Climbing and Connecting

Todd Gilbert | Educator – Western Reserve Academy

Day 7 | 2022 Inside Israel: Educational Leadership Seminar

The actual distance from Nof Ginosar Kibbutz Hotel to the Kibbutz Sasa (in Sasa) is barely 14.5 miles, but because of the terrain and the mountainous landscape, we were forced to drive an additional 12 miles.  The distance wasn’t long, but it was winding, with sharp twists and turns that forced our otherwise gregarious new bus driver (Adell) to keep his focus on the road ahead.  For those of us not tasked with driving, we attempted to take pictures of the land and the sea below (the Galilee).  Each twist of the road presented both a new and breathtaking view, but it was a challenge to take a clear picture through the window.  Regardless, the bus kept climbing and climbing and climbing.

The day before, Avi had shared with us a great deal about the various kibbutzim in Israel — how they were pure, socialist communities; how they were primarily agricultural; and how, in the end, they weren’t particularly successful or at least sustainable — but he also informed us that Kibbutz Sasa was noteworthy as it’s one of the more successful kibbutzim in the country.  He had explained that some of the kibbutzim had found industries outside of agriculture, and that Kibbutz Sasa had done well to create a niche for itself in providing materials (plassan) for both the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) and the US Military.

When we reached what felt like the top of the hill, we arrived at the Kibbutz Sasa and were immediately greeted and welcomed by Gila (the coordinator of our visit).  Like many 0f our hosts on this trip, she acknowledged that it wasn’t typically this cold in March (she had on a puffy, cheetah print winter coat), and she then brought us into the lobby of their club house to warm up and enjoy coffee, tea, and pastries.  Eventually, we made our way into their meeting room where Yoni, a man who had been born in the kibbutz and had served in various roles, gave us a presentation on kibbutz life.  He explained how the kibbutz movement started earlier in the 20th century and how the general approach and philosophy “went against the old, religious Jew world.”  He noted that the original founders had goals to be the spearhead of Zionist vision, and that their values were about sharing and equality.  He stated that the main doctrine in the kibbutz then was the same as it is today: “You get as you need, and you give as you can.” 

Yoni then went into the specific story of the Kibbutz Sasa, covering the early years and the early difficulties, and explaining how “talking about the ideology was easy, but practicing the ideology was difficult.”  Although they had found Jewish tombs from over 2000 years ago in the area (a sign he said that “we’ve been here before”), the land had been a densely packed Muslim village with over 1300 residents before the War of 1948 and so there were both moral issues and logistical issues that they had to confront. He also noted that there was no central infrastructure, and the founders essentially needed to raze everything that was there and start over.  But they knew that would take time, and first, they had to find a way to get water to the top of the mountain.  

Certainly one can read more about the Kibbutz Sasa on websites or watch videos of Yoni on Youtube, but suffice it to say that the members of Kibbutz Sasa had to work hard at everything they did from the very beginning.  They would try something new for their industry – crops, orchards, animals – and when something didn’t work, they would reevaluate, make adjustments, and then keep at it.  But it seemed that with each moment of growth, new obstacles and challenges came.  By the 1970s, the members of Kibbutz Sasa had cleared the ruins, but issues had risen (particularly with second generation mothers who wanted to spend more time with their own children and in their own homes), so they voted to make important changes though they didn’t yet have the space.  The 1980s brought new and significant economic challenges, and the kibbutz lived on a (very) tight budget.  Times were tough, and many of the younger families moved away from kibbutz life (almost a ¼ of the kibbutz).  By the early 1990s, Kibbutz Sasa was bankrupt.  But, as they’ve done in the past, the members again made specific adjustments, and to their great fortune were able to turn their factories into viable production plants, and, as Yoni said, they went from “poverty to abundance.”

Yoni then took us on a tour of the grounds.  He showed us their digital car sharing (they have over 80 cars), their laundry service, their guest houses, and their dining hall, but it was their school buildings and educational system that seemed to give him the most pride. (Perhaps it was because we saw his granddaughter in kindergarten.) It was there where we saw the true philosophy of Kibbutz Sasa and the reason for their success.  As one moves up the hill, one achieves more in education.  Thus, we went from the Baby House (daycare) to the kindergarten and then to the elementary school and eventually up to the top of the hill to the Anne Frank High School.  There, students from all around the surrounding areas and from four different cultures come together, and in that sense, Mibbutz Sasa is something of a microcosm of Israel.  The school is unquestionably impressive, but perhaps most noteworthy is how the school sits on the very top of the hill next to the original water tank from the late 1940s that makes the statement.  A reminder of how they started from the bottom and they keep climbing.

For many educators, teaching and learning is all about starting from one point and rising and climbing together with students.  In that vein, we continued up the physical and metaphorical hill as we went to Michmanim, the highest peak in the lower Galilee to have lunch with Roni, Aya, and a few others who partner with the Jewish federations from Karmiel, Misgav, Pittsburgh, and Warsaw. For us, it was the first time we saw Tsipy since we had arrived in Israel, and when I asked her if I needed a notebook, she said, “Just write it with your brain.”  We had reached a new point on our trip, one that wasn’t about taking notes and reciting details, but one that was about sharing the essence and understandings we had learned. 

Each of us sat at different tables, and I was fortunate to dine with Kim Zeltzman and her beautiful children.  Kim, a director with Partnership2Gether, and an immigrant from the US, noted that the goal of the partnership is to build connections so that Israel isn’t just a place that people hear about, that they want people to make meaningful connections on a more personal level.  After lunch, Roni went a few steps further in creating that personal connection.  She shared that they wanted “to create activities to connect back to the time of our ancestors; to feel with our whole body and soul how it felt for those who came before us.”  
Both Kim’s and Roni’s goals speak to some of the many reasons for our being on this trip:  to connect.  To connect with Israel on levels that are personal and physical, spiritual and tangible, historical and current.  To connect the knowledge we’ve learned, the stories we’ve heard, and the sites we’ve seen and to connect them for our students, friends, and families back home.  We finished today’s journey by arriving at the Dolphin Village in Shavei, just in time to see the sun set over the Mediterranean Sea.  It was a long, but fruitful day, and tomorrow we head to Tel Aviv for what will be our final days in Israel.  But there we still have much to do and much to learn, and whether we take notes in our journals or write them in our brain, we’ll be climbing and connecting wherever we go.

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