Bob Dylan and Jerry Seinfeld have done it. Troops of globe-trotting hippies, as well. For years, free spirits the world over spent time working on kibbutz, once the institution that defined what it was to be an Israeli, or to visit Israel.
And though the communal farm called the kibbutz is now little considered a central part of Israel’s society, volunteering there is making a marked comeback that is being noticed by young people worldwide.
For many, a stay on a kibbutz has again come to be viewed as the uniquely Israeli style of travel. Young people see it as a method of unlocking the Holy Land. Popular opinion holds that it easily trumps action-packed tourist trails through Europe or Asia, and indeed, young tourists from all over the world have discovered a new and supportable pace in the form of volunteering on kibbutzim.
Kibbutzim were first established before the country itself. Small groups of new immigrants adopted a socialist, communal style of living with the aim of developing their new country and working the land. These communities became an integral part of Israel’s culture and image. Lately, many kibbutzim have been marginalized as Israel becomes more economically stable and developed.
As the need for this mutually supportive institution has lessened, many kibbutzim have undergone “privatization.” Despite this, many still reach out to absorb volunteers who cannot support themselves for extended periods of time.
Nowadays, though kibbutzim may be less popular among Israelis, they can provide an invaluable opportunity for Jewish and non-Jewish travelers all over the world, to give as much as they get.
In return for several hours of work each day, usually in agriculture, young people find themselves able to volunteer and live long-term in Israel, giving them valuable time to explore the country and get to know their surroundings. Some kibbutzim offer ulpan programs for studying Hebrew, and the close community style of living allows volunteers to meet and befriend Israelis, merge themselves into a foreign society, learn a bit of Hebrew and do a bit of work.
Down south in Kibbutz Lotan, volunteers’ dedication to the ecological style and values of the kibbutz has been nurtured further by foster families.
“It’s a great idea that helped make kibbutz and Israel itself a home away from home,” says Rebecca Fiala from Australia with enthusiasm. “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.”
For those volunteers already familiar with the country, kibbutz opened doors to the vast variety of tourists Israel receives from all over the world.
“Kibbutz is such a small place- never realized that by volunteering in Yotvata I’d find friends from so many countries,” says Max Hatfield from Florida.
“After taking part in a jam-packed birthright tour, working in date fields with an international crowd as well as the down to earth kibbutznikim was a great change of pace,” Hatfied adds, in a reference to birthright Israel, a program offering free 10-day trips to Israel for Jews abroad who have never visited the country.
“The weekend trips to Eilat didn’t hurt either!’
Some kibbutzim take an active part in organizing trips and excursions for volunteers, as well as allowing them an intimate glimpse into the local culture. During the recent holiday season, Jewish and non-Jewish volunteers were welcomed into sukkot, booths built to mark the fall harvest festival. Volunteers were also given an opportunity to attend synagogue, celebrate the Jewish New Year and even glimpse a Jewish wedding ceremony or two. Many volunteers who knew nothing about Judaism felt they gained an incredible vantage point into the religion itself as well as the psyche behind Israeli society.
Many kibbutzniks are migrants themselves, and many are volunteers who came back to the farm to stay. “The common feeling of being bound together by defending Israel and making it a better place is catchy!” says Fransisco Alvarado, 24 from Ecuador. “It leaves you wanting more.”
And even if eventual immigration is not the end result, volunteering most importantly allows young travelers to support themselves while in Israel, and to return time and time again.
“I have been back four times and been able to live for months in this simple but fulfilling style of travel,” says 24-year-old Timothy Tucker from South Africa. “I volunteered in all corners of the country, Yiftach in the north, kibbutz Baram in the center, and Yotvata in the south.
“Working on kibbutz was just a deeper, more personal way to get to know Israel, as well as giving me an individual connection with the land. I worked in the fields here, and now I feel a part of them.”
Most importantly, the volunteers taste the fruits of their labor even after leaving the kibbutzim. “The sense of family and mutual care on kibbutz is just as present in wider Israeli society,” says Alvarado. “It’s as if I haven?t left. I get well-meaning advice from complete strangers on the street- feel as if this country watches out for me simply because I am here.”
If you want to become part of your own personal Israeli community, are looking for a low budget way to travel, or simply searching for new experiences, contact the Kibbutz Program Center at:
Kibbutz Program Center-NY