Being a Kibbutz Volunteer Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Being a Kibbutz Volunteer

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Five individuals, each performing different tasks in a Kibbutz.

Every year, the world over, people set off on the journey of a lifetime. Many are students, taking a year or so out of education, many are not and are just travelling for the fun of it. For some, it is a long worked for holiday; for others, they're just getting away. And somewhere along the line, many of these people will end up in Israel, perhaps even working and living on a kibbutz (plural kibbutzim) as a volunteer. If you think this applies to you, this entry might be of some interest and use, especially if your backpack is already standing by the front door!

The Kibbutz

Kibbutz, generally speaking, means 'community' and the basic creed of the kibbutz movement, and possibly one of the few things they all actually agree upon, is this:

To everyone according to his needs,
And from everyone according to his abilities.

How the Kibbutzim Started

The first kibbutz (Deganya A at the edge of Kinneret or Galilee), and the movement, was founded in about 1908/9 as an agriculturally-based economy that allowed people of a like mind to live together and care for each other. Over the years, the system has changed appreciably, but the initial aims have varied little. The work, in some cases, has become industrialised, producing such diverse items as electrical goods, plastic chicken feeders and cardboard boxes! Initially, as the movement grew, it was inevitable that there would be some disagreement as to how things should be run and the movement shifted into three or four separate factions. There was the minority religious section, HaKibbutz HaDati and three mainstream factions: Ha'artzi, HaMeuchad and Ichud.

The differences between the latter three movements has, over the years, become blurred to the point where few kibbutzniks (people who grow up and live permanently on a kibbutz) actually know the difference and, in reality, there is no difference - although die-hard members would tell you otherwise.

In the early days, life was hard, and necessarily austere. Everything was shared, everything was owned by everybody, from the light fittings to the clothes upon the backs of the people living and working on the kibbutz. There was no space for individual expressions of style, too much energy was being expended in the reclamation of swamps and the cultivating of land. It seems that the 'popular' idea of life on a kibbutz today is pretty much the same. Struggle and austerity, sharing the underwear and showers and not having two shekels1 to rub together. Although work is still shared - you're just as likely to find the kibbutz secretary scrubbing out the toilets - and all jobs have the same amount of importance attached to them, a person will, eventually, be assigned the job to which one is most suited; although most service work - peeling vegetables, cleaning, collecting the refuse - will still be rotated out.

How Members Live Today

The principle 'To each according to his needs' is still very much in evidence in kibbutzim today. Housing, clothing, education, medical services and so on are provided as such. But over the years, members2 have developed the need to own more personal items, luxury or consumer goods. The problem was solved by introducing the personal allowance. It is the same for every person, regardless of the job they do, and they are free to spend that allowance on whatever they wish. Members sometimes have skills that, although very important, are not required on their kibbutz, that service being already filled; for instance doctors or teachers. These members can, and invariably do, work outside the kibbutz, and turn their wages over to the kibbutz at the end of the month.

Young people, born and raised on a kibbutz, can find it a hard way of life, constantly being tempted to live away in the city. Not too long ago people who wanted to leave could do so, but would very rarely be allowed to return once they had left. These days, a slightly more flexible attitude has been adopted and some kibbutz members leave for a year or two, sample life 'outside' or abroad, then, when the time comes, make the decision to remain on the kibbutz or not. The decision to stay after a leave of absence is then seen as having its roots in meaningful commitment to the kibbutz.

The Volunteers

Don't ever yield to the illusion that being a volunteer is an easy option - it is not. The kibbutz system has to be, by its very nature, strictly and rigidly structured, although there is plenty of room for personal expression within the system. Everybody is equal, generally speaking, but always remember that, although you will be treated with courtesy and respect, the same is expected of you. You're living in somebody else's home and they have seen thousands of people coming and going. Although friendly enough, do not expect to be dragged into the family bosom the moment you arrive on a kibbutz. As with many things, you have to work at earning it.

So How Do I Get to Be a Volunteer?

There are many ways to become a volunteer on a kibbutz and your choice depends upon how adventurous you may be. Generally speaking, if you have never travelled abroad before, the best way would be to go with a group of people via an organisation such as Kibbutz Representatives. For a fee they will arrange a flight and a kibbutz for you. You will be met at Ben Gurion Airport by a representative from 'your' kibbutz and your problems, hopefully, will be few.

