This description of a personal visit to Kibbutz Neot Semadar was written by ALEPH member Roger Dreyfus and edited for Kol ALEPH by Chanah Zimmerman.
Kibbutz Neot Semadar is a place in which one can experience a society of mutual love and understanding, where interpersonal problems are regarded as learning opportunities, where personal growth is more important than productivity and where, although people work hard, life is lived simply, healthily and at a human pace. Daily meetings are held for each of the various workgroups as well as the entire kibbutz which end with five minutes of silence. Meals are eaten in a grateful but non-dogmatic silence. On Shabbat, especially Erev Shabbat, musicians play, sing and dance together.
Established in 1989, Kibbutz Neot Semadar is located in the southern Negev roughly 60 miles north of Eilat. Their philosophy is best summed up as a learning community in which the focus is on mutual cooperation and creativity in daily life. The core of their belief is to practice mindfulness in their everyday life. In order to remind themselves that mindfulness is a spiritual practice, they drop into silence or sit down in groups and spend quiet time together several times daily.
Like other kibbutzim in Israel, the residents live and work together for the benefit of the entire community while exploring what it means to “live together” as co-learners. About 90 adult members and about 70 children live on the kibbutz along with around 50 volunteers of all ages.
Volunteers have the opportunity to learn to milk goats, pluck organic dates or pack organic olives while learning Hebrew on an individual basis. These same volunteers also become part of a group that includes some native Israelis who are learning to live in a group environment with the assistance of a team of Kibbutz Neot Semadar’s founding members.
Visiting Neot Semadar and the representatives we had met at an environmental/ spiritual conference in Switzerland was an amazing experience: I who am usually a “speedy” and argumentative guy like many from the “tribe”, became so calm and peaceful for the 5 days at the kibbutz that I could not believe it. It was like “coming home at last”.
Some feelings I had, reminded me of my first trip to Israel in 1963 (The pre-Six Day War Israel!) with my youth group, where we stayed and worked in a Kibbutz in the Negev. I experienced the sense of idealism from those days.
One of the most interesting aspects of their daily life, I discovered, is the fact that most of them hold several very different jobs at the same time. In this way, work doesn’t become boring routine. Obviously, this is not the case for managerial jobs like the general manager of the kibbutz or – say – the manager of the food processing facility: They accept their job for 2-5 years, then move on to a less demanding job, and might cycle back some years later into the same or a similar position, if the kibbutz’s needs and their abilities and wishes match. However, everybody is also on duty in the kitchen, cleaning dishes or guarding the kibbutz at night once in a while.
People also change their houses every few years in order not to get too attached: here again, the goal is, to prevent people from getting into routines so deeply that they lose their opportunity to experience mindfulness in everyday life.
A major source of income for the kibbutz is art. The inhabitants of the kibbutz developed a type of architecture which contains tall towers that serve as effective swamp coolers. The tower, which took 13 years to build, for the kibbutz’s Art & Craft center is of this type. Dwellings for the inhabitants consist of a blend of modest prefabs and newer houses which contain towers with “swamp coolers” a simple, low tech form of air conditioning.
One of the most impressive projects of the community is their “midrasha” (learning center) which currently caters only to Israelis between after the army and under age 40 who are searching for a different meaning of life in very tense society. Richard Dreyfus had the opportunity to interview some of the graduates of a seminar. He was deeply impressed both by what the graduates had to say about their program and how the program had changed their perspective on their lives and relationships.
Seminar students work constructing the seminar and guest facilities in the morning while the students spend the afternoon learning about themselves in the group. Since the midrasha has been recognized by the Jewish Agency for their five month Heritage program, the seminar will eventually integrate young Diaspora Jews as well. If you’d like to send your college age child to Neot Semadar, I would suggest you make your arrangements through the Jewish Heritage Program. Through this program, the Jewish agency gives each student who wants to spend five months in Israel, $3000.00 USD to cover the cost of the experience.
So what does an average day at Neot Semadar look like? By 6:00 a.m. people are trickling into the dining hall for tea or coffee in silence before heading off to work which is interrupted by breakfast at 8:00 a.m. Lunch is between 1:00 and 2:00 p.m. and supper is later in the day.
Once a week, late in the evening there is a meeting for the adult members in a special meeting hall were their inner work is discussed. Problems that arise are discussed in a very personal but respectful way. The base of the gentleness with which they interact amongst themselves as well as with others may well lie in here. This is only a guess, since these meetings are only open to members.
Once a week there is also structured self expressive dancing to live music; everybody living at the kibbutz is invited to partake in it. The members regard these dances as an important part of their mutual communication. Groups are formed so participants can sing together. Additionally, courses in the arts are offered, weaving being one example.
I don’t believe that Neot Semadar represents today’s mainstream Israel. This kibbutz is a reminder of the old pioneer kibbutzin which can instill us with the hope of a new community model of solidarity capable of sending the message as a, “light unto the nations,” far beyond the turmoil of Israel and her neighbors.
Roger Dreyfus is a psychiatrist and psychotherapist in Basel, Switzerland, where he co-founded a Jewish Renewal community in 1982. He is also founder of the Swiss chapter of the New Israel Fund , where he serves on the board. Roger lived and worked in Israel 1992-96.