Participants at the Jewish Intentional Communities Conference, planning together. (Photo credit: Levi Gershkowitz)
Participants at the Jewish Intentional Communities Conference, planning together. (Photo credit: Levi Gershkowitz)

“I’m tired of urban living,” I had become accustomed to repeating to friends and family, “and I wonder when I will get fed up, pack my bags, and head to a farm.” My escapes from Boston to the countryside are a regular habit, as I seek out abundant professional and personal excuses to breathe fresh rural air, have long conversations on porches, turn off screens, and get working with my hands. So, last week, I headed down to the inaugural Jewish Intentional Communities Conference in rural Maryland. I was looking forward to gaining resources, ideas, and contacts for the day that I might finally “break free” of city life and join or help start an intentional community in the open spaces of New England.

It was the words of James Grant-Rosenhead, co-founder of the activist kibbutzim movement in Israel, which made me pause. Hearing him speak, I realized that I am living a lifestyle just as close to my ideals in Boston as I could in the backwoods. The key for me is not my community’s landscape, it is my community’s mission.

I am blessed to live at Moishe Kavod House, where I serve as one of five resident organizers for a pluralistic Jewish community dedicated to social justice. Our communal home in Brookline is a hub for about 400 Jewish young adults. As James put it, activist kibbutzim in Israel and communities like ours in the States are on a new frontier; not the traditional frontiers of  borders, but the edges of progress where we work towards income equality, strong local foods systems, interfaith cooperation, environmental stewardship, violence prevention, and more.

Kibbutzim, which began as small socialist intentional communities, established the borders of pre-1948 Israel before the occupation. They were the frontier, where freedom and equality met hard work and communal life. For James, who came of age during later days of the cold war, Marxism and pure capitalism were two extremes – the first was a tyranny of alleged equality, and the second valued individual freedom over mutual responsibility. During extended trips to Israel as a young man, he came to think of the kibbutzim as an ideal balance.

During an economic crisis in the 1980s, almost all of the kibbutzim privatized. Members had once shared their income equally. The crisis tore apart this social fabric and led to privatized assets. Communal dining halls emptied. James described feeling immense disenchantment when the crisis settled. At about my age, in his mid twenties, he made aliyah – moved to Israel – with two friends in the late 1990s and co-founded Kibbutz Mishol in Jerusalem (they now have 80 members, moved to Nazareth Illit in northern Israel, and helped launch a network of five new activist kibbutzim with hundreds of members). Any reflection on Middle East history brings elephants into the room – the purpose of this article is not to express a political belief about Israel, but to offer a reflection on how the the kibbutz movement is relevant to North America today.

Since becoming a young adult, I have spent more time in countryside than on the paved streets of my home-city of Boston. I have enjoyed the cornfields of Ohio, southern New England’s mountainsides, the open ocean, kibbutzim in southern Israel, and the hills of central Appalachia in the American south. In each place, I have sought out intentional communities where people share their resources, support each other like family, and work together to repair the world. Last march, five years after I first left Boston for Oberlin College, I moved into Moishe Kavod House.

Since moving in, my desire to depart urban life has held strong in my kishkes, my gut feeling. As James described his community’s work as the “new chalutziut,” new pioneering, that desire began to loosen – although I do still prefer gardens over sidewalks, and the voices of animals over the screeching of cars. Working at the new chalutziut, James explained, we are settling the frontier of justice and freedom. Our community lives simply here at Moishe Kavod House, as we link up with other people taking charge of social causes around our city. We strive to create a community that is a microcosm of our vision for the world.

Many thanks to the Pearlstone Center and Hazon for their hard work toward producing the Jewish Intentional Communities Conference.

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Learn more about the organizers of the Jewish Intentional Communities Conference: Hazon, and the Pearlstone Center.