Kibbutz Volunteers to Mark Centenary With Nostalgic Return to Israel

The kibbutz movement, 100 years old this year, hopes to persuade some of its 350,000 past volunteers to renew their connection with Israel this fall.

Years after the wild nights of drinking in mildewed bomb shelters, sweaty days of toil in the orchards, orange groves and the fields; long after after getting a small taste of Israeli communal living, thousands of kibbutz volunteers are to get a chance to relive the experience.

To mark its centenary, the kibbutz movement is putting together a list of all its past volunteers, in the hope persuading them to make a nostalgic return to Israel this fall.

Volunteers at Kibbutz Massada
Dror Artzi

According to the movement, some 350,000 foreigners have sampled kibbutz life since foreign volunteers project began in the 1960s.

"We want to invite all past volunteers to return to the kibbutzim where they spent time in their youth," says volunteer program manager Aya Sagi. "Every volunteer remembers their time in Israel as a foundational experience in their life."

Sagi also hopes to host an event for some 1,250 volunteers who came for a working holiday but stayed for good, and who are now Israeli citizens.

Volunteer numbers peaked in the late 60s, after the Six Day War at a stroke thrust Israel to the center of world attention. The socialist ideology behind the kibbutz struck a chord with the hippy generation, who saw the collective lifestyle as an embodiment of their values.

They brought with them liberal values, exposing their Israeli peers to new thinking and helping to erode the conservatism of Israeli society in the early years of the state. The volunteer role of honor includes comics Jerry Seinfeld and Sasha Baron Cohen, Duran Duran front man Simon Le Bon and actress Sigourney Weaver. Even Bob Dylan is said to have considered signing up.

England is the foremost contributor of volunteers, sending some 50,000 over the years, followed by South Africa (40,000), Sweden (25,000), Denmark (20,000) and Germany (15,000).

Today, the flow of volunteers from Scandinavia has slowed to a trickle, says Sagi, but South Africans and Americans still travel to Israel in numbers, as do young people from England and Germany.

At the program's peak, around 12,000 volunteers came to Israel each year. Today, privatization and budget cuts have taken their toll, with just 30 kibbutzim out of 268 still participating in the scheme. Accommodation for vistors is scarce, with foreign paid laborers, mostly from Thailand, often taking up any available space.

The demographics have also changed, according to Aviv Gotman, head of the volunteer program at Kibbutz Ra'am, who says today's volunteers tend to be older and more experienced travelers looking for something different.

"These days it's not just kids looking for a wild time," he said.

Some see the planned reunions as a great way of boosting the nation's image abroad – but the main object is to help people to renew their connection with the country, says Sagi.

"I really don't want anyone to feel any pressure to take part," she said. "If the publicity is good, that'll be a nice side effect – but personally I'd just like to invite people to reconnect with their nostalgia."