Kibbutz Tzura
Former kibbutz volunteers marking where they have donated time on a map at the reunion on Kibbutz Tzura Saturday. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
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For many, spending time volunteering on a kibbutz is as time-honored a rite as a Bar Mitzvah or going to a school dance. And like those other events, many participants remain nostalgic for such times, even as the years tick by. On Saturday night more than 50 such volunteers, some from decades ago and some with their necks still red from time spent in the fields convened on Kibbutz Tzura for the first kibbutz volunteer reunion in Israel.

The event capped a series of kibbutz reunions that have been held across Europe over the past year, which brought together more than 2,000 former volunteers.

The Kibbutz Movement, which sponsored the Tzura reunion, has also hosted a series of events in Israel over the past year to commemorate the centenary of the founding of the first kibbutz, Degania. But this event was the first to honor foreigners who gave of themselves to help the kibbutz project along.

Marky Levy, the secretary general of the Kibbutz Movement, thanked the volunteers for their support on behalf of all kibbutzim. "We were working together, eating together in the dining room, singing and dancing together, and from time to time, even falling in love with each other - and what could be better than that?" Levy told the assembled crowd in English. "The years have passed, but not the good memories."

After spending the week visiting the various kibbutzim that they had volunteered with years previously, the former volunteers marveled at the changes that have taken place in the intervening decades. Many young internationals in the audience, currently volunteering on kibbutzim throughout the country, were treated to outdoor-oven baked pizzas and tales of volunteer life from decades past by their senior fellows.

While Zionism is still a major factor spurring young people from abroad to spend their summers picking bananas or folding laundry, many said they came to the rural collectives to enjoy life at a slower pace, if for only a while.

"I like it, its my kind of lifestyle," said Idan, 25, from the Netherlands. "If you compare it to Holland or the West - overall, it's very stressed, you've got to focus on your career. On kibbutz, it's very laid back, you can take it easy, you can take your time." He breaks into a wide smile. "That's precisely what I'm about, so that's great."

Mette Assouline, originally from Denmark, ended up marrying the volunteer coordinator at Kibbutz Afikim in the Jordan Valley, and spending her life there ever since. She says the kibbutz has been a favored option for young internationals looking to postpone their participation in the capitalist "rat race," stretching back at least to the 1960s, when she first arrived in Israel, at the age of 20.

"Then, you didn't travel around the world," she said. "Either you could be an au pair somewhere in London, or wherever, or you could go to Israel."

Shmaryahu Nachmad, who co-ordinated volunteer activities on Kibbutz Yiron in the Upper Galilee for almost a decade, says that volunteers sometimes receive a bad rap from kibbutz members for wanting to relax and recreate rather than work.

"In some sense, volunteers symbolize the free-for-all. 'Noisy', 'undisciplined'. That's not accurate," he says. "That's what the kibbutzim saw in the volunteers. But the volunteers weren't like that, in my experience."

Nachmad says he believes that volunteers have an overall net positive effect on kibbutzim. "I think that I learned at least as much from [the volunteers] as they learned from me, and I know that there were many kibbutz members that said the same thing," he said.

At the end of the evening, the event's master of ceremonies conducted an informal poll, asking how many volunteers would have chosen to stay and live their lives out on a kibbutz, knowing what they know now? Most of the veterans raised their hands.

Australian Lawson Davies, 56, who volunteered at Kibbutz Ruhama almost 30 years ago, says his time on kibbutz was the "greatest experience of his life."

He longingly recalls socializing with volunteers from all over the world at the make-shift nightclub they organized in the evenings, but also spending his days driving tractors, calling it "a labor of love."

"I don't think there's a week that goes by," he said, "that I don't talk about being on the kibbutz."

Rural life reclaimed

Emma Hatzori, 49, grew up in London and first came to Kibbutz Einat in 1984 at the age of 22. Hatzori says she had a great time on the kibbutz, but soon returned to England with her British boyfriend, where they bought a house and settled into a “boring” routine.

One cold winter day, she saw a television program about Israel and its warmer climes, and it triggered a flood of happy memories from her life on kibbutz. Hatzori broke up with her British beau and decided then and there that she would return to Israel, but since she was not Jewish, she realized that she would have to marry an Israeli in order to be able to stay in the country permanently.

A friend of hers introduced her to Avi, an Israeli living in London and they felt a connection, but Avi wasn’t a kibbutznik and he had already bought a house in Tel Aviv. Eventually, Hatzori compromised on the kibbutz and converted and married Avi, moving in with him on the eve of the first Gulf War and they have lived together ever since.

She says today that she still misses kibbutz life and has tried to recreate as much of it as she possibly can in their North Tel Aviv apartment.

Not in it for the party

Jan Denys, 51, first came from Belgium to Kibbutz Kfar Blum in 1984, when he was 26 years old, after he finished his schooling but before he started a family, which he felt would hinder his ability to travel for longer periods of time and experience other cultures.

“The kibbutz sounded great,” he recalled. “People were living together, working together, they were sharing an ideal. And it had already been working for a long time. We had small communities in Belgium where people lived together, but it didn’t last, after a couple of years, they split up. But the kibbutzim went on for decades. So I was very curious, I wanted to know who these people were.”

He says he was lucky to get a job installing phones in kibbutz members’ houses, because it gave him the opportunity to get to know them personally, something that most volunteers didn’t do, partly from lack of interest on their own part.

For most volunteers, “it was a wild life,” says Denys. He says that unlike himself and a few others, most of his fellow volunteers came to the kibbutz “to party.”

“I think 10 percent were interested in the values of the kibbutz, not more,” he surmises.