Kibbutzim are communes which have dotted Israel’s countryside since the 1920’s. After the Six Day War, thousands of hippies fell off the Asia trail to spend a few months on a Kibbutz. In Israel, they picked fruit and cleaned chicken coops in return for food, board and pocket money. Famously, many found love along the way.
Each year over a thousand travellers continue to discover that life volunteering under the Israeli sun has its highs, like dancing in bomb shelters until sunrise, and as many lows, such as wiping toilets until sunset the next day.
1. Who is the ideal Kibbutz volunteer?
If you’re fresh out of high school, nervous about travelling and excited to start partying, volunteering on a Kibbutz is a great way to spend part of your gap year. Most volunteers are under twenty and looking to make friends.
Volunteering on a Kibbutz is like being on a boarding school where you can pick up great travel tricks, like how to hitch-hike safely. And Couchsurfing comes easily once life on a commune has softened your sense of privacy. Best of all there’s no maths class, though everyone struggles to reconcile their dignity with the jobs on offer.
Independent travellers might adapt less easily. House rules get made all the time. You’ll probably end up bunking with 18 year-old kids who think a shisha pipe and nose ring makes them a hippie, man.
Even though you’re in the middle of nowhere, you’ll never feel more enclosed. Many Kibbutzim are on Israel’s fractious borders, so members might warn you that it’s not safe to go wandering outside the Kibbutz gates by yourself. And one of your two days off a week will be on Saturday, when public transport and shops in Israel shut down for Shabbat.
With an open-mind and laid-back attitude, you’ll be just fine. Your shared experience on the Kibbutz will mean many fellow volunteers quickly feel like soul mates, and that’s what travelling is all about.
Your friends from the Kibbutz will offer you places to stay around the world. Volunteers come from every continent. Most hail from Sweden, South Korea and Colombia, with plenty more coming from Ecuador, Mexico, Denmark, South Africa, New Zealand, Spain, the USA and UK.
2. I’m Jewish, is volunteering a good way for me to live in Israel?
Jewish volunteers are in the minority on a Kibbutz, but they often get the most out of the program. Outside free Birthright tours of Israel (www.birthrightisrael.com), put on for young Jewish people, volunteering is the cheapest way way to spend an extended stay in the holy land. Just try not to fall too in love with Kibbutz life, volunteer visas run out after six months.
3. The Kibbutz movement sounds like a socialist utopia, I’ll be living the bohemian dream right?
Not quite. This is socialism in practice, where people are never equal, and as a volunteer you’re often seen as being at the bottom of the heap. You’ll be making plenty of money for the commune, by packing apples in a dusty factory or cleaning cowsheds from 5am, but you’ll earn no more than a couple of dollars a day.
If you would prefer, there are many volunteering opportunities in Palestine (www.volunteerabroad.com/search/palestine/volunteer-abroad-1).
4. I’m ready to bask in the Israeli sun, how do I sign up?
You have to apply at least a month before you plan on coming to Israel. If you’re from the USA, you can only volunteer through the Kibbutz Program Center in New York, which charges $600 in fees. Otherwise, don’t waste money on an agency. Getting to a Kibbutz independently is easy.
Visit www.kibbutz.org.il/volunteers and print out the medical form and personal profile. Make an appointment with your doctor and get a medical check which fulfils the form’s requirements. This needs to include an HIV blood test.
Book a return flight to Tel Aviv. You can volunteer for between two and six months so choose your flights accordingly. Scan and email your completed profile, medical check and flight details to firstname.lastname@example.org.
5. How much will it cost?
Not much. Even though you have to pay your own way to Israel, flights from London Luton to Tel Aviv are as little as £82 with Easyjet (www.easyjet.com). When you arrive at the KPC in Tel Aviv you pay them 810 NIS ($212), which covers medical insurance, a small registration