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Architecture & DesignJewish History

To Build & To Be Built: Kibbutz History

Oct 3, 2013–Jul 8, 2014

In conjunction with Work in Progress: Considering Utopia, this exhibition explores and celebrates the kibbutz as it starts its second century. To Build & be Built: Kibbutz History focuses on the growth and development of these unique communities which helped create the infrastructure and culture of the State of Israel, and which are now transforming themselves as Israel becomes increasingly urban and capitalistic. The influence of the kibbutz on national and Bay Area culture—including many summer camps, youth movements, and “intentional communities”—is also addressed.


To Build & Be Built: Kibbutz History sets the stage for visitors’ understanding of the kibbutz—one of the most interesting social experiments of the twentieth century and a concept rooted in Jewish teaching. Through approximately thirty photographic images and selected ephemera drawn from important archives and museum collections, as well as sound, moving images, and interpretive text, this intimate exhibition presents a concise overview of the history of the kibbutz movement in Israel, from the early settlements of 1909 to the present day. It also looks at the transformation of the kibbutz as Israel has become increasingly urban and modernized, and the movement’s influence on American and Bay Area Jewish life.

The birth of the kibbutz was a combination of ideology and practical need. The earliest waves of European Jewish pioneers responded to the harsh climate and primitive living conditions of their new home by banding together to create working groups that pooled earnings. With strong Zionist and socialist beliefs, the mostly young pioneers championed the idea that in a Jewish homeland, they would be free of the social and economic restrictions they faced in Europe and so shaped the structure of the kibbutz around communal life and property and a deep connection to the land. Among the movement’s radical social innovations was a policy of raising children not with their parents, but together in their own dormitories.

In 1948, during the Israeli War of Independence, the role of kibbutzim in defining and defending territory became especially clear. With the creation of the State of Israel, the kibbutz inspired Jewish youth movements and summer camps around the world to encourage teens to travel to Israel and work the land.

With the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel, the influence of the kibbutz in Israeli life began to diminish. Government policies and their alignment with the capitalist West contributed to this decline, as well as disenchantment with collective child rearing and the new comforts of modern technology.

Starting in the 1980s, many kibbutzim were privatized due to various economic pressures, and kibbutzniks began to rethink their purpose. Today, a significant number of kibbutzim have evolved to become models of urban farming and eco-learning, with summer camps for youth and hotel accommodations for guests. Cities in Israel have seen the creation of “Urban Kibbutzim” that focus on serving the communities in which they are based. The kibbutz’s do-it-yourself ethics and care of the land endure and continue to inspire community planners, youth groups, environmental activists, and artists in Israel and the United States.

image gallery

Work in Progress: Considering Utopia and To Build & Be Built: Kibbutz History are organized by The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco. Major sponsorship for the exhibitions is provided by Gaia Fund. Supporting sponsorship has been provided by The Lucius N. Littauer Foundation. Additional support provided by Eta and Sass Somekh.

Major support for The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s exhibitions and Jewish Peoplehood Programs comes from the Koret Foundation.

Image Credit

Harvesting, 1934. Yeshiva University Museum, New York. To Build & Be Built: Kibbutz History. On view October 2, 2013–July 1, 2014 at The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco.