The spirit of the kibbutz lives on

As times change, volunteers still flock to kibbutzim.

WHAT CONTINUES to draw volunteers to kibbutzim? The spirit of community and the search for something outside themselves. (photo credit: PICTURED: VOLUNTEERS AT KIBBUTZ NIR OZ 2012; SHAHAR VAHAB)
WHAT CONTINUES to draw volunteers to kibbutzim? The spirit of community and the search for something outside themselves.
The kibbutz volunteer movement began in 1967 after the Six Day War, as a way for volunteers “to show their goodwill toward Israel,” according to the Kibbutz Program Center. While a lot has changed since then, many things have also stayed the same.
There are about 250 kibbutzim in Israel, with 23 kibbutzim receiving around 650 volunteers per year, in the North and South. In the heyday of volunteering of the 1970s, there were more than 10,000 volunteers, with 100-150 volunteers in large kibbutzim at any given time.
Rica Kaizer is the volunteer coordinator at Kibbutz Ein Gev. She arrived in Israel 40 years ago as a volunteer from the United States, and has been in Ein Gev for 39 years. Kaizer remembers, “In young, newly formed kibbutzim, the number of volunteers exceeded the number of members at times! In the ‘old days,’ the vast majority of volunteers came from Denmark, Sweden and Great Britain, and to a lesser extent Germany, the US, Western Europe and more.”
“In 1967, when the volunteer movement began, Israel was seen by the world as David who beat Goliath,” says Nir Meir, the Kibbutz Movement secretary-general. “Today, we are considered as Goliath who fights against David, which is the Palestinians. In the eyes of young people in the Western world, our image has changed – the wrong way in our opinion.”
While the number of volunteers may be lower, the kibbutz movement is still growing strong, according to Meir.
“We never had such a demand as today, from the public outside the kibbutz to become kibbutz members,” he said. “It is the highest number ever. The modern world is a cruel world. Most people find themselves running after money all day, with no community around them, with no fulfilling relationship with others. Members of today’s young generation dislike this way of life, so a lot of families are asking to come to the kibbutz.”
This spirit of community and a search for something outside themselves still brings volunteers from around the world to the kibbutz.
CLORIS LONG of Australia was looking for something different in her life and to work outdoors. While she was scrolling through the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs website, she found the Kibbutz Volunteer Center contact details at the bottom of the volunteer page.
Long recalls, “Without any hesitation, I sent an email inquiring about the volunteer program and visa. In less than two weeks, I was on a plane to Israel. I volunteered on a fishing boat in the Kinneret. The days were long and the temperature was consistently over 40° centigrade, which made the physical work even harder. However, everyone worked together as a team and we had lots of fun pulling our weight (literally) together. I have built lifelong friendships with many volunteers in Kibbutz Ein Gev.”
Doron Schulman had similar reasons.
“The reason I decided to volunteer is pretty simple, I was not in a good place for a while and needed a change,” Schulman said. “I was also considering making aliyah before volunteering and wanted some Israel experience before deciding.”
Muki Tsur was born in Jerusalem and attended Hebrew University, where he studied Jewish philosophy and Kabbalah. He is a historian, teacher and author, and has lived in Kibbutz Ein Gev since 1956. On a weekly basis, he teaches elderly people on pensions as well as young people before they go to the army.
“Everybody loved the past of the kibbutz,” he said. “Everybody said, ‘Recreate, we loved the kibbutz as it was.’ Israel is becoming a very urban nation and very modernized. The place of the kibbutz has to change from being in the rural area only to having a city element, enabling communities to form. The kibbutz can serve as a laboratory of normal people. This is what is most important about the kibbutz, that we are not a monastery. We are not special people; we are normal people. We have our idiots and our crazy people; we have everything in the kibbutz. This is why the kibbutz is important. The time of the kibbutz has not passed. It is waiting for the future, for humanity. Israel and the Jewish people will try to have new answers to the old questions of the kibbutz.”
The old system of the kibbutz was seemingly set up to fit the mission of the time. The techniques may have changed over the years, but the spirit of the kibbutz has not.
According to Meir, “Kibbutzim have two key pillars. The first is mutual responsibility between the members. The second is a mission outside of itself. It was this way in the beginning and remains so; that hasn’t changed at all. Kibbutzim tried to keep their old system in a new world and it didn’t fit. This caused a huge economic crisis. Therefore, the kibbutz must change the way it behaves inside.
