Kibbutz Movement Planning Reunion for Thousands of Foreign Volunteers

Years ago there were wild nights in musty bomb shelters that have now been turned into bars. But surely there are still memories of the sweaty days working in the orchards and fields and getting a taste of communal life in Israel.

The Kibbutz Movement plans to invite the thousands of foreign volunteers who once came to return for a nostalgic visit in the fall to mark its centenary.

The numbers of kibbutz volunteers peaked in the late 1960s, 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, which saw the collective as an embodiment of its values.

The adventurous volunteers brought with them liberal values, permissiveness and openness, exposing their Israeli peers to new thinking and helping to erode the conservatism of Israeli society in those early years.

The volunteer role of honor includes comics Jerry Seinfeld and Sacha Baron Cohen, Duran Duran front man Simon Le Bon and actress Sigourney Weaver. Even Bob Dylan is said to have considered signing up.

"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 seminal 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.

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 dwindled to a trickle, says Sagi, but South Africans and Americans still travel to Israel in numbers, as do young people from England and Germany.

A list of them is being compiled, says Sagi, so "we'll be able to inform them about a series of events in an Israel Week and a Kibbutz Week, which are planned for November when the kibbutz celebrates its 100th birthday.

The idea is for the volunteers to return to the kibbutzim where they worked in their youth. "It was a fascinating experience for them to get to know a different kind of society and the state of Israel and the youngsters of their age from here and from a plethora of other countries," notes Sagi.

Unlike the members of some newly privatized kibbutzim who are upset about the gaps in salaries now, "the volunteers who come to the privatized kibbutzim don't see the difference between them and the original kibbutz," Sagi says. "Even the privatized kibbutz is very different for them from the kind of life they are used to."

At the peak of the volunteers from abroad program, 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 visitors is scarce, with paid laborers, mostly from Thailand, often taking up any available space. Since then, and particularly since the intifada in 2000, Israel has become less attractive to these youth. A mere 1,400 volunteers from different countries are expected in the coming year.

The demographics have also changed, according to Raviv Gutman, head of the volunteer program at Kibbutz Baram, who says today's volunteers tend to be older and to come here after completing their studies.

"They are more experienced travelers who wish to learn and are looking for something different. These days it's not just kids looking for a wild time," he says.

Kibbutz Baram near the Lebanese border, which is still a collective, has kept up its volunteer program. At present, there are 55 volunteers there, more than on most others.

"It is sad for me that it is disappearing," says Annalee Leina-Maestro, a Swedish volunteer who stayed on after marrying a kibbutz member. She says she is still in touch with many of the volunteers who stayed at Baram. Some of them come back to visit the kibbutz and she sees them also on her visits to her native country.

"It is a very important enterprise," she says of the project. A reunion of volunteers has a good chance of improving Israel's image abroad, she says. "Anyone who was here in the past has a different understanding of Israel. They can see things in a different way and pass on the message to others."

The main object is to help people to renew their connection with the country, says Sagi, nothing that good publicity will just be a nice side effect. "Personally I'd just like to invite people to reconnect with their feelings of nostalgia," says Sagi.