Networking website to reunite former kibbutz volunteers

Jpost Exclusive: Moribund kibbutz volunteer program set to be resuscitated on eve of movement’s 100th anniversary.

311_Kibbutz Deganya Aleph (photo credit: The Jerusalem Post)
311_Kibbutz Deganya Aleph
(photo credit: The Jerusalem Post)
Over the years, they have come to Israel in their thousands from more than 50 countries. Now, on the eve of its centennial, the Kibbutz Movement is looking to rejuvenate its volunteer program and use new technology to reconnect thousands of volunteers who spent time here picking, plowing and making merry.
In the coming days, the Kibbutz Movement, which unites all of the country’s kibbutzim, will launch, a social networking site along the lines of Facebook, where former volunteers can reminisce over shared experiences, upload old photos and find long-lost friends from their kibbutz days.
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On Monday, the Kibbutz Movement kicked off its anniversary celebrations with a ceremony marking 100 years since the founding of the first agricultural commune, today Kibbutz Deganya Alef on Lake Kinneret.
Events for former volunteers are planned for next month in Denmark, Norway, England and Ireland, among others, and a major reunion is to take place here in June, Sagi said.
Regarding the creation of a social networking site, Sagi said: “There are already some websites out there for former volunteers, but this will be formal and organized, like Facebook, that will allow all previous volunteers to reconnect.”
Until recently, many of the country’s 250-plus kibbutzim welcomed volunteers to their communities and benefitted both economically and socially from their assistance. According to data from the Kibbutz Movement, the volunteer program, which was started in the 1960s and was aimed at young Diaspora Jews, has welcomed more than 350,000 volunteers over the years, mostly non-Jews, who have spent up to around six months on average working on a kibbutz.
“I’m a strong believer in Zionism, and for me the most important role of the volunteers is as ambassadors for Israel,” Sagi said. “People come here from all over the world, and when they are inside a kibbutz, they get to see this country in a completely different way to what they learn from TV or the newspapers in their own countries.”
While, during the program’s heyday, volunteers arrived here in their thousands from some 50 countries worldwide, those numbers started to dwindle more than a decade ago due to changes in the kibbutz’s socialist structure and to the ongoing violence in the region.
“We usually cite the year 2000 and the second intifada as the start of this significant change,” Sagi said. “Since then we have lost roughly 600 volunteers a year.”
She added: “Of course the kibbutz model was already changing before that, and it is still changing today, but we do have 22 kibbutzim that still receive volunteers and many of them never stopped taking them in.”
Even though fewer than 1,200 kibbutz volunteers now arrive in Israel each year, Sagi said the program was still mutually beneficial, socially and economically, for the host communities and the volunteers.
“I think the kibbutzim get a lot out of having them, because it gives members a chance to meet people from different countries, they learn English and make connections – plus, it adds to the color of daily life on the kibbutz,” she said.
“There are, of course, economic benefits for the kibbutz in taking volunteers,” she added.
“Even though they hand out pocket money and take the volunteers on trips, they basically work hard and make great contributions.”
Aimed mostly at people aged 18-25 from around the world, volunteers stay on a kibbutz from one to six months. Many of them hear about the opportunity via word of mouth, on their college campuses or because a relative did it in the past, Sagi said.
“We still have many volunteers from England, but today they also come from the US and from South Korea, South Africa, Germany, South America and Sweden,” she said.
Since Kibbutz Deganya Alef was founded by members of the Second Aliya from Eastern Europe in October 1910, 250 such communities have been established.
While there are still some traditional communal kibbutzim, the “renewed kibbutz” – with a more capitalist approach and less emphasis on socialist ideology – is the more common model today.