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The return of the kibbutz volunteer
16 March 2005
by Eli Ashkenazi

Among the many changes kibbutzim have undergone in recent years is the disappearance of one of its best-known institutions: volunteers. They were idealistic young people from around the world who came in the 1960s to help kibbutzim whose own youth were in the midst of long army service, which led to critical agricultural jobs begging for working hands.

But the sight of volunteers like Nicole from Canada, Esther and Katrine from Germany, and Jonathan from South Africa sitting on the lawn together at Kibbutz Ein Gev became a rare one. The intifada's outbreak brought the numbers of volunteers, 13,000 annually at their height, down to only 1,000 in 2002 and 2003.

But the numbers last year rose to 1,400, and if the pace continues, 1,800 volunteers will arrive here this year, according to the director of the Kibbutz Movement's volunteers department, Rina Keren. "The calming of the security situation is bringing back the volunteers," Keren says. "Most of the volunteers coming today are warmly encouraged by their parents or other family members who were volunteers themselves at one time."

"When the intifada started, Israel began to be perceived by young people abroad as an occupier. In addition to the negative image, there was also fear. Young people would see buses blowing up on TV and be afraid to come."

Esther Rachow from Germany is one of those volunteers. "I thought about all that," she says. "People who didn't know Israel said negative things to me about it. But I heard about Israel from people who do know it. From my experience here, I learned that most people don't know enough about Israel."

For Nicole Sloam from Canada, learning about Israel from Israelis she met in Chicago encouraged her to come."I heard the Israeli side, what they really think is happening here, and I decided not to be influenced by what I heard in the media and to come here."

Another German volunteer, Katrine Baumgarten, had friends who called her crazy. "In the German newspapers, you see buses blowing up and you hear bad news," she says, adding that she believes Israel is not the "bad guy" in the conflict with the Palestinians.

The main decline in numbers of volunteers was among the Scandinavians, according to Keren. "The Swedes are starting to come back, although not many," she says. "The Danes still haven't started to come back."

Keren says in recent years that volunteers from South Korea and South America have started to arrive. This week, three groups of 50 volunteers each from Sweden, Ecuador and Colombia, will be parceled out to kibbutzim in the Negev and the Jordan Valley.

In addition to supporting Israel, many volunteers are attracted to the idea of a kibbutz. "I didn't know what a kibbutz was," Sloam says. "The Israelis I met in the States told me about it. I appreciate the idea, this beautiful life," she says.

Rachow says she wanted to be a kibbutz volunteer, "because I love the idea of the kibbutz. It's a nice idea people chose out of their own free will; it wasn't forced on them."

"The kibbutz is a wonderful place. To be a volunteer is the cheapest way to see the country, too," South African Jonathan Kope says.

Volunteers receive pocket change, three meals a day, and a roof over their heads, as well as trips, lectures and parties, in exchange for their work. Some volunteers at Kibbutz Hazorea in the Lower Galilee travel to Upper Nazareth to teach English to new immigrant children.

"This is a special experience - a bunch of young people from different countries living together in very simple conditions," says Vivian Lai of Kibbutz Hazorea, who once was a volunteer herself and is now in charge of the kibbutz's volunteers.

The kibbutz also appreciates the volunteers' contribution, according to Lai. "The volunteers add spice, joy, and youth and contribute to the work places."

Baumgarten says that contrary to the popular myth, the relationship between kibbutz members and volunteers is not one big, long party. "We hold parties from time to time, but you have to get up for work at 6:00 A.M., and you can't get up with a hangover," she says.

Apparently not only free time, but also work has changed for today's volunteers: most are involved in the service branches yet dream of farming assignments, which are all taken by the more efficient Thai laborers.