A day spent in Israel’s most successful kibbutz – Ma’agan Michael, home to surf champions – by the Mediterranean sea
It was on a Sunday, at half past 10 in the morning, that we drove 70km north of Tel Aviv. I may or may not have been extremely tired from the Pub Crawl I had joined the night before. I was with my cousin Kristen, who had not gone out with me, and so was in relatively better spirits.
(If you were entertaining the idea of doing the same, I would say ‘it’s not worth it’ to go out on a Saturday in Tel Aviv. Do Thursday or Friday, because their work week is from Sunday to Thursday…)
I didn’t get much sleep on the bus because our driver was extremely chatty. (In Israel, the level of English is incredibly advanced, but I won’t go into the why’s and how’s of that right now.)
“The Turks were jerks,” said the driver. “They cut down all the trees.” He was referring to the time Palestine was under the Ottoman occupation (prior to WW1). Our driver that day really cared about the sparse trees in Israel, he kept pointing them out as we passed them. He said during the state-building process, the Israelis coming in did research about what to plant given the landscape, climate, and people’s needs. Their research brought them to a species found on the other side of the world – the Eucalyptus.
The tree is originally from Australia and was brought to Israel years ago as an aid to dry out swamps. Drying out the swamps significantly reduced the amount of mosquitos in Israel. By reducing the amount of mosquitos the risk of Malaria decreased. The Eucalyptus is recognized for its fast growth and fast reproductive qualities, an evergreen tree which blossoms almost all year around. (Arts and Crafts Israel)
“There were swamps everywhere over here,” the driver pointed out to a bushy area in the middle of the sand. “Sickness everywhere when we arrived. No trees, they had cut them all down. We had to drain all the swamps.”
It was a beautiful sunny spring day. A bit chilly, since winter came late this year, but you can usually depend on loads of sun in Israel, as I learned over my three-week stay between March and April. I thanked my past self for packing in a couple of hats to protect my face from the unrelenting stream of sunlight..
Our guide that day was a wonderfully positive woman named Neta Hanien. She grew up in the kibbutz and knew everything about that area like the back of her hand. I reached out to her by e-mail to ask her more questions as I was the furthest thing from chatty that day, but she hasn’t replied yet. (Watch this space!)
Did you know that kibbutz Ma’agan Michael is also a surf spot? Click here to get the surf forecast!
Neta told us that she founded a guesthouse – a social business – for travelers interested in learning Hebrew, immersing in Kibbutz life, and surfing(!!). It’s in the Arab village of Jisr az Zarka, and she discovered it as a surfer scouting out waves in the area. Apparently a lot of surfing champions were born and bred at Ma’agan Michael, because of their upbringing close to the sea. Their educational setup includes one whole school day per week focused purely on watersports. Now that’s an education!
What is a kibbutz?
“Kibbutz” is the Hebrew word for “group” and generally, it refers to a communal living environment in the socialist model. The notion of a “kibbutz” started back in the early 1900’s when Russian immigrants immigrated to Israel and wanted to establish shared living communities where the give and the take would be equal. Ever since then, the notion of a “kibbutz” has grown to become the world’s largest (and most successful) communitarian movement. (Erin’s Adventures in Israel)
About Ma’agan Michael
When Ma’agan Michael (Hebrew for ‘Michael’s Anchorage’) was founded in 1949, members shared the utopian values of working the land for a common purpose. They only numbered 30 in the community, at first focusing on fishing and farming.
According to Neta, most of the original members were from Germany, Austria, and South Africa. As was common throughout the kibbutz movement, they shared everything from food to socks and underwear and sometimes even partners (!). Until the 1980’s, children slept in the “Beit Yeladim,” or children’s house, instead of at their parents’ homes.
There are about 270 kibbutzim in Israel, of which about a fifth remain collective communes. The kibbutzim that have remained fully socialistic tend to be some of the wealthiest communes. Kibbutz Yotvata, in the Arava desert, for instance, has held on to its collective status because it built one of the largest dairies in Israel. Ein Hashofet, 27 kilometers east of Ma’agan Michael, owns three profitable companies, including a Tennessee factory that makes auto parts. (Bloomberg)
How did Ma’agan Michael get so rich?
Several kibbutzim found themselves in dire economic situations moving into the modern economy. As a result, they’ve had to say goodbye to their egalitarian system. But the opposite was the case for Ma’agan Michael, which founded a plastic factory named Plasson in 1964. Their annual sales of plastic connectors for pipes and systems for feeding poultry amounted to $270 million in 2013. The company’s products are being sold in 80 countries, providing jobs to about 250 to 300 kibbutz members in Israel, employing 1,200 workers globally. (Bloomberg)
The kibbutz controls Plasson’s board and the majority of its publicly traded shares. Managers mostly hail from Ma’agan Michael, and their salaries go to the community. Each member-executive receives the kibbutz-standard paycheck (around $20,000 a year). Neta quoted their monthly allowance at ILS10,000 shekels a month, or US$2,740.
Ma’agan Michael’s system has worked because the kibbutz earns enough to give each member comfortable homes and free education through college. However, Neta said the youth are becoming less motivated to do well seeing as their futures are secured thanks to their community’s shared wealth…
In the kibbutz, everyone gets the same salary no matter where or how much they work. Outside of the system, middle class Israelis struggle with soaring prices for everything (I noticed quality of life was as expensive as in the US). In stark contrast, young couples at Ma’agan Michael automatically get a job and a home by the sea. They would never worry about affording a living, raising kids, and other concerns we normal humans are faced with.
Before they’re 30 (the age at which you officially become part of the kibbutz), Ma’agan Michael’s members can choose to forego their kibbutz membership with a ‘separation package’ of around $17,000. But I imagine the only way they’d let go of such a privileged life was if they were earning exponentially more outside of the system.
Leaders in the kibbutz are now discussing contingency plans in the event that Plasson will not continue to be as successful as it has been over the last few decades. What happens if they can no longer pay the dividends that account for 3/5’s of Ma’agan Michael’s revenue?
You give what you can and you get what you need — Neta Hanien
We had lunch in the kibbutz communal dining hall, which cooks food for over a thousand people everyday. It was buffet-style, nutritious, and delicious (as is most food in Israel). I was getting a lot of curious looks and smiles – which by that point I was already used to as a young Asian woman in Israel. The middle aged Israeli woman at the counter asked me point blank where I was from. They just want to know.
– 10:30 – Depart from Abraham Hostel Tel Aviv
– 11:30 – Meet with your Guide, a local Kibbutz member, for a tour of the Kibbutz
– 13:15 – Lunch in the Kibbutz dining room
– 14:30 – Head back to Tel Aviv
– 15:30 – Arrive back at Abraham Hostel Tel Aviv
On doing the kibbutz as a tour
I normally don’t like tours, but in Israel they were kind of necessary as there’s no public transportation to most places away from the main cities. The alternative is to rent a car, but in the end I appreciated going on all the tours I did because they put us in touch with well-spoken local guides who shed insight we wouldn’t otherwise have gotten on our own.
I noticed in general Israelis are very well-educated, logical, curious, friendly, and incredibly direct. The first few days I was shocked at how ‘aggressive’ people seemed, but later I realized they are straightforward as a culture regardless of age or gender. (This is all of course based on my experience, not meaning to generalize!)
All the tours I did were in partnership with Abraham Tours – an operator catered towards more adventurous and youthful travellers. I really appreciated the small group sizes (around 12 maximum, according to the seats in the van), and the interesting people we met along the way. A lot of their tours are self guided, so basically they just bring you to a place and you explore on your own.
The Kibbutz Experience Tour departs every Sunday and Wednesday from Tel Aviv. Price per person was 220 NIS / 56€ / 60$ / 48£. Online payment automatically reserves your space on the system.
If you have more time, you can also opt to do longer North of Israel Tours!
Don’t hesitate to leave a comment or question, I would be more than happy to hear from you! 🙂