Limited space for overseas kibbutz volunteers

Despite vast changes in kibbutzim, there are not enough spots for all the mitnadvim.

early kibbutz workers 88 248 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
early kibbutz workers 88 248
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
The Kibbutz Movement is trying to convince kibbutzim to reopen their gates to overseas volunteers. Since the Six Day War, some 350,000 young foreigners have come to work in the fields, dairies and dining rooms of Israel's kibbutzim. At the height of the program's popularity, nearly every kibbutz hosted volunteers. Changes in the kibbutz movement have also brought changes to the volunteer program. Most kibbutzim have long since deviated from the socialist ideology of "from everyone according to their abilities, to everyone according to their needs." There are some 270 kibbutzim, 180 of which are referred to as "renewed kibbutzim." These usually have differential salaries for members, and they may lack shared facilities, like the once-ubiquitous dining room. Many kibbutzim have been undergoing economic difficulties. Nowadays, as most can't afford to provide living quarters and jobs for temporary volunteers, and see foreign workers as a cheaper and simpler way to fill their needs for labor, only 25 host overseas volunteers. But after hitting a low of only about 100 volunteers during the terror war in 2001, some 1,500 foreigners were hosted on kibbitzum in 2008. The number of volunteer spots can't keep up with the demand from people who continue to seek the much-storied kibbutz experience. This is why the new head of the Kibbutz Movement's Overseas Volunteer Program, Aya Sagi, has made it her goal to convince at least five kibbutzim to return to hosting volunteers. However, the question remains - with all of the changes on kibbutzim throughout the country, how much traditional communal life is left for volunteers to experience? Sagi still sees the program as important both for volunteers and kibbutzim, but realizes that the changing face of kibbutz life also means dealing with new challenges. "[The program] is important from a Zionist perspective," she told the Jerusalem Post on Monday. "The volunteers come out of a desire to live the kibbutz experience at the same time as they are traveling and exploring Israel... When they go home, they become ambassadors for Israel." "There are many advantages for the kibbutz [to hosting] young people with a different culture, different language... It brings life into the kibbutz, and [forces] those living on kibbutz to open their minds." According to Sagi, one of the changes since the volunteer program's heyday in the 1970s is that the kibbutz isn't the "bubble" it used to be. "But [volunteers] still bring the kibbutz to life," she said. Kibbutz Movement representative Aviv Leshem wrote, "Volunteers bring with them joie de vivre, a spirit of youth, and cultural variety, as well as assistance in different work areas, some of them temporary, which allows kibbutz members to do more permanent work. In this program, we see true Zionism. It gives a beautiful perspective of Israel for the youth of the world, who return to their home countries as supporters of Israel." Many volunteers seek to live on "conventional" kibbutzim, said Sagi. "When there is a dining room, you can meet the population [of the kibbutz] in the dining room. When there is a pool, you can meet the population in the pool." Kibbutzim without these shared features necessarily offer fewer opportunities for community life, and for volunteers to build personal connections with kibbutznikim. However, with "renewed kibbutzim" becoming the new reality, Sagi said she planned to try to bring volunteers there also. An open mind and creative thinking are the keys to convincing kibbutzim to come back to the program, she said. Workplaces and accommodations for volunteers are the main obstacles, but Sagi said she plans to search the country for host communities and then help them to find ways to make it feasible to bring in volunteers - whether this meant bringing in trailers for volunteers to sleep in, or finding ways for them to work with the elderly kibbutz members.