Where volunteers are no anachronism

Kibbutz Baram in the Galilee stays true to the old-fashioned communal lifestyle.

October 18, 2007 16:17


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Kibbutz Baram, situated just 300 meters from the Lebanese border, is a kibbutz of the old stock: no privatization and an emphasis on the communal "ours" rather than the individualistic "mine," two four-letter words that are ideological light-years apart. Founded in l949 by members of the Socialist-Zionist Hashomer Hatzair movement, Baram, the last kibbutz to dispense with the communal child rearing system in 1997, is looked upon by many as a kind of "nature reserve." A handful of kibbutzim have remained faithful to the old-time ideology of everybody equal, still provide three square meals a day in a communal dining room and hold general meetings to discuss and vote on important issues. Another area where Baram has remained very much a kibbutz of yesteryear is the continuing presence of a cadre of young folks from overseas known as "volunteers" - an almost extinct species since the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000 and the drastic in-house changes as many kibbutzim chose privatization and a bumpy path to capitalism. Workplaces such as the infamous dishwasher or general chores in the dining-room - generally shunned by kibbutz members in the shitufi (cooperative) community and almost always filled by volunteers - have been taken over by salary-seeking kibbutz members. The volunteer workforce in Baram presently stands at 65 young folks who have come from South Africa, Sweden, the US, Japan, South Korea, Canada, Britain, Brazil, Columbia, Ecuador, Mexico and Burma. They are taking time out to see a bit of the world, and include a kibbutz experience into their backpacking globetrot. "Volunteers began to be part of the kibbutz scene during the [Six Day] War in 1967," explains Raviv Gutman, who has for the past two years been responsible for what could almost be deemed the youth wing of the United Nations temporarily living, working and socializing in his kibbutz. Born in 1968 to Israeli parents who had joined the kibbutz in their youth, Gutman has grown up with the volunteer phenomenon and is married to Catalina, a former volunteer from Columbia now on the "absorption track" in Baram. "As a community we also see past the work aspect of having volunteers here. It has always been understood that the influx of young people from all over the world has been an important asset to the community as they bring with them a very special vitality. While they are exposed to our different way of life, values and culture, a great deal is learned from the diverse backgrounds they also bring to our midst," says Gutman, one of four brothers - all of whom are members of the kibbutz. "Another major factor is that when they return to their countries of origin they talk to their family and friends about their time on the kibbutz and traveling the country, by themselves as well as with trips we arrange. In all honesty, they are the best ambassadors that Israel could have," he points out. Gutman is also the Rabash (security coordinator) of Baram and like many kibbutzniks of the old mode, wears a number of hats job-wise and is constantly on the run. Our conversation is interrupted constantly by members who approach him with questions regarding guard duty at the gate and suchlike matters, or volunteers with work, visa or food queries. His mobile phone also works overtime. Word of mouth - or as one young man said, "oral jungle drums" - is how most of the young people from abroad knew about volunteering in Baram. "It's either that, or the internet these days," adds Gutman. "They know why they want to come to Baram and many actually say they are not willing to go to any other kibbutz, only here. At the moment there are three girls from Mexico waiting in Tel Aviv for places to become vacant here. They had friends who were here and just don't want anywhere else." He points out that he does not take volunteers on spec, and that it is risky to just come to Israel expecting to find a place easily. Perched high on the Galilean mountain range, Kibbutz Baram is almost hidden from view by an abundance of high trees. The narrow road winding its way across the brow of the mountain range hugs the northern border fence with neighboring Lebanon. The hills on the other side are dotted with Lebanese villages large and small - some of the red-roofed homes appear almost palatial. Even after a long and hot summer, there is no shortage of greenery on the Israeli side of the border fence. Extensive fruit orchards and grape vines stand in precision, planted in neat rows right up to the military patrol road running parallel to the fence. The large swathes of greenery on the Israeli side of the fence only further exaggerate the dry, yellow-brown Lebanese terrain opposite. Apart from a few small fields of tobacco and other crops here and there in the narrow valley directly under one of the Lebanese villages, rocks and dry undergrowth are all that meet the eye. Approaching the kibbutz the road drops and rises almost like a fairground Big Dipper. At times the rest of the road disappears momentarily - as does one's stomach. When you are down, you are way down. When you are up, the road ahead looks like what could be the triple-arched back of the Loch Ness monster with a not-quite-straight white line painted down the middle. Like some of the neighboring kibbutzim and moshavim along the northern border, Baram has extensive apple, pear, nectarine and kiwi fruit orchards. Although agriculture provides considerable income for Baram's 275 adults and 200 children, the main financial source stems from a factory manufacturing plastics for medical purposes. The apple-picking season is now winding down. Kibbutz members, Israeli students on summer vacation and hired local workers worked feverishly around-the-clock to bring in this year's estimated 6,000 tons of apples. The picking season began in July with the "early apples" and goes on until October. The many varieties of the fruit to be found in the Baram orchards include Jonathan, Golden Delicious, Starking and Royal Gala. Once the apples are all picked, packed and shipped out of the kibbutz packing station - where the majority of the overseas volunteers are presently working - then a few tons of kiwi fruits will need to be dealt with. The kiwi fruit is a little out of its natural habitat in the Galilean mountains. Originally known as the Chinese gooseberry, kiwi fruit seeds found their way from the Yangtze Valley of China to parts of the world as far away as New Zealand and California. The young fruit picking-and-packing volunteers at Baram settled quickly into their new habitat. Over the years, not a small number have - like the kiwi seeds - transplanted themselves on a permanent basis, becoming members of the mountaintop border community that is still a kibbutz.

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