the current residents and presented to each of them—nine members and six nonmembers—a self-printed and bound booklet of their personal history; a collection of all the stories are in the kibbutz archive.
“The entire staff, including kitchen workers, are members of the kibbutz,” she notes with pride. “We see the home as part of the larger community.”
Like many kibbutz homes for the elderly, Beit Shikma and Beit Almog are situated at the center of the grounds, near the dining hall. That’s no coincidence, says Yael Eisner, director of the social welfare and health department for the entire kibbutz movement. “What is distinct about the nursing and retirement homes on kibbutzim is that they are not separate,” she explains. “They are not in a ‘ghetto,’ but at the very hub of the kibbutz. This is an expression of the way the elderly are seen on kibbutzim. They were the founders; they remain at the heart of the kibbutz.”
Residents see not only each other, but a constant flow of young people. It is common for children to visit the homes for Kabbalat Shabbat and holidays. At the same time, most boast an intimate atmosphere, with fewer than 24 beds.
There is a certain bittersweet irony to this development. The kibbutz, once considered the best place to grow up, is now considered the best place to grow old.
At Givat Brenner, veteran member Nurit Sichuk recalls how “the parents used to gather outside the children’s home at the end of the day to feed their kids and put them to bed. It was a social experience—everyone would meet everyone outside the children’s home.
“Now, this is the place for those social encounters,” she exclaims, pointing to Beit Almog. “Every day around 6 in the evening, the members congregate around the nursing home to visit their parents, have dinner with them and,” she adds with a sigh, “put them to bed.”
In some cases, the homes have taken the place of children’s homes not only figuratively but physically, with pensioners living in structures that once housed infants. Caregivers who once looked after the youngest members are now looking after the oldest ones.
These changes have been unavoidable given the graying of kibbutzim. On 128 of the collectives, pensioners comprise 20 to 30 percent of the total membership; on 26, they make up 30 to 40 percent; and on 10, over 40 percent, according to the 2005 annual report of the kibbutz movement (the latest one available). That has made nursing homes for members a necessity, but a necessity that financially strapped kibbutzim can barely afford.
“A kibbutz can’t pay for 24-hour nursing care required by two members,” explains Hagay Fuchs of Kibbutz Sede Nachum and director of the Mul Carmel nursing home at Kibbutz Sha’ar Ha’amakim. “By taking in outsiders, kibbutzim can afford to take care of their own members and offer top-quality care to everyone. It’s a win-win situation.”
The positive reputation of these nursing homes stands in sharp contrast to the overall image of the kibbutz. Few institutions have lost as much of their luster in recent years. Financially irresponsible, ideologically bankrupt, elitist, racist—what accusation has not been leveled at these communes since their heyday? Yet many Israelis are opting to place their aging parents in kibbutzim, even though these new clients do not espouse traditional kibbutz ideals.
Take Meir Neuman, a haredi lawyer from Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv. When his mother was 75, he brought her to a kibbutz nursing home in the Beit Shean area.
“I know it’s unusual for a haredi man to choose a secular kibbutz, but I wanted the best possible care for my mother,” he explains. After looking at many facilities, he chose a kibbutz home (with kosher food) because “it didn’t feel like an institution,” he says. “It gave me a sense of home that didn’t exist anywhere else. There was such a positive attitude toward the elderly. Frankly, I couldn’t believe it because I thought that values on the kibbutz had eroded.”
“The kibbutzim have undergone privatization, but at their foundations, the character of the members hasn’t changed,” notes Shaul Eisenberg. “You see people working here not for money, but out of a sense of devotion to the elderly.” Running these homes—for members and outsiders—is “a constant balancing act,” as Gal-Or puts it.
“On the one hand,” she continues, “the kibbutz members want outsiders in the nursing home so that they are not burdened with the full cost of running it. On the other hand, they want to know that there is always enough place in the nursing home for any member in need.”
Some nursing homes, such as the one at Givat Brenner, keep a few beds vacant in case members need them. But running a home that way can be expensive.
