If you build it, will they come?

As the Kibbutz Movement celebrates its centennial, officials say no shortage of foreign volunteers; what’s lacking are kibbutzim to host them.

By
November 12, 2010 12:25
Kibbutz volunteers socializing

311_Kibbutz party. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Karin Ya’akobi can still smell the bitter stench of decaying orange rinds from the piles of horse feed that greeted her the night she arrived at Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk in 1979.

“I get up in the middle of the night and I still smell the orange peels,” Ya’akobi said, noting that the rotting fruit odors were a stark contrast to the spotlessness of her native Sweden.

“Then they put us in these houses made of asbestos, but we had the best time in our lives. We didn’t understand; I didn’t know what Israel was.”

Ya’akobi, then 19, had made the decision to try volunteer life on her northern kibbutz after the Swedish kibbutz volunteer program – Svekiv – and similar movements in other countries became increasingly popular, attracting non-Jewish volunteers en masse throughout the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s.

This year, the State of Israel is honoring the efforts of such volunteers as the kibbutz movement celebrates its centennial. More than 350,000 foreign volunteers have taken part in the movement alongside their Israeli contemporaries since the movement’s beginnings, reaching up to 12,000 a year during its heyday, according to Aya Sagi, manager of the volunteer department at the Kibbutz Movement office in Tel Aviv.

Until around the turn of the 21st century, most volunteers hailed from England, South Africa, Sweden, Demark and Germany, she said. Right now kibbutzim only get a fraction of the volunteers they formerly had – about 1,200 a year – and Sagi says that larger numbers now come from both the US and South Korea.

“We will be happy to accept more, of course, but at the moment it’s more or less even,” Sagi said, in terms of space for volunteers. “We have enough volunteers for enough kibbutzim. My goal is to find more kibbutzim. The moment I find more kibbutzim, it will be easy for me to find volunteers, because volunteers want to come.”

Only 27 of the country’s 270 kibbutzim currently participate in the volunteer program, she said.

To reunite ex-volunteers and perhaps even attract new ones, the movement recently launched a Web database called KibbutzVol.com. While some social networking sites for former and current kibbutz members already exist, Sagi says that her initiative is a bit different.

“Pretty much the ones who want to be in contact are in contact,” she acknowledged.

But she aims to reach a wider audience, perhaps those people who haven’t even thought about their kibbutz experiences in the past 30 years.

“What we’re trying to do which is different than everything done so far is that we want it to be much more organized – international, wider,” Sagi said.

“Not through a specific kibbutz, not through a specific country, but something that everybody from all over can add photos and information to.”

For some volunteers, like Ya’akobi, their initial kibbutz experiences were so powerful that they decided to transplant their entire lives here, and they still yearn for the days when their kibbutzim were flourishing with volunteers and communal work.

Ya’akobi’s adjustment to life at Kfar Masaryk, four kilometers south of Acre, wasn’t easy at first, as she said she “knew nothing about Israel” and, in terms of religion, had never even seen a kippa before. But after rotating around jobs, she was assigned to work she enjoyed in the kibbutz’s small zoo because she had two years of agricultural training in Sweden.

“It was such a nice kibbutz life and we got a nice kibbutz family,” Ya’akobi said.

The volunteer program was only six months long, and as her session wound down, she decided to travel through Europe with some American friends.

Once back in Sweden, she studied nursing.

But she just couldn’t stay put. “Everybody was traveling, traveling, traveling,” Ya’akobi said. “We were four girls and we decided to hitchhike in Europe.”

She and her friends spent time picking grapes in the French town of Bourgogne, slept in an Italian train station and did “all kinds of things nobody can do anymore.”

With an ultimate goal of seeing Kenya, she and one of the girls headed to Greece and then by boat to Egypt, where they planned to cross Sudan. But the Israel stamp in her friend’s passport foiled that plan, so they decided to head back north instead – to Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk.

“And I stayed,” Ya’akobi said. “I met my husband” – a sabra originally from Kiryat Shmona who had spent his teenage years working and studying at the kibbutz.

“I was 22, still with my leg in my suitcase, and I didn’t really know if I was going to stay or not,” she said. “But in the end this was love and I wanted to marry him and stay on.”

So she headed for both ulpan and conversion studies, which she completed at Kvutzat Yavne by the end of 1985. Religion was not at all important to her, but it was the price she had to pay to be able to both marry into her husband’s family and stay on the kibbutz that she so loved.

