“Ask Israelis who have never seen a kibbutz before in their lives and who know nothing about the movement,” remarks Aya Sagi, director of the Volunteer Department at the Kibbutz Movement Program Center. “They at least know about the volunteers and are nostalgic.”
Sagi’s observation sheds light on the influence of kibbutz volunteers on Israeli culture, their inspiring legacy worldwide, and the current financial and political challenges affecting this unique institution.
Kibbutzim are small, multi-generational, agricultural communities characterized by collective ownership and management of resources as well as a cooperative lifestyle. The first kibbutz, Degania, was settled in 1910 by pioneering Zionists. The movement eventually grew to include 273 separate communities scattered throughout Israel and has played an integral role in defining the country’s borders throughout a turbulent century of confrontation and war.
When the kibbutz volunteer program was initiated in the aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967, the country opened its doors to an influx of travelers from around the world. Young men and women came to explore Israel’s rich history, experience a pioneer lifestyle and share in the communal work ethic of the kibbutzim. Volunteers, who were often not Jewish, brought with them diverse cultural practices as well as an eagerness to be a part of Israel’s democratic and social experiment. Many volunteers married Israelis, or became so attached to the land and their work that they immigrated and achieved kibbutz membership. Today, they are some of the movement’s most devoted supporters and are helping to modernize and develop a “renewed kibbutz model” that will redefine and strengthen kibbutzim for the future.
Shaun Deakin, a kibbutz volunteer who arrived in Israel in 1974 and later immigrated and settled at Kibbutz Dorot, recalls his inspiration to leave England and volunteer. “I was impressed by the labor politics of Tony Benn back home, whose worker cooperatives shared ideology with kibbutzim. Volunteering was an opportunity to meet folks from around the world and taught me the value of hard work,” he tells JNS.org.
Throughout the 1970s the number of volunteers who came to work on kibbutzim steadily increased, eventually amounting to 12,000 annually. Volunteers worked in agriculture and at kibbutz factories, managed livestock, were educators and caretakers of the elderly, and performed many other industrial and civil tasks. During the 1980s, however, many kibbutzim began to struggle financially, and the tide of volunteers was quickly stemmed as individual kibbutzim went bankrupt or were privatized.
Although volunteers continued to offer a cheap source of labor, the kibbutz movement at that time suffered from poor management and the absence of a unified ideology. Attracting foreign laborers and promoting a cultural exchange became a low priority. Additionally, the chaos of the Intifadas after 1987 contributed to a sharp decrease in volunteerism throughout the ensuing decades, reaching a nadir in 2001, when only 100 volunteers arrived in Israel to work.
Despite these dispiriting statistics, the program ultimately survived. In recent years, participation has gradually recovered. “Volunteers are still the cheapest form of labor, ” the Kibbutz Program Center’s Sagi tells JNS.org, reiterating the principle reason for the program’s resilience.
Furthermore, volunteering continues to be a cheap way for foreigners to travel and experience Israel. On average, participants pay only $610 to register and arrange for a three-month visa, room and board, and health insurance. While on assignment, volunteers earn a small stipend of 500 shekels or more, based on the local costs of living. Volunteers who wish to stay longer can easily renew their visa and healthcare for an additional $80, and can stay in Israel for a maximum of nine months. “Volunteers are great for the youngsters living on a kibbutz,” Deakin adds to the list of benefits. “They open up a typically closed society and enable personal diplomacy.”
The program is a system in which everyone wins. Nevertheless, it has been difficult to rebuild the volunteer presence to the levels achieved in the 70s. This is primarily because of new immigration and work-status restrictions imposed by the government and reluctance on the part of many kibbutzim to reengage the program. “In the past, things were more open,” Sagi laments. New regulations initiated in 2010 limit the age of volunteers to 35 or below, require volunteers to pay for the program prior to arriving in Israel, and shorten the time they are allowed to stay in the country.
Sometimes it is hard to place volunteers on kibbutzim. Only 10 percent of Israel’s kibbutzim are now participating in the program, and according to Deakin, volunteers may be cheap, but they are not always the ideal work force. “It’s a question of commitment,” he says. “Only occasionally do volunteers really work.” When Deakin attempted to restart Kibbutz Dorot’s volunteer program in 2009, he began by accepting many volunteers but has gradually discontinued his involvement with the program. Teaching a new staff to perform agricultural work every three months was a tedious process and a drain on resources.
Deakin is not disappointed that his initiative to restart volunteerism was stymied. He recognizes that volunteers were not a pragmatic solution to Kibbutz Dorot’s specific labor needs. This is the challenge that Sagi faces on a daily basis. How does she extend the volunteer program internally, despite financial realities, and kibbutz employers’ desire to hire consistent and experienced workforces? Additionally, she must keep program costs down so that volunteering remains an attractive opportunity abroad.
When asked how the Kibbutz Program Center is adapting to better accommodate the needs of kibbutzim and the interests of volunteers, Sagi is optimistic. She cites initiatives like the improved website, providing a clear and inviting synopsis of the volunteer experience, and the sponsored monthly field trips in Israel that volunteers are guaranteed as part of their contract.
There are 16 countries now housing kibbutz program offices and volunteer recruitment centers. Though reinvigorating volunteerism in Israel has proven difficult, both Sagi and Deakin recognize the essential value of this foreign exchange.
“Volunteers return home with completely different perspectives of Israel and talk positively about their experiences,” Sagi says.