Forget New York: Discharged Soldiers Flock to Kibbutzim to Earn Cash

Thining grapes in the vineyard of Kibbutz Merom Golan is not an easy task. You start at 5 A.M. and contend with the heat and the monotony - it's unclear which is worse. "In such moments, when it's really hard, I lift my head, look at the landscape around me and become so deeply moved, I have the strength to go back to work again," says Tzlil Portal, 22. "I find out I'm not as spoiled as I thought I was."

Portal, of the Upper Galilee town of Ma'alot, was a fitness instructor in the military. After her release, she began looking for work. "Most of my friends found work in hotels, restaurants, security or went abroad to sell from stalls in shopping malls. I decided to work in agriculture," she says.

"People were curious, because farming isn't considered a modern kind of work. It's an old-time job, something young people don't do anymore. But this is something I was always interested in - closeness to the land, kibbutz life. It was a challenge," she says.

Portal is not entirely alone among her peers. Other young people fresh from the army are looking for agricultural work in the break between military service and a long trip abroad, or before starting university. Yarden Gadot of Yavneh was discharged from the army 10 months ago and went to work for half a year at Paran, a moshav in the Arava.

"There were some 20 people also just out of the army," she says. "These jobs go by word of mouth, and quite a few people want to work in agriculture. Sometimes it's actually difficult to find a place. I really recommend it."

Haim Havlin, chairman of the Arava Agricultural Committee, says demobilized soldiers come in the winter, when the weather is more forgiving, and take on the "nicer" tasks like packaging produce. The work isn't easy, but at least there's air-conditioning. "Their numbers keep growing," he says. "They come for a few months and then leave. They offer us a good solution for the peak seasons, when we need temporary workers."

In the north, farmers say dozens of demobilized soldiers find agricultural work in the summer. Fourteen young women and three young men are working in Merom Golan alone.

Noam Ben-Ze'ev, 23, of Hod Hasharon is working in the orchards of Kibbutz Ortal, where four other young people have opted for agriculture as their post-army job.

"There's a kind of thing among the young today about working in agriculture," says Ben Ze'ev. "It's a different kind of work. You're doing something natural. You connect with nature. After working here in Ortal, I think there's a chance I'll go back to farming or maybe study something agricultural."

Most farmers prefer to employ migrant workers or subcontractors, but some are deliberately recruiting army veterans. Migrant workers stay with employers longer, but farmers see some advantages in hiring young Israelis for seasonal work. "It's a combination of Zionism and profitability," says Merom Golan farming director Gabi Kuniel, who has been employing demobilized soldiers for six years.

"They're highly motivated and unlike subcontractors, who can just not show up for work some mornings, they're really diligent while they are here. It's true there's more work with them - feeding them, sleeping quarters, weekend trips - but I think it's good for both parties," he says.