When I start talking about my writing project, I’m often asked “What is a kibbutz?” It’s a tricky question to answer. There is a specific definition of the kibbutz as a communal agricultural settlement founded by secular Jewish immigrants to Palestine in the early 20th century. There is also the more flexible legal definition established in 2004 by the Ben Rafael Committee in Israel to distinguish between traditional, privatized and urban communal arrangements of differing degrees of income redistribution and mutual reliance.

And then there is “kibbutz” as a sort of floating signifier, a word and a concept that often acquires different meanings from the different people who use it and the different communities who have been inspired by (and then adapted) the vision of the original settlements. I track “kibbutz” as a term using Google Alerts, and it’s fascinating to discover the strange new contexts in which the word arises.

Take the Ravenna Kibbutz in Seattle, for instance. It’s not a socialist experiment in the same was as the original kibbutz. Instead, it’s an intriguing group of young Jews living together in a co-housing arrangement in the Pacific Northwest. (I’ve heard of similar groups in Brooklyn, Portland, and Toronto.) I love their tagline: Would it kill you to find a nice Jewish commune?

There is Kibbutz Lubner, in South Africa, which uses the kibbutz-style collective model to create a community of caring for intellectually disabled adults. A factory and a farm allow them to find fulfilling work in a communal environment. Also in South Africa, an apocalyptically minded religious prophet has dreamed of a global chain of “whites-only kibbutzim” (missing the irony of a racist settlement inspired by a Jewish commune) but recently ran into trouble with the law.

Even before the disastrous earthquake in Haiti, some observers of this long-suffering nation were suggesting that Haitians look to the kibbutz for inspiration to revive their economy at a grassroots level. After the disaster, the kibbutz may offer a way to rebuild together. Haitians already have many forms of co-operative economy, such as the kombit, which could be adapted to the communal model of the traditional kibbutz, as one commentator noted:

Now is the time to bring the kibbutz model to Haiti or at least a kibbutz with some Haitian flavor. Just as [novelist] Jacques Roumain romanticized the kombit as the ultimate cooperative labor, Haiti should amalgamate the two and call her version a kombutz. … A kombutz can grow fruits and vegetables; raise cattle for beef and dairy; goats, chickens for meat and eggs; turkeys big enough to feed a village, and creole pigs. It can grow sugar cane, tree saplings for reforestation, or jatropha for biodiesel to power its own generators

Back in Israel, there is Kibbutz Givat Menachem—not actually a kibbutz, but rather another of the roughshod illegal outposts that right-wing settlers keep erecting in the occupied West Bank. This time, they used the term “kibbutz” to point out that many kibbutzim have also been built upon once-occupied Arab lands. The Israeli Civil Administration didn’t bite and replied, “This is a cynical attempt to build illegally by using the term ‘kibbutz’.”

Some uses of kibbutz are cynical. Others are inspired. (If readers know of any others, please email me.) What’s clear is that the word and the concept still carry great currency in Israel and around the world.