On the other hand, it can be less expensive and more fulfilling if you take off on your own and do what many people do; fly economy to Tel Aviv, stay at a hostel overnight, then go to the kibbutz office on Ben Yehuda and ask to be a volunteer. It sounds simple and, in many cases, it is. But keep in mind that, depending on the time of year that you arrive, there may be many travellers/students doing exactly what you're doing and sometimes the system can get clogged; you may spend a couple of weeks or more waiting to be allocated a kibbutz.

That, on the other hand, can be an advantage in itself. Do your sightseeing while you're waiting, but save your expenses if you're on a limited budget. You are expected to pay a registration fee and insurance - be sure to find out how much this is liable to be before you go.

What Do Volunteers Do?

The simple answer is they do anything they're told to. Be aware that, while members have a certain choice of what they do, volunteers are just that: volunteers. You could end up spending six months on dish-washer duty or your entire stay working in the cotton fields or cleaning the toilets. Males usually end up with the hard, physical labour, while female volunteers are invariably lumbered with kitchen duties or general cleaning... but there are exceptions to this rule. If you have a skill in 'civvy street', let it be known, it could be utilised. On the other hand, if you don't care what you do, you'll be in seventh heaven! All kibbutz will have a volunteer leader or organiser who works out the rota together with other members who run various parts of the kibbutz such as the pardez ('citrus orchards'), refet ('cow sheds and milking parlours') or any of the numerous other pastimes, such as industrial work, kitchen tasks or general cleaning. If you have a real aversion to a particular job, let the leader know and they will, as a rule, do their best to get you a change.

On most kibbutzim, working time for volunteers is about six hours, sometimes longer, that depends on the kibbutz, so there's plenty of time to do your own thing! Most kibbutzim will offer 'overtime' of some description that will accumulate you extra time off. The rules that apply to time off vary from kibbutz to kibbutz, but generally, you will finish work on Friday afternoon and will not have to start again until Sunday morning. Additionally you will, as a rule of thumb, be entitled to two extra days off a month; but you must give the volunteer leader at least a week's notice as to when you want to take these days3.

Many kibbutzim expect their volunteers to stay for at least six weeks, and many will insist on a longer commitment. But the longer you stay, the bigger the benefits become. Many kibbutzim will take their volunteers on a trip, the duration of which depends upon the wealth and, in many cases, the generosity of the kibbutz in question. These trips can be just a day's outing or a three-day trek to the Dead Sea or, if you're lucky and in the right area, the Sinai... but it has to said, these treks are pretty rare.

In most places, you can save up your extra days and overtime and take them all at the end of your stay. Be aware that some kibbutzim will not allow you to return if you travel to Egypt or Jordan at the end of your stay. They will probably let you store some of your luggage, but once you've left, you've left. Keep in mind that when you arrive in Israel, your passport will be stamped with a visa for three months. Which the kibbutz will usually renew for another three, at their expense; but after that, it's time to move on, unless you're part of an Ulpan, which we'll talk about later. You can have a separate piece of paper inserted in your Passport and stamped separately, if you intend to travel to other countries that are not inclined to accept visitors that have been living in Israel.

What Do I Get from All This?

On the purest level, the joy of meeting other people in another culture and getting to know them; what else do you expect? You will get three square meals a day (be prepared for the shock of having salad for breakfast), all your accommodation, all your work clothes, aerogrammes (up to ten a week on some kibbutzim, which means no postage to pay to write home), some give smokers four or five packs of cigarettes a week (non-smokers get extra cash), some give toiletries and all will give you a remuneration of some description. Some kibbutzim will give you actual cash, others will open an account at the kibbutz Kolbo ('shop') so you can go and buy stuff and some might operate a system that incorporates both methods of payment. Ladies will, as a rule, receive some form of help in terms of sanitary requirements - this will either take the form of extra credit or actual items. All your laundry will be taken care of, but you must make sure that the volunteer number you are given upon arrival is etched indelibly upon every item you intend to put through the laundry... things have been known to go walkabout.

Generally, the sleeping quarters are Spartan and single sex. You will be expected to share a room with up to three other people, which can be fun, as long as you all respect each other's need for the occasional private moment. It really can engender true friendships and improve your diplomacy and negotiating skills! After you have been there for a while (and if you have managed to suck up to the volunteer leader enough) many Kibbutz will give couples a room of their own or, if you're very fortunate, you might even get your own singleton pad.

