The kibbutz volunteers' revival

Managers at the Kibbutz Program Center are seeing a surge of volunteers from all over the world this year.

Want to learn about organic agriculture and how it's done in the Middle East? Maybe you're interested in making cheese from goat's milk? Or perhaps letting come what may - being the assistant to an eccentric kibbutznik's experiment or mindless work on the production line. A majority of Israeli kibbutzim are now privatized, leaving no opportunities for foreign volunteers to come and work. Despite the fact that fewer jobs are on offer, managers at the Kibbutz Program Center, the national center that coordinates volunteer experiences in Israel, are seeing a surge of volunteers from all over the world this year. There is even a waiting list. And today it's not just for the globetrotting hippy: "It's a great experience for young people who come to Israel for over half a year," says Rina Keren, manager of volunteers at the center. "Of course, there are students in the field of agriculture who come; there are also the ones who are specifically looking for the real organic farms too," she says. "But most of the people are not coming for something special - just a unique way to visit and get to know Israel," says Keren. With an abundance of kibbutz volunteers from all over the world - the United States, Europe (England and Germany especially), South Africa and Korea - the kibbutz volunteer experience is also an enjoyable international one, Keren points out. Today, about 30 kibbutzim are accepting volunteers, and this past year some 500 people submitted applications. In the tracks of Dylan and Seinfeld Bob Dylan did it. So did Jerry Seinfeld, who was only 17 when he came to the kibbutz. He told the Associated Press: "I would be in the fields, and nobody wanted my autograph and nobody wanted to take their picture with me." He said, joking: "They just let me hack away at those banana leaves, and no, I didn't meet the prime minister even once." Like Seinfeld once did, in exchange for several hours' work a day, volunteers get free lodging, meals and some pocket money amounting to about $100 a month. But anyone who has ever lived or volunteered on a kibbutz would know, there is really no need for money. Despite privatization, the kibbutz is still largely a communal space, where services such as laundry and entertainment come as part of the package. A home away from home "It's a great idea that helped make the kibbutz and Israel itself a home away from home," says Rebecca Fiala, who volunteered at Kibbutz Lotan in the Arava. In a local newspaper she said, "I felt as if I could finally break through the tourist route and meet the people, as well as know that I always have a place to stay." Finding a great kibbutz is often a matter of luck. And while the volunteers have come and gone over the years (there are those who do stay and marry Israelis), to further enhance the experience, some kibbutzim organize special trips to enrich their volunteers' time in Israel. Most volunteers, at the end of their trip, usually agree that their short time on a kibbutz leaves them wanting more.