The Ravenna Kibbutz: Introduction

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Recruitment brochure from winter of 2010The Ravenna Kibbutz is a residential cooperative founded in Seattle in the fall of 2007. Named for the kibbutz movement of Israeli communes, and for the natural ravine running behind the block where it took form, the Ravenna Kibbutz began when five friends moved into a four-bedroom rental property and dubbed it House Aleph. "Aleph," for the first, of many. By 2009, the Ravenna Kibbutz had grown to include 18 full-time residents, sharing two four-bedroom detatched houses, one duplex, one apartment, and one room in an adjacent single-family house.

The Commons facilities, shared by all residents, were distributed among the three fully Kibbutz-occupied houses and their grounds. In addition to internal use by residents, these facilities were the venue for frequent community events which the residential cooperative hosted for the general public. With a mailing list of over 200 occasional and 100 regular non-resident attendees, the Kibbutz organized as many as 25 of these public events per month, entirely by volunteer labor. Residents who organized public programs were given an optional discount on monthly cooperative dues (which included rent), the cost of which was offset by foundation grants and contributions from local donors.

After an unsuccessful campaign by the Ravenna Kibbutz's nonprofit arm to facilitate the acquisition of the community's houses from their landlords, residential involvement declined. By the spring of 2011 its footprint had returned to the original House Aleph, with four residents at the time of this writing. The large non-residential community continues to be involved in public programs hosted there.

Why it should be studied

Recruitment brochure from winter of 2010I was one of the founding five residents. Having long been a student of residential community design, cooperative and conventional, I had found, on the one hand, a philosophical affinity with communities oriented around shared ownership and integrated social groups. On the other hand, I had become convinced that the practical future of human settlement is urban. Helping to build the Ravenna Kibbutz allowed me to see the intersection of these two values in action, as I experienced first-hand many components of the open-source village model. At the time this model had no name, so we described the Kibbutz as a "mash-up" of existing forms: co-op, community center, cohousing, and urban kibbutz or "irbutz." The result, however, was none of these exactly. Instead it became steadily clear that we were experiencing something new.

Those of us who built the Ravenna Kibbutz were propelled by three central motivations. First was a desire to live in self-governed cooperative housing accommodating a diversity of income levels and life stages, despite our belonging to a fast-paced modern city stratified by rent prices and segregated by family versus "yuppie" housing. This heterogenous cooperative alternative was attractive for its economic or for its social benefits to each resident in differing proportions.

Second was an entrepreneurial impulse, to provide for an unmet common need -- namely, to experience day-to-day cultural immersion (in this case, Jewish) of a sort typically limited to neighborhoods of recent immigrants or of shared religious orthodoxy. What is sometimes jokingly referred to as a "voluntary shtetl" has served to satisfy that yearning for religiously-unaffiliated cultural connection not only for Kibbutz residents but for hundreds of guests as well.

That these two pursuits, cooperative living and entrepreneurship, are held as co-equal priorities distinguishes the Ravenna Kibbutz from enterprises where workers may live together in order to further the venture, as well as from intentional communities formed mainly to serve a lifestyle preference. In this regard the Ravenna Kibbutz resembles some American residential cooperatives with fully-integrated communal enterprises, such as Twin Oaks, a hammock manufacturer, or the two organic farms of the EcoVillage at Ithaca.

Third and just as central was a desire to live in open integration with the surrounding city, to be neither physically isolated nor socially or economically insular. As a matter of core principle, residents have always been expected to maintain active lives and careers outside the Ravenna Kibbutz; the community's shared enterprise is consciously coordinated with other local institutions and groups; the private living and Commons facilities are retrofitted from the existing urban landscape; and neighbors, especially those sharing the same city block as the Kibbutz houses, are encouraged to engage in the community's affairs. This emphasis on balancing a focused community center with a highly porous boundary to the outer world distinguishes the Ravenna Kibbutz from most multi-household intentional communities in North America, especially the majority of those that are built in suburban and rural settings.

This group experiment to build an intentional neighborhood in the middle of an existing city -- via physical retrofit, cooperative governance, and a novel incorporation of shared social enterprise -- offers many lessons in its successes as well as its failures. What worked, what didn't work, and what might have worked, all serve to bring the open-source village closer to a viable implementation. It is my hope that this study may inform and inspire future efforts to bring and keep people together in open, organic, resilient community.


(Links to be added as articles are written.)

  • Location
  • Private living space
  • Commons
  • Ethnic focus: What makes a "Jewish community?"
  • Cooperative processes
  • Conflict resolution
  • Applications and recruitment
  • Shared enterprise and the "program grants" system
  • Multiple centers of enterprise
  • The community as "community center"
  • Community rituals
  • Retreats and all-residents meals ("cheder ochel")
  • The co-op and the nonprofit corporation
  • Terms of membership
  • Property ownership and financing
  • Institutional partnerships
  • Neighborhood relations
  • Challenges of income diversity
  • Challenges of life-stage diversity

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