The unattached find kibbutz life a singular challenge

"The men suddenly became very helpful," she notes. "Not in a sexual way, but offering to carry things for me, or fix things in the house. My next-door neighbor started to mow my lawn without my asking. They saw me as a woman alone.

"The women, on the other hand, suddenly became quite cold. If someone organized a bonfire, all the families would be invited, and I'd be sitting home alone with my children. Maybe seeing me made them insecure about their own marriages. They thought [that] if it happened to me, it could happen to them."

The kibbutz system is built, socially and financially, around the family unit. That orientation is becoming even more pronounced today with the growing move toward privatization. Recent innovations include bringing children home to sleep with their parents at night and pressures to increase members' private budgets. More kibbutz funds are going toward building larger and nicer homes instead of improving communal structures or increasing group activities.

There are fewer common areas in which members can meet and mingle. Many kibbutzim have closed or severely limited their communal dining halls. The lone black-and-white television set that used to be a standby in every clubhouse has been replaced, on most kibbutzim, by private sets in every home. Communal movie nights lost their appeal with the advent of cable TV.

Compounding this problem is the fact that today more single people live on kibbutzim. They are older, they are divorced and most of them have children. Many feel left out of the community they chose to join.

"The number of divorced people on kibbutzim has risen astronomically," says Hagit Zuker, who manages the kibbutz singles' bureau, run jointly by the Artzi Movement and United Kibbutz Movement from the UKM's Tel Aviv headquarters.

The singles population on kibbutzim today is more varied than in years past. Not only are there more older singles — divorced people and some never-marrieds — but also, single mothers are increasingly returning to the kibbutz after a divorce in the city, bringing their children with them.

"Singles on kibbutz are very alone today," Zuker says. "There aren't bonfires at the clubhouse at night anymore. They sit at home, alone."

Zuker, a member of Ein Harod Meuhad and single herself, says her office serves any kibbutznik single seeking help. It also provides services for urban singles, but these clients pay a fee.

The kibbutz singles' bureau runs activities — dances, lectures, weekends in Eilat, trips abroad — and maintains a "personals" catalog, with descriptions and contact numbers of single kibbutzniks who pay annually for inclusion. Most trips are held in conjunction with a Tel Aviv-based non-kibbutz singles' group, Neveh Akadema'im.

Most participants in these organized activities are 35 or older, Zuker says. Nearly all are divorced, and most have children. The bureau also runs events for the 50-plus age group. Kibbutz singles under 30 rarely turn to her, except to place ads in the personals catalog or to join the more "exotic" trips, such as long weekends in Sinai.

"They don't really need us," she says.

Kibbutzim generally want to help their single members find mates and thus stay in the kibbutz, Zuker says. That's why the two largest movements fund her bureau, and some kibbutzim subsidize participation in singles' events. Some kibbutzim also assign an individual member to be the "singles' contact" with the Tel Aviv singles' bureau.

Arye Livni, the "singles' contact" at Ein Harod Ihud, keeps tabs on about 20 singles, helping them reach organized events.

Despite the problems, Livni says it is easier to be single today on kibbutz than in years past, because the kibbutz community is more open to the idea of meeting members' specialized needs.

"We recognize that the kibbutz needs to help its members with all their individual needs, whether [they need] higher education or [to find] a partner," he says. "The kibbutz structure is not as inflexible as it used to be."

However, Zuker acknowledges that "there's a subconscious tendency to stay away from divorced people on the kibbutz. People feel, 'He's single, maybe he'll steal my wife from me.'"

Tali, a member of a kibbutz in the south, was the mother of four young children when her husband left her 10 years ago. She suddenly found herself faced with the prospect of running back and forth all day between children's houses, baby houses, clinics and schools; there was little time left to create a social life.

"People were terribly helpful with the kids," she says. "If I wanted to go out, I could farm out the kids to a neighbor. I didn't have to worry about them, as I would if I were a single mother in the city."

Tali says she has considered leaving the kibbutz, but acknowledges that this would be a practical impossibility: As a single mother with no job experience, she doubts she could support her family; as an ex-kibbutznik, she would not be eligible for unemployment benefits or national insurance.

"You have a lot of financial security on kibbutz," she notes. "Not money, but security. I dream about living in the city sometimes, but it's not realistic."

If kibbutz life offers certain practical advantages to the single parent, it also creates barriers to building an active social life.

After divorcing, both spouses tend to remain on the kibbutz, where they are in constant contact with each other — at breakfast, at work, at weekly meetings.

Abe's wife stayed on the kibbutz for years after their separation. It was only when she moved away that he felt free to invite his new girlfriend to the kibbutz.

"One of us should have moved away earlier," he says.

Abe, Adina and Tali have all tried the organized singles activities run by the kibbutz movements.

"I don't go to the singles' dances," Tali says. "I prefer the lectures, something that interests me. Many of the people who go to singles events regularly make a career out of it. They're pretty odd. But you sometimes meet the right man."

Abe says he "did very poorly" at such events; he met his present girlfriend through a private matchmaker.

Adina went to the bureau after her husband left her, and asked to register for the personals catalog. "I was in my late 30s, and was told quite bluntly that there were so many women my age…and with three children, I shouldn't expect much," she relates. "I wasn't exactly in demand."

Still, she says, although living on kibbutz makes finding a mate more difficult logistically, the problem she faces is no different from that confronting divorced women in the cities.

"There are not many places to meet good single men. If I were looking for a relationship, I wouldn't look in the clubs. All us single women are in the same boat."