Program Seeks to Teach Kibbutz Volunteers About Israeli Traditions

'Volunteers need something extra, and experience beyond what work and partying,' says coordinator.

Around 150 kibbutz volunteers will party Thursday night at Kibbutz Ein Gev on the shores of Lake Kinneret, drinking beer and barbecuing with all the youthful flair of adolescents far from their parents' home. But before the party begins, the volunteers will participate in a workshop on Israel's traditions and holidays, as part of a program organizers hope will give them a broader view of Israel than they get between the kibbutz orchards and pub.

"Volunteers need something extra, an experience beyond what they get at the kibbutz - work and partying," says Rina Keren, coordinator of the kibbutz movement's volunteer program. "They need some kind of content as well."

The initiative, run by Shitim, the Kibbutz Institute for Holidays and Jewish Culture, targets volunteers from abroad who intend to spend three to six months in Israel.

The workshop at Ein Gev will focus on Passover and the seder meal, including both the holiday's traditional narrative and its relevance to modern issues. Keren sees the volunteers as "unofficial ambassadors of the State of Israel, who I want to know a little more about us."

She says some volunteers learned about Israel and Judaism before arriving, while others know little to nothing. Many come seeking adventure, like the Israeli youngsters who flock to South America and the Far East after their army service. The low price for volunteers (free accommodation at the kibbutzim) also strikes a chord.

Smadar Karsan, who leads the volunteer program at Ein Gev, has lectured for the past eight years on issues ranging from Judaism to kibbutz life. "Once the volunteers themselves asked for the lectures," she says. "Nowadays they take less of an interest - maybe that's a worldwide trend, that young people today are less curious. Or maybe it's because the kibbutz today isn't what it once was, and is less fascinating as a society and way of life."

The volunteer phenomenon began during the 1967 Six-Day War, as idealistic, motivated youngsters streamed in to offer their help as kibbutz members rushed off to war, leaving the communities in urgent need of manpower. Since then, the kibbutzim have had a total of 360,000 volunteers.

Despite the wave of privatization, and the diminished role of the kibbutz in molding the national ethos, the volunteer program is alive and kicking.

Last year, 1,500 individuals volunteered at 35 participating kibbutzim. This year saw a spike in demand following the military operation in Gaza, drawing volunteers from the United States, England, Germany, South Korea, Japan, Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, South Africa and Sweden, among other places.

But the upsurge in interest is nothing compared to the record years in the 1970s and 1980s, when 12,000 to 13,000 volunteers arrived annually. The breakout of the second intifada in late 2000 nearly destroyed the volunteer program entirely. In 2002 and 2003, there were only 1,000 volunteers a year.

Privatization also took its toll, as volunteers were no longer economically advantageous, and were phased out at several kibbutzim.

Keren has launched a program to add more kibbutzim to the program, as in recent months there have been more potential volunteers than slots. In 2008 the kibbutz movement recruited an additional five communities into the program, thereby cutting the waiting list for volunteer positions.

Movement members see the program as "true Zionism, by which youth from around the world are exposed to a beautiful side of Israel, and who after returning home become supporters of the country."