Mul Carmel takes a different approach. The nursing home, about 9 miles southeast of Haifa, was built as a for-profit enterprise that serves kibbutzniks but also discerning clientele from outside. The attractive facility, which has a lobby that looks like it belongs in an upscale hotel, has no vacancies. In fact, it is filled beyond capacity (nursing homes are allowed to exceed their limit by 10 percent).
“It’s expensive to run a top-notch place like this, so we can’t afford to keep rooms empty,” explains Fuchs. At present, it houses 10 members and 56 nonmembers.
And if a kibbutz member needs a place in the home? “He’ll have to wait until one opens up,” says Fuchs, adding that in the meantime, that member is cared for through other means, such as by a caregiver or at another, smaller, nursing facility at Sha’ar Ha’amakim.
Mul Carmel is definitely the jewel of kibbutz nursing homes and one of the best equipped of any in the region. Its bay windows reveal a breathtaking view of the lush green Carmel mountain range, and its services include cognitive exercise classes and a specially licensed dementia unit.
“We attract the top echelon, the cream of the crop,” says Fuchs, running through an impressive list of clientele (including a former head of the Israeli Air Force and an esteemed philosopher) who have chosen to place a parent at the facility.
The cost of Mul Carmel reflects its exclusivity: $3,100 a month for the regular nursing ward; $3,600 for the dementia ward. Fuchs admits that there is a certain irony to having prosperous Israelis pay top dollar to live out their days on a kibbutz affiliated with the once ardently socialist Ha-Shomer Ha-Za’ir movement.
“It can sometimes be awkward with the very wealthy,” notes Aya Rosen, housemother at Mul Carmel. “We go out of our way to tend to the needs of all the residents—we see it as a mission, not a job. Yet, I will sometimes be approached by the son of a nonmember who says that he expects more because he is paying good money. I explain that his parent gets the same devoted care as anyone else. Some people think that everything is a function of money. But it’s not that way on a kibbutz.”
At least, not yet.
In the era of privatization, many kibbutz members have begun asking: Will there be room for us in the nursing home? Michael Bar, the superintendent at Mul Carmel, isn’t so sure. “Today, the kibbutz is willing to take care of me,” says Bar, 65, a veteran member of Sha’ar Ha’amakim. “But who knows what will be tomorrow?”
So, like a growing number of kibbutz members from all over the country, Bar has purchased private nursing insurance to pay for any additional care he might need.
Currently, the kibbutz movement guarantees nursing care for any member in need. This may be in his kibbutz’s own nursing home (if it has one), in a nearby kibbutz or through a live-in caretaker. The member is expected to use his or her own pension, social security stipend and rent income toward that end; if this is insufficient, his or her kibbutz makes up the difference.
At Mul Carmel, however, the nursing home receives a substantially lower rate for members than for outsiders, making it financially more attractive to bring in nonmembers. Fuchs, however, insists that members in need get top priority.
Every member has the right to nursing home care,” declares Yael Eisner. “It is part of our basic values. We will not cast aside our elderly.”
“With privatization, the whole model of the kibbutz has changed,” says Gal-Or of Givat Brenner. “Who can promise me that the young generation will treat me the way I treated my parents and grandparents?”
If kibbutz nursing homes become like any other for-profit retirement facilities, it will be a devastating blow for kibbutzniks who could, after a lifetime of communal living, find themselves out in the cold.
And if the kibbutz community becomes totally privatized it would probably mean a loss for nonmembers such as Lydia Eisenberg and her family. Eisenberg’s eyes light up as she watches the children splashing in the kibbutz pool.
“Here she seems at peace,” says Shaul Eisenberg, watching his mother, a former partisan who spent her adolescence in the forests outside Krakow. Seated in her wheelchair, she sings a medley of songs—a Polish lullaby, a Hebrew folk song, a Yiddish classic. Eisenberg admits he is not sure what he would have done without this place.
That is because over the last decade, Eisenberg and many other Israelis have discovered something new about the much-maligned kibbutz: When it comes to taking care of the elderly, nobody does it better.