As the kibbutzim and the country became richer, there was more wealth at the disposal of the kibbutz. Members decided what to use the money for. Various aspects of the kibbutz changed, but the main spirit of the kibbutz didn’t change it all. Some 50 years ago, kibbutzim looked similar. Members had very small rooms, kids slept together and members ate three meals a day in the dining room. Everyone went to work according to what was written on the community task board. Yet all of these aspects were technical, not the heart of the kibbutz.”
THE CHANGES affected the volunteers as well in the 1990s and 2000s when more hired workers were brought into the kibbutzim.
Kaizer said, “Obviously, it was very hard to train new volunteers over and over again, especially when some only could volunteer for two months. At Ein Gev, volunteers still work in varied branches. In some kibbutzim, volunteers may only work in services or a factory. At the moment, we still offer a number of spots in agriculture, tourism, daycare and services.”
While some of the Western youth see Israel as Goliath fighting against David, there is another side. Volunteers are still arriving to kibbutzim from the USA, Germany and other countries, including from the Far East, particularly South Korea, Taiwan, China and Japan. According to Meir, “In the Far East, they don’t judge Israel in a political way, so they are coming.”
Aya Sagi, director of the Kibbutz Volunteer Program Center in Tel Aviv, also spoke of volunteer interest.
“Volunteers often come because they heard about volunteering from parents or others who were volunteers,” said Sagi, “or for interesting reasons, such as that they read a book by Amos Oz and decided to experience what a kibbutz is. Or they had an Israeli friend who told them that there’s an option to come to Israel inexpensively by volunteering on a kibbutz.”
“We have more volunteers from Asia than before. China was closed and in South Korea [volunteering] wasn’t very well known,” Sagi said. “We sometimes have people from Taiwan, we’re starting to have more people from Japan. Each country has its own motivating factors. South Koreans come because it’s a religious country – the holy land, and it talks to them because they’re Christians. Or because they got their independence roughly the same time [as Israel], and they see us maybe as an inspiration.
“With China, some volunteers with a Communist background want to see how our kind of communism works. Kibbutz socialism is not the same, but it is close to what they’re familiar with. They want to see how it operates and how it keeps succeeding through the years. Japanese volunteers are more rare because their way of life is more organized. The ones that come generally want to improve their English, experience things they won’t get to do in their own country and get to know people from around the world. Unfortunately, in countries like Scandinavia, we’re less popular than we used to be; this affects interest in our program. We have a lot coming from South Africa and South America and some interest from Europe, but less than we used to.”
On a recent Passover in Kibbutz Ein Gev, the kibbutz needed a pianist for the seder. Sharing Shen, a volunteer from China, was a pianist, so the kibbutz asked her to play for them. However, the kibbutz didn’t have the sheet music for the piano. Somehow and Shen was able to get the notes from China. Tsur remembered, “I don’t know how she got the sheet music, but during the Seder she was really playing Chinese Jewish music with the notes from China. She is back in China now, but still keeps in touch.”
“THE FIRST volunteers that came after the war of ’67,” said Tsur, “were in many ways radical young people steeped in the counter culture. By the time of [Margaret] Thatcher, people came who had no work in England, young people who were astonished by the new regime there and were trying to understand what was happening through being in the kibbutz. The waves of people that were coming to the kibbutz were an expression of all the changing spirit of youth in the world. To kibbutz children, each of the volunteers was a representative of the big world. Volunteers might come from a tiny city in Ireland, but they represented the outside world, of the universe. This remains true. There are [fewer] volunteers now, but they still field the questions of young people in the kibbutz. Each time somebody comes, there is a new chapter in the life of the kibbutz, because he or she brings ideas from their home country.”
Gabriel Mundo is from Spain, and was working in England for a big company in marketing before volunteering at Kibbutz Ein Gev. He was always under stress, and thought maybe it was time for him to return to Spain and settle down. Instead, he chose to volunteer here.
“I came to the kibbutz because I was curious to learn about Israel,” Mundo said. “I was (and am) attracted to the Jewish culture, so I thought the best way for me to learn about it was living inside a Jewish community in Israel, and the best way to interact with people and being part of this community was by volunteering. I can say I have a few friends in Ein Gev and every time I come people remember me. I have made friends here.”