“I won’t live as a religious Jew, but it was a very nice period and I’m very happy that I did it,” she said, “I want my children to be Jewish. My mother always said, ‘In Rome, be like a Roman.’” A FAR CRY from her days as a zoo attendant, Ya’akobi was eventually able to climb to a leadership role in the kibbutz by heading the in-house residence for the elderly, making use of the nursing credentials she earned back in Sweden.

But she still gets no personal income from her job because her kibbutz is one of the few that still remains in what she dubs the “old movement” – those who have not yet undergone privatization.

While families now live in individual houses – Ya’akobi got a brand new one just a year ago – they still share all of their finances, something that she hopes will soon change.

“In Sweden you learn how to work and you can’t always be dependent on other people,” she said. “I want my own private life and to be with my money even if I have to work even harder. I’m going to fight for this privilege, and I think that we’re getting there. People are starting to understand that they don’t want to provide for other people.”

Without such changes, Ya’akobi is not confident that the kibbutz can continue to run successfully, because she feels that young people are no longer attracted to a communal sort of life and will increasingly opt out of returning after their army service.

“I have a feeling that they won’t, if the kibbutz won’t change,” she said.

“There’s not so many young people staying in the kibbutz anymore because of this reason.”

That being said, Ya’akobi still appreciates her life at Kfar Masaryk and doesn’t for a second regret the decision to stay there, even when she visits Sweden.

“I love it – it’s a beautiful place, a very nice place to bring up children,” she said. “When I come home [to Sweden], I see they have their great lives, nice lives, but they have very empty lives. You have to decide where you’re living. I can’t think like a Swede, I have to think like an Israeli.”

Unlike Ya’akobi’s Kfar Masaryk, most other kibbutzim have already undergone privatization, a change that she hopes will soon come to her neighborhood.

HAIKE BEN-AMI, one former volunteer whose community has experienced that transition, first came from Germany to Ginegar, another northern kibbutz, as a 19-year-old in 1987. Volunteer programs in social institutions all over the world, but particularly in the kibbutz movement, had become increasingly popular in Germany at the time, she said.

butz – about five kilometers north of Afula – was a bit of a rude awakening.

“I came here and I didn’t understand what was going on,” Ben-Ami said, echoing Ya’akobi’s initial sentiments.

“On the wall it was written, ‘In Ginegar you feel like a piece of shit.’” But quite quickly she was instead saying, “It was a good time,” and for five months she worked in the kitchen and mingled with both Israelis and the 20 other volunteers, many of whom were German.

“I had this idea I wanted to go a second time,” Ben-Ami said, and just a year after leaving Ginegar she arrived there again for another five months – this time into the arms of a Chilean boyfriend.

The couple went back to Berlin, where Ben-Ami completed her university degree in Judaism and American studies, and they remained together until she once again decided she wanted to return to Ginegar for a third time – about 13 years ago.

“I just wanted to have some fun and relax, and then some people in the kibbutz said, ‘You have to stay here; this is your place.’ I felt really at home here and I liked to work with the cows. And I said, ‘Give me some time; I have to think about it.’” A year was all she needed back in Berlin to think about it, make a decision and pack up her belongings before she made the official move.

“I came to Ginegar with a plan to stay here,” said Ben- Ami, who at this point knew Hebrew quite well. “Then I met someone from the kibbutz and today we are married. But probably if this didn’t happen I wouldn’t be in Ginegar or in Israel” – because, as she later realized, it is quite difficult for a non-Jew to remain legally in the country without a marriage or work certificate.

They have now been married for nine years, and have on child – who, while a sabra, is not Jewish.

“I didn’t want to lie to anybody that I wanted to have a religious Jewish life,” which was at first a problem, Ben- Ami said, since the kibbutz had a policy of accepting Jews only. But because of her marriage and her history there, she was eventually able to get around this rule. While Christian by birth, she had left the church years ago and has little interest in subscribing to organized religion.

“I’m happy the way we live,” Ben-Ami said. “I work in the bed-and-breakfast in the kibbutz here for like 13 years. The office is in the room where I was living as a volunteer.”

These bed-and-breakfast rooms no longer house any volunteers because Ginegar’s volunteer program gradually dissipated as the kibbutz changed over to privatization.

And while she applauds the Kibbutz Movement’s efforts to reunite ex-volunteers as its celebrates its 100th anniversary, she highly doubts that her kibbutz will ever be able to fulfill Sagi’s wish of housing more volunteers.

Ginegar is finally beginning to see improvement in its economy, which she said collapsed about 15 years ago, and has only kept its profitable businesses going, which unfortunately do not include the volunteer program. But she does often reminisce about the days when the kibbutz was one large family, and she contributed everywhere, from her current bed-and-breakfast post to the kitchen to the dairy farm.

“I have very strong sentiments for the cow shifts,” she said.

But in the end, Ben-Ami understood that Ginegar had to undergo the transition to survive, something that Mary Ann Massasa, who lives at a kibbutz even farther north, fails to be okay with.

Massasa – who has the same affinity for animals – had initially come to volunteer at Hulata in 1987, in an effort to escape the British poll tax instituted by prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Hulata even came with a specific recommendation, as a friend of hers had volunteered there.

“I didn’t have to worry about where I was going to sleep or what I was going to do,” said Massasa, who brought a friend with her to her new Upper Galilee community. “I knew what I was getting myself into.”

However, as a Brit born and bred in politeness, she was a bit astonished at the manners of Israelis.

“I always felt that the Israelis were rude,” she said. “In England people hold the door for you, and here they walk through the door and let it slam back in your face. There were a few differences with how people were brought up socially.”

To the then 22-year-old, her kitchen work was as tolerable as any other job she had done, but what she really loved about the kibbutz was the warm community she found in the six months or so that she was there.

“It was really hard for me to leave – I really loved being in the kibbutz and the people,” Massasa said.

“I decided it wasn’t out of my system and I was going to come back” – a step she took only six months later, arriving once again at Hulata in March 1988.

“I told my parents that I’m coming over to get it out of my system, and maybe the second time won’t be as good as the first time and I’ll want to come back home.”

But like Ya’akobi and Ben- Ami, it seems that Massasa was never actually able to get the kibbutz bug out of her system. During this three-month stint, she transferred from kitchen to dairy work, where she ultimately met her boyfriend, a member of the kibbutz. Her love for both him and kibbutz life was eventually strong enough to keep her rooted there.

“I felt more at home,” Massasa said. “Before I left England I was getting so fed up with my work.

“Every time I came back to England my parents would say that I was a different person – in a good way.”

Massasa married her boyfriend, once in England and again in Israel – after going through the grueling process of converting to Judaism, which included six months of intensive study at another kibbutz.

Although, like Ya’akobi, she says the conversion was mostly a “formality” to give her future children a comfortable identity, she and her family members do typically refrain from work on Shabbat.

“If I’m living here and my children are growing up here, I don’t want them to be the odd ones out,” Massasa said. “We keep Shabbat in our own way.”

LIFE COULDN’T ALWAYS remain perfect in her kibbutz world, however, and facing economic collapse, the community decided that its only salvageable route was privatization.

The factories and dining room merged with those of other local kibbutzim, while their cows ended up in a Golan Heights dairy partnership.

“I wasn’t for the privatization nor was my husband,” Massasa said. “We worked harder when it was a kibbutz.”

She might now be her own boss – running the kibbutz horse stables – and working according to her own schedule and salary, but Massasa wishes for the days of yore.

“I would be happy if we went back to how it was before,” she said. “I liked the kibbutz, I liked the idealism, I liked how things were.”

And without the idealism, without the in-house factory and dairy work, there was also no longer neither a need nor space for volunteers.

“People were sent home and made redundant,” Massasa said.

She blames the program’s end on mismanagement, suggesting that the volunteers toward the final years had too much freedom and sought to just “have a good time” rather than putting in their share of work.

But she really misses the new faces that constantly shuffled in, something that is often lacking in the rather secluded North. “It was really nice to have different people around to talk to, a change of scenery,” she said.


Because few kibbutzim have space for volunteers, however, Massasa doesn’t think the movement’s new efforts to involve ex-volunteers will be particularly successful in bringing more people to more kibbutzim.

“I don’t see that being so productive unless people are doing very well for themselves and they are in the position to donate,” Massasa said. “I think most people are getting on with their lives. Being a volunteer is probably a long way back in their pasts.”


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