From eco villages to rural holiday resorts, one of Israel’s most influential ideas has had to change with the times.

In a country of hi-tech start-ups, the kibbutz remains perhaps the most influential idea to come out of Israel. However, the modern definition of the word, which comes from the Hebrew for "group", is something of an enigma. To some, a kibbutz is a co-operative voluntary community, to others it is an agricultural or industrial village – and to a growing number of travellers, it is an alternative way to kick back and enjoy the country views.  

A changing way of life
Once associated with communism – people living and working together on a non-competitive basis – many kibbutzim have rebranded themselves as rural holiday resorts or eco-villages to ensure they stay relevant in the 21st Century.

Set up in 1927, the United Kibbutz Movement was strictly secular. It encouraged equality of the sexes and supported the establishment of the State of Israel. The early kibbutzniks (residents) were mostly agricultural workers who received no wage, but also had no rent or bills. The goal was to create an egalitarian, secular community where all meals were shared and everyone played a part in the welfare of the kibbutz. By 1950, more than 67,000 people were living on 214 kibbutzim, 4.5% of the overall population. Today about 106,000 people live on 260 kibbutzim, accounting for just 1.5% of Israel's population.

So what happened to this idyllic way of life? Ze'ev Shabetai, son of one of the founders of Kibbutz Beit Oren in the Carmel Mountain forest, said that the big changes started in 1985 when there was economic crisis and hyperinflation. "The government, under Shimon Peres [the current president], introduced the New Israeli Shekel currency and lowered inflation drastically from 450% to 20% to halt the crisis,” he explained. “At the same time more than half of the people left the kibbutz [which had become bankrupt].”

Almost overnight, Beit Oren – like many other communities – transformed to become a “renewed kibbutz”, changing its whole system from income sharing to differential wages, meaning some received higher salaries than others. Many people no longer felt connected to the original socialist ideology. "This is Israel's perestroika," observed Shabetai at the time, comparing it to the opening-up of the former Soviet Union.

Traveller sanctuaries
Kibbutzim have a long tradition of welcoming volunteers from overseas. These travellers usually worked in the fields picking fruit and were rewarded with free accommodation and food, much like the permanent residents. Although people can still register to the Kibbutz Volunteer Program, the majority of visitors are now paying guests.

Beit Oren, which literally means "home of the pine", was one of the first to open a guest house in 1942, and it soon became a popular stay for Europeans looking to escape the harsh summer heat in other parts of the country. The Beit Oren Hotel, which is still in operation, has 30 pleasant rooms offering bed and breakfast, as well as a yoga centre and a swimming pool. Guests can visit the nearby city of Haifa, a horse-riding farm, the Ein Hod artists' village and go hiking in the forest.

"The kibbutz offers a special way of life," Shabetai said. "The ideology of kibbutzim from the beginning was not only to be agricultural, but it could also be a place of industry and even tourism."

Almost half of Israel’s 260 kibbutzim, from the Golan Heights down to the Arava Desert, now offer hotel-style rooms. In fact, most of the kibbutzim around Lake Galilee, a popular tourist destination in the north of Israel, such as Maagan Eden, Ein Gev, Lavi and Ginosar, are fully-fledged resorts with heated swimming pools, gyms, spa treatments, wi-fi and multimedia conference rooms. Although the income earned is shared between the families who still live and work on the grounds, the modern creature comforts at these resorts are a world away from the humble back-breaking beginnings of the early kibbutz.

And as trends in travel change, so do kibbutzim. In recent years, more and more kibbutzim have used their magnificent landscapes and open spaces in creative ecological ways. Kibbutz Bahan in the Hefer Valley region closed down its old dairy and chicken farms to open the Utopia Orchid Park. This covered “rainforest paradise” supports the kibbutz with a botanical garden housing tropical birds, fish ponds and more than 20,000 orchids.   

Sustainability in the sand
The ultimate “eco-kibbutz” is Lotan, situated in the arid Arava desert, 51km north of the Red Sea resort town of Eilat. Guests can sleep in mud houses and learn about permaculture, sustainable building and geodesic domes on a four-week to four-month English-language "Green Apprenticeship". The kibbutz, set against the backdrop of the red Edom Mountains and the golden sand dunes of the Jordanian border, is a great place to watch birds migrating to and from Africa by day and gaze at the stars by night.

"People are inspired when they see what we’ve done under tough conditions," said programme director Mark Naveh, who has lived on the kibbutz since 1989. "Lotan is the only kibbutz that is part of the global eco-village network. I believe it’s a model for sustainable existence, which is going to become more and more necessary as time goes on."

Lotan is also one of just 20% of kibbutzim in Israel that is still a fully co-operative, income-sharing community. "It doesn’t matter if you’re the manager of the dairy or taking care of the kids or working in the kitchen, everyone gets the same allowance," he explained.

Across the highway, another kibbutz is also endeavouring to make the desert bloom. Kibbutz Ketura – a date palm oasis in the sand – opened the Middle East's first solar field in June 2011. Its 20 acres of solar panels, founded by entrepreneurial kibbutz members, is a separate business backed by major corporations including Siemens. The electricity goes into the national grid and provides energy and money for the kibbutz. Ketura is also home to the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies, which runs courses on water conservation, sustainable agriculture and renewable energy. Students and travellers can stay at the onsite Kibbutz Ketura Country Lodging, comprising 45 modern apartments each with its own kitchen, balcony or lawn.

"The kibbutz has changed vastly in the last decade and a half, from a community dependent solely on agriculture to a diverse, entrepreneurial and innovative economy which still retains its core values of sharing," said Leah Kayman, educator and public relations director at Ketura.

All over Israel, kibbutzim are changing in different ways. A relatively new phenomenon is the rise of the “urban kibbutz”; these co-operative groups, usually found in low demographic areas such as Kibbutz Tamuz in the town of Beit Shemesh and Kibbutz Migvan in the town of Sderot, are very active in the local community. Members of these urban kibbutzim live on the same street, share their income and contribute to local centres for youth, physical disability and Arab-Jewish coexistence. Although these urban kibbutzim are not hotels, they do indicate a trend in taking the co-operative concept out of the country and into the city.

Shabetai believes the kibbutz will always need to reinvent itself. The LA Times interviewed him about the changing kibbutzim back in 1989. And in the future, there will likely be more people asking, “What exactly is a kibbutz?”