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Kishorit: A Home for Life

First Lady of Israel, Mrs. Nechama Rivlin, Tamir Freund and Amanda Weiss, Director of the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem, Manni and Rutie Oren, in the garden of the Bible Lands Museum at a Kishorit wine tasting event
Richard Davis, Kishorit’s winemaker, pours samples at the Bible Lands Museum

Snuggled into the hills of the Western Galilee, Kishorit showcases every kibbutz ideal. Flourishing vineyards sparkle in the sun, meaningful employment keeps all the members happily involved in environmental endeavors: one of Israel's largest goat milk dairies (producing 500,000 liters each year) and cheese factory, an organic bakery, and a vegetable garden with picture book crops. There's a stable for healthy horses, kennels that breed champion miniature and giant schnauzers, and a free-ranging chicken farm producing half a million eggs a year.A communications center produces a monthly TV show. Kishorit's signature wines repeatedly win awards; their repertoire is growing with each abundant grape harvest. The fresh produce lands up in the on-site communal kitchen, providing healthy, tasty meals for members; the surplus is sold on the general market.

Yet, despite the fact that a kibbutz-style "members council" makes community decisions, and individual residents make choices about their personal lifestyle and work, Kishorit is not only a kibbutz. The bucolic little hamlet is a "home for life" for adults with special psychological needs and mental illnesses ranging from schizophrenia to autism, or psychiatric issues triggered by substance abuse or breakdowns.

The community encapsulates the seemingly impossible dream that actually does come true when one or two people decide to make a difference. Some thirtyyears agoa woman named Yael Shilo happened to marry a man with a special needs son. Shuki Levinger, the boy's social worker, announced one day that he was leaving his practice to start out on his own. Shilo, in a moment of inspiration, declared that she would join him in a new venture, on condition he did "something big."

So they bought a kibbutz.

The concept is not quite as madcap as it sounds. Shilo, raised on kibbutz Kfar Szold, brought the kibbutz model to the enterprise; Levinger brought his expertise in dealing with mental health. Over a Chinese meal the two signed an agreement on a paper napkin and spent the next three years fighting with the Government; no one had ever attempted to buy a kibbutz before!

Kibbutz Kishorit was the perfect choice: founded in the 1980s by a Nachal Garin it had been abandoned shortly after and left with very few buildings intact and no infrastructure to speak of. Today, it is home to 175 adults with special needs as well as some staff members and volunteers. A new program aims to integrate mainstream families into the community; a few dozen live there already with 100 more on the waiting list.

At a magical late-summer evening hosted by Amanda and Tamir Weis at the Bible Lands Museum (which Amanda directs), Kishorit's bounty was on astounding display.A blind pianist with mental health issues entranced the crowd; residents of the community served the (delicious) home-grown wine, and the (delectable) spread. The happiness and pride in their achievements, and the passion for life was palpable.

Kishorit is special for so many reasons. The residential quarters, perched in the beautifully landscaped hills, are pretty private homes rather than institutional units.Members have autonomy to decide where to live, and whether to live alone, with a friend, or with a romantic partner. Several married couples met at Kishorit. All members decide where to work and how to spend their free time—and with some forty leisure activities available, it's a tough choice. Options include an exercise gym and a pool, horse riding, an art studio, and enough gardening and strolling in the gorgeous surroundings to fill up a lifetime.

And a lifetime is how long the members of Kishorit can live there: the community is a home for life. As inhabitants age, their needs obviously change: a "Golden Age Club" ensures members stay active and happy through baking and sport, discussions, and trips. A small on-site nursing facility continues to care for members in a loving embrace. Members, who experience dementia, or who have any form of psychiatric breakdown, can move into the nursing unit on a temporary or permanent basis, as can those who suffer from physical diseases or are not capable of living alone.

The adults who live in Kishorit are not called "patients" or "clients" but members; the cornerstone of the community is that everyone is treated with dignity and feels in control of their own destiny. The adults who live there have a wide range of strengths and challenges. All are over the age of 21 with varying degrees of developmental disabilities or debilitating mental illnesses that impair their functioning. The commonality between all of the Kishorit members is their difficulty or inability to live totally independently in the general society; they need supervision, support and guidance in various life skills, activities of daily living, and employment.

Many came to Kishorit after feeling cripplingly lonely and alienated in the larger society. At last, they are gifted with a warm community and empowered to decide how to conduct their own lives and achieve personal goals while receiving crucial support and services. Kishorit aims to help the members achieve as much independence as possible, while respecting the individual's autonomy, privacy and dignity and accepting their limitations.
With such a set-up, it is not surprising that there is a huge waiting list. Plans for the future include new housing units for singles, couples and flatmates of the same gender. A dream to build a new bakery will supply the increasing demand for Kishorit bread. Ditto with the dairy factory. There is an urgent need to expand the nursing facility. Although Kishorit strives to be a self-sustaining community both environmentally and economically, any help will be gratefully accepted.

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Monday, 24 June 2024

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