Changing times, changing kibbutzim

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MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: As Jewish people all over the world sit down to celebrate Passover this evening, they may think of relatives who live or once lived on a kibbutz in Israel. But the image and reality of the kibbutz has changed since the movement began early in the 20th Century. At that time everything was communal and no one was supposed to have more than his neighbor. But as more younger people abandon these communities older members have had to make big changes. Shia Levitt reports.


SHIA LEVITT: In the early socialist kibbutz, there was a deal: Each person worked according to his ability without a salary and the kibbutz gave him everything he needed in return — from food to medical care to housing.

The system relied on younger members to run the kibbutz and care for the elderly. In a way, the youth were the pension plan.

Then an economic crisis and other problems hit the kibbutz, says economist Amir Helman.

AMIR HELMAN: In one kibbutz it was very famous. Suddenly all the young people left, and kibbutz is bankrupt. They have cows and the agriculture, but they could not work. They were old. And they could not buy food.

For the past 20 years, about 50 percent of the youth have left the kibbutz. National membership has declined by more than a fourth.

HELMAN: People in many kibbutzim said, this could happen even in our kibbutz, that we become very old and no one care for us.

In the mid-1990s, many kibbutzim started small pension accounts as safety nets, one for each member. When the kibbutz switched to a free-market system in 2000, members started to get their own salaries and became responsible for contributions to their own personal pensions.

On Kibbutz Alumot in northern Israel, Esti Rosen sits outside on her front porch. She says, if there were no pension fund when she and her husband retire, they would only have a social security check.

ESTI ROSEN: You get something from the state, but it's not enough to live. And then, when you get the pension, altogether it's going to be OK for everyone. I hope.

Although everyone's glad to have some pension money guaranteed, some folks fear it won't be enough.

Anita Habib worked for more than three decades, but she never opened a bank account or used a credit card until the kibbutz privatized.

As she unloads milk, hummus and pita bread from her grocery bags, she says the new system is great for people with high salaries.

ANITA HABIB: I mean I at the moment am out of work, and I can't afford to put into the pension fund as well. You know, I have to buy stuff from the supermarket and gotta live. So it's like a low priority, it becomes a very low priority.

But Anita still prefers having a pension instead of the old system, which she feared might not have been around to provide for her at all.

In northern Israel, I'm Shia Levitt for Marketplace.

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