Westerners Out, East Asians In: The New Faces Coming to Volunteer on Israel's Kibbutzim

Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
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Volunteers at Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, June 8, 2019.
Volunteers at Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, June 8, 2019. Credit: Gil Eliyahu
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

In the collective Israeli memory, in images from the heyday of the kibbutzim in the 1960s and '70s, volunteers from abroad play starring roles in stories of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. Those who arrived after the Six-Day War made life in the fields and in the cowshed more colorful. Some remained, others took some of the best among us across the seas with them.

The aura surrounding volunteering on kibbutzim may have diminished in the interim, but even today, during a survey we conducted, we found plenty of names that are hard for Israelis to pronounce – albeit names from different parts of the world than way back when.

For example, we spied some unusual names on the work schedule at the factory at Kibbutz Ein Hashofet, in the Megiddo region in northern Israel. Shim Geonwoo, 21, hails from South Korea. He had looked for something to do between completion of his 21-month stint in his country's army and his studies at university. His sister, who volunteered at Kibbutz Ein Gev, on Lake Kinneret, suggested Israel.

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“I wanted to spend time in a meaningful way and to learn how it is to live outside the country,” he told Haaretz earlier this month. “That is what brought me here.”

At Ein Hashofet, we also met Ken Fuuruma, 21, who grew up in Fukushima, Japan. He said he came here mainly because he wanted to get to know Israeli culture “and to study socialism and communism.” Fuuruma, who studied theater for two years and then stopped, added that he was also a little interested in agriculture. He works in the kibbutz kitchen, and photographs and enjoys nature in his free time. “It gives me time to think,” he said. “It’s a good time.” Like others we met, he admitted that he would be happy if he would get an Israeli girlfriend along the way.

Volunteers from abroad began flooding kibbutzim in the early 1960s, many as part of a massive wave followed the 1967 war. Zeevik Greenberg, a senior lecturer in human services and multidisciplinary studies at Tel-Hai Academic College in the Galilee, said that this influx gave Israel a reputation of "being young, bold and brave just when the economy in Europe and the United States was slowing down.”

Coming to live on a kibbutz was a cheap form of tourism, which dovetailed with the flower-child spirit of that era. Those who volunteered, particularly the non-Jews, were curious about the unusual lifestyle, said Dr. Greenberg, because “it represented a different way of life than the bourgeois one they knew.”

The collective atmosphere and feeling of freedom attracted them, he noted, adding that the long Israeli summers enchanted the Europeans and especially Scandinavians – as did the volunteer routine of a few hours of work each day in return for full room and board, which allowed them to save money.

“Coordinators were appointed whose job was to liaise between the volunteers and the kibbutzniks, to look after their needs and to run programs that included hikes, camping and field trips,” Greenberg said. The volunteers were also housed in their own sleeping quarters.

The kibbutzim drew more than 10,000 volunteers during the 1970s and more than 350,000 over the years, according to Greenberg, who distinguishes between Jews who came to help the country and non-Jews, who sought the free atmosphere and communal experience. “Some of them became good ambassadors of the kibbutz idea and Israel all over the world,” he said.

Today about 1,000 people come to volunteer every year and their number is declining; they are volunteering on some 23 kibbutzim. The biggest change has been in country origin: Not only Americans and Europeans come these days but many are from East Asia. Some 30 volunteers came last year from China; there were none from that country a decade ago. By contrast only 50 came from the United States, down from 150 in 2008. While there was a decline in 2018 of the volunteers from South Korea, in the last decade they numbered 1,107 – many more than those from England, South Africa and the Netherlands.

Red and 'red alert’

American-born Rica Kaizer, coordinator of volunteers at Ein Gev, was herself a volunteer in the 1980s, first working in the kibbutz fields and later in a number of other places.

“Picking up rocks and throwing them into a cart in 40-degree Celsius weather was a pretty big shock, but after a few days I figured that everything would be easier in the future,” recalled Kaizer, who, like many other volunteers over the years, fell in love with an Israeli on the kibbutz and stayed on. She has been in charge of volunteers three times: during the late 1980s, in the 1990s and for the past seven years.

Some kibbutzim had more volunteers than members in the 1970s, noted Kaizer – and that’s no exaggeration: In the weeks and months after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, many kibbutzniks were called up for reserve duty in the Israel Defense Forces, and the kibbutzim relied heavily on volunteers. Most of them came from Europe and South Africa, during those years, where as today, "there are also many from Central and South America."

Ein Gev currently has 16 volunteers from the United States, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Venezuela, Italy, South Africa and Denmark. Last year, there were also volunteers from Japan and China.

The Koreans have a particularly strong work ethic and a hunger to become acquainted with other cultures, Kaizer observed. Generally, the volunteers from Asian countries relish working in agriculture less, preferring the dining hall, kitchen, clothing warehouse and preschools. The volunteers from Japan and China seem to behave differently from others: “They are very respectful. They bow a little when they speak with me, and the Japanese volunteers use a title of respect to address me.”

The Asians also seem to undergo a more powerful culture shock than others, said Kaizer, and it takes more time for them to adjust. The Chinese, for example, are often single children and more tied to their families and interested in seeing how volunteering – as part of a so-called gap year – will benefit their lives. “They are attracted to Israel because they can tell their families that there are volunteers there from all over the world and there’s an opportunity to learn English, and also because of the connection to communism.”

Kaizer notes the added excitement of having volunteers from as far away as China, Japan and Korea who offer an opportunity for a kind of cultural exchange that did not exist in the 60's and 70s.

The ostensible connection to communism brought 31-year-old Claire Gao to Ein Hashofet. “I see myself as a communist, and I wanted to see types of socialism,” she explained, adding that she first heard about the option of volunteering from an Israeli tourist she met in Spain five years ago. Before Ein Hashofet, she volunteered six months on Nir Yitzhak, in southern Israel, where she was introduced to the “red alert” system, warning residents of incoming missiles from the Gaza Strip. Still, she said, “it’s all good.”

Over the years, as seen in the case of Gao, the average age of volunteers has risen, noted Ein Gev's Kaizer. A 24-year-old was once considered ancient, but nowadays there are some are 35 and even older. “None of the old limits pertain in the new world,” she said.

For our part, we noticed, on Ein Hashofet, that the group of volunteers in general was much less wild than in the stories told about the past, with most spending their free time in the gym and swimming pool, or learning English and Hebrew.

When it comes to romance, however, Kaizer sees history repeating itself. She herself fell in love with a member of a core group from the Nahal Brigade (combining military service with community/social volunteering) and had five children – and her oldest son married a French volunteer he met on the kibbutz.

On Kibbutz Revivim in the Negev, Clara Hedmamn Nielsen of Denmark has also "closed a circle": She arrived three months ago, exactly 30 years after her mother volunteered there as well.

“I studied at university, but I didn’t really like my major and wanted to think in a new direction,” she explained. “My mother asked me if I wanted to go to another country and suggested Israel.” Nielsen works in the laundry and spends her free time at the pool with volunteers from France, Colombia, Ecuador and the United States. Her mother came for a visit last month and shared memories from her work in the cowshed.

Volunteers used to feel more like partners in building of a society, according to Kaizer, but today they are more curious: “They hear negative things about Israel and come to see it for themselves. They are very pleased that they can ask questions and that people answer them. Anyone studying or interested in geopolitics wants first-hand information.”

Some kibbutz volunteers are unemployed people who are hoping to beef up their resume in some way. Others, as always among these individuals, are searching for themselves. One example, on Ein Hashofet, is Charlie England, a 25-year-old from Wyoming. He told us that he has Jewish roots but is not Jewish according to Orthodox Jewish law; he walks around the kibbutz wearing a tzitzit (the traditional fringed garment worn by religious men). His next destination is a yeshiva in Safed, but he said that kibbutz is one of the best things that ever happened to him.

BDS and nostalgia

Ofri Raviv, head of the department of youth and involvement in Israeli society at the Kibbutz Movement, which is made up of some 230 kibbutzim, noted that there are big differences between today and the past with respect to the volunteering experience in general. For one, he told Haaretz, the options have expanded: “There are many more countries that offer volunteering, and the tendency is to go to the third world.”

The decline in the numbers of volunteers in Israel can also be attributed in part to its image, said Raviv: “We don’t enjoy support in a country that is busy fighting the BDS [boycott, sanctions and divestment movement] and doesn’t understand that it could have the best ambassadors here.”

Programs for volunteers have, however, tried to change to fit the times, said Raviv, and include educational lectures “that expose them to the kibbutz idea.”

The kibbutz of 2019 “is still a lifestyle with community and a great sense of mutual responsibility. We want to expose people from abroad to this success," he explained, adding that volunteers “profit from the experience of independence and responsibility, and from the encounter with other realms, including agriculture.

For his part, Raul Martinez, a 21-year-old Colombian volunteer on Ein Hashofet, said that although he followed the news before coming, Israel is “10 times easier and safer to live in [than Colombia]. It’s very calm here, no one is annoying anybody. I say hi and no one looks at me strangely,” he said. “I work in a factory, finish at 3 P.M., go for a run, go to the weight room, and read and meet people.”

Noam Landau, a 22-year-old Jewish volunteer from France, visited Israel four times as a boy and had thought about joining the army. But after finding himself a few years ago in Ashdod during a rocket attack, he changed his mind. About a week ago when we met him, while working at a kindergarten, Landau said: “They sent me to see that there is nothing dangerous in the junkyard. I thought they meant something sharp, but it turned out they were asking me to look for snakes.”

A nostalgic visit was paid to Ein Gev earlier this month by Maria and Emanuel Nyberg. She is originally from Colombia, he's from Sweden. They met in Israel 17 years ago, as volunteers. A hydraulic engineer, Maria originally heard about Israel from another person who volunteered here.

“I had volunteered with poor people in Colombia,” she said. “Volunteering is a very important value to me. I wanted to see other countries and we don’t have many options, as Colombians. The advanced water system here interested me, and I also wanted to learn English.”

She recalled asking the kibbutz movement office in Tel Aviv to volunteer at Kibbutz Ein Gedi because of its proximity to the Dead Sea, but there was no room there, so she was sent to Ein Gev, on Lake Kinneret. For Emanuel, it was his second stay in Israel, after having volunteered three years earlier at Tel Katzir, a kibbutz located not far away. He had also volunteered at an archaeological dig at Ein Gedi and wanted to stay on to volunteer there, too, but that also didn’t work out. He arrived at Ein Gev a month after Maria. She worked with elderly people; he worked in the banana fields. After they left, there were five years of conversations on Skype and visits to see each other – and then Maria moved to Sweden.

It was the first time the Nybergs were visiting Israel since then, this time with their two sons, and the excitement was palpable.

“It’s amazing, I have no words,” Maria said. “That period was one of the most important ones in my life. There is life before and after Israel. It changed my life.”

She intimated that they might have considered living here if it were easier for non-Jews to immigrate. “I love Israel," she said, "and we’d happily live here. It’s like heaven.”

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