“Over the past 15 years, I have hosted countless young American Jews who have determined that there is no conclusive reason that they should come to Israel in order to build activist communities – rather they swore that they could pioneer activist urban-style communities in the USA and Canada,” Grant-Rosenhead said. “These hundreds of potential pioneers have never managed to build a sustainable urban kibbutz.”
Intentional communities, such as urban kibbutzim, are groups of people – typically young adults – who decide together to move to a socio-economically challenged area in either a city or a rural region in order to develop programs and community-based groups that organize and empower local residents. Some also champion environmental sustainability through organic gardening, water recycling, and the use of renewable energy.
Many intentional communities start their own small business ("social businesses") to support their social initiatives. Some members have outside jobs as well and volunteer together during their free time. All intentional communities are committed to helping those around them. Members of Israel’s intentional communities are often referred to as Israel’s "new pioneers".
There are more than 100 intentional communities throughout Israel’s Negev and Galilee regions as well as in Jerusalem, some of which are affiliated with alumni groups from youth movements. For a number of years, The Jewish Agency’s Young Activism department has provided support and guidance to help these communities sustain themselves financially and thrive. Specifically, The Jewish Agency offers assistance in building a community, project development, and business management.
The North American conference, held at the Pearlstone Center in Maryland, was a joint project of The Jewish Agency for Israel, Hazon, the Isabella Freedman Center, and the Pearlstone Center. It was intended as an opportunity for more than 200 North American social activists to learn more about intentional communities and connect with national movements in North America that could provide support.
Participants came from across the U.S. and Canada -- including representatives from local leadership and different federations - to attend panel discussions and brainstorming sessions where they also met young Israelis who benefited from The Jewish Agency's Young Activism programs - and learned from their experiences. Five Israelis, including Grant-Rosenhead served as mentors as they shared their firsthand accounts of building their communities from the ground up.
At Pearlstone – once he had a chance to meet the conference participants – Grant-Rosenhead found a new level of commitment to the concept of intentional communities.
“My doubts have been set aside,” he said. “There is something new and exciting developing there. I firmly believe that whatever contextual historical circumstances have prevented the successful creation of Jewish intentional communities in North America are about to be overcome. There are some seriously impressive young pioneers out there who will make sure of that.”
The Israeli contingent also helped frame their work as Zionistic in nature and led discussions about what that means in the 21st century. Throughout its history, Israel has always created communities to work the land. Such communities have been a central feature of the State of Israel, since its inception. As Israel’s economy has evolved, the idea of environmental preservation has become a central theme for young pioneers.
“The typical conference participant was not particularly Zionist, anti-Zionist or post-Zionist,” Grant-Rosenhead said. “It was almost a non-issue for them. The conference was the beginning of a dialogical educational opportunity. We wanted to ensure that significant questions relating to peoplehood and Israel-Diaspora relations will at least be relevant and on the table during this process.”
While the participants came for information and walked away with inspiration, it was the profound fellowship and bonds of peoplehood that they formed with their Israeli counterparts that will be one of the conference’s lasting legacies – especially for the Israelis.
“The warm welcome and interest taken by the young Jews present was priceless,” said Tzur Oren, another participant from Israel and coordinator of Ketzev, a Jewish Agency program that encourages young communities to work to advance social-economic initiatives and to improve the financial robustness of Young Communities. “They asked many questions about developing future cooperation, but the true feeling of community was established when they hugged us, greeted us, were enthused and made us feel so at home when so far away from Israel.”