Volunteers building adobe houses on Kibbutz Lotan, an organic kibbutz.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 number of Israeli kibbutzes 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 in Israel, 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. Like at Kibbutz Lotan, the only true organic kibbutz in Israel: “But most of the people are not coming for something special – just a unique way to visit and get to know Israel,” Keren tells ISRAEL21c.
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 kibbutzes in Israel 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 will know, there is really no need for money. The kibbutz is truly a communal space, where services such as laundry and entertainment come as part of the package.
In recent years the kibbutz volunteer experience is seeing a revival, because it’s an authentic way for Jews and non-Jews to experience the Holy Land. It’s also a good way to get to know Israelis firsthand and to learn Hebrew.
The first kibbutzim in Israel were founded decades before Israel became a state. Groups of new immigrants came to settle Israel with an ideal that they would develop and work the land in a communal style.
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 south. 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 further enrich their volunteers’ time in Israel.
Most volunteers, at the end of their trip will usually agree, that the six short months at a kibbutz leaves them wanting more.