Nov 16, 2008
When in 1946 my parents and I returned from the Soviet Union to our
native Poland and saw the devastation caused by the Holocaust, we
wanted to make our way to what soon would become the State of Israel.
In preparation, I was sent to a kibbutz, an Israeli-style collective
I hated it from the outset. Having lived during World War II in one
room together with several other families, I couldn't face yet
another dose of collective existence. My aversion has continued. An
intense craving for privacy has stayed with me to this day.
It took members of the Israeli kibbutzim, once the pride and joy of
the country, another generation to come to similar conclusions. The
bourgeois lifestyle finally overwhelmed socialist indoctrination. As
a result, with few exceptions, the kibbutz has ceased to exist in the
way it was intended. Most of those who live there now lead middle-class lives.
But, despite the failure of the Israeli experiment, the human desire
to be tangibly connected to others has remained strong. It seems to
be universal. That's behind the co-housing movement. It started in
Denmark in the 1960s and has since spread to many countries,
including Israel and a few in Canada. As a kind of halfway between
the capitalist and the socialist way of life, families live in
individual homes, but there's also shared space for eating,
recreation and children's activities.
The promotional literature tells us that "the need for community
members to take care of common property builds a sense of working
together, trust and support." Communities are nonhierarchical;
decisions are almost invariably made by consensus. The aim is to
"improve the world, one neighbourhood at a time." Members see
themselves as partners in a grassroots peace movement.
The mission statements are touching. One community says its goal is
to create a place "where lives are simplified, the Earth is
respected, diversity is welcomed, children play together in safety
and living in community with neighbours comes naturally." Outsiders
may see this as an idealistic, albeit somewhat naive, way of dodging
the rat race.
None of the co-housing projects stipulates a shared economy, which
was the cornerstone of the kibbutz ideology, or a set of common
religious beliefs, once the ideal of Christian and other monastic
communes. Instead, they want to invest in "social capital."
It's difficult to fault the good intentions. As members of a Canadian
community told listeners in a radio program last August, allowing for
periodic frustrations with some individuals, the overall experience
is very rewarding. They spoke of their lives as family dynamics.
Their driving force seems to be a wholesome modification of the
strictures that modern capitalist society imposes on us.
Despite the comforts and opportunities, living in the modern world is
very difficult, even when preferable to its alternatives. A
compromise between privacy and economic independence on the one hand
– the fruits of capitalism for those who succeed in it – and
collective existence on the other – envisaged once by socialist
dreamers – may be the answer for some. It's not likely to be the
solution for many.
There are other ways of being in the world without being of it. A
community based not on geographic proximity but on spiritual and
cultural affinity seems to provide a more satisfying way of life.
Many of us find it in our temples, mosques, churches and synagogues.
Dow Marmur is rabbi emeritus at Toronto's Holy Blossom Temple. His
column appears every other week.