The rooms will have a bed (do not expect interior sprung mattresses), table, chairs, storage space, kettle, cups and an electric fire4. Some volunteer leaders supply extra bits and pieces on a Friday after work, which is when the laundry is collected and delivered and the bed clothes changed. These can be items such as biscuits, fruit and the occasional bottle of Sprite.

You will be responsible for the cleanliness of your room and, despite what you may find when you arrive, it is best not to add to any graffiti you may find on the walls - people have been expelled for less...

Anything Else We Need To Know?

Many Kibbutz do not practice the Jewish faith as such, but nearly all observe some kind of celebration on a Friday evening at meal times. Best to be presentable and respectful of their customs. Food can be kosher, but it is more than likely that there will be only a token effort made in that direction; but prepare not to have butter to put on your bread if there is meat at the evening meal, or to have milk in your coffee.

Do Not Use Drugs

It cannot be emphasised enough - if you get caught smoking dope or popping pills or anything else of that ilk you will be expelled. Israelis take it as a personal affront that you have been invited into their home and you have endangered their children and abused their hospitality. It's plain bad manners, regardless of what you may think about the issue of drugs and drug taking. And apart from anything else, you will give other volunteers from your country a bad reputation, and that is something that other travellers have enough trouble getting over, without your help.

Many kibbutzim have suffered from what has come to be known as the 'Marbella Mentality' - and unfortunately, most of the culprits are British. It is a state of mind that dictates that volunteers are on holiday, and will have a good time, no matter what the consequences are. This usually involves getting extremely drunk and causing a deal of mayhem and damage. Please, if you are going to have a drink, make a party or generally enjoy yourself, nobody minds. Many of the younger kibbutzniks will probably join in, but show a little restraint. Alcohol is not the 'social' pastime in Israel that it has become in other parts of the world. Many Israelis will enjoy a beer or two, but that is as far as it goes. Purim (the Feast of Esther) is probably the only time that kibbutzniks will really let rip.

The Boy/Girl Thing and Partners

Living, working and relaxing with so many different people from so many different cultures and countries means it is very easy to form relationships with other people and there is no bar to inter-volunteer relationships. But be aware that boy volunteer/girl kibbutnik pairings are not viewed particularly favourably. We may find it an 'old-fashioned' point of view, but Israeli parents, particularly those that live on a kibbutz, view children as their future. When those children are female and there's a chance of them being 'enticed' away, problems can arise. The reverse is true of female volunteers and you may find that, on your kibbutz, there are many female members who are from your country and have stayed to marry and raise families with Israeli men. This is particularly true of what are usually considered to be the 'first wave' of volunteers; those who came to Israel during the Six Day War, when nearly all the men were away fighting, and stayed there to help after the conflict was over. Please also be aware that, although Kibbutz life is quite easy-going, and Tel Aviv may appear to be a very cosmopolitan city, peoples attitudes toward gay and lesbian relationships are not as liberal as we might like or expect them to be. Please have some regard to this, especially if you are in Jerusalem and in the Old City or near Mea'sherim (the ultra-Orthodox section of Jerusalem); it is quite possible that you will end up getting verbally abused (at best) or stoned (at worst).

And Finally...

Know a little of the country that you are visiting... in this instance, invest in a good guide book, such as Lonely Planet or a Let's Go! Baedeker, which is, although excellent, more for the leisure traveller than the budget backpacker!

There is a useful Kibbutzim Welcome Site . If you're thinking of heading off in that direction, you could do a lot worse than pay it a visit. Go to the Volunteers section first, then have a little look round.

There are other types of work available in Israel, such as Moshav, but, whatever you do, do not get involved in the casual, 'black' labour market. You'll only end up getting ripped off or worse...

If you intend to stay long term, six months at least, some kibbutzim will actually get you a place on an Ulpan. It is a method of cultural and linguistic immersion. Here you can not only learn Hebrew, but a little more of the history of Israel and what makes the country tick.

So go, enjoy, relax and come back with a tan and the memories of an experience you will never forget! Being a volunteer is hard work, expect it, but it is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have... expect that too!

1The shekel is the Israeli currency unit. 1 Euro makes 3.43 Shekel (in June 2001).2Members become such by being voted on to the Kibbutz by the existing committee. Having family that are already members is no guarantee that you will become such.3 Remember that, in Israel, on Friday afternoon, virtually everything stops for Shabbat, the Holy Days, or weekend; if you plan to go away, you would better do it mid-week. 4Contrary to popular belief, it can get very cold in Israel at night, and during the winter, especially if you're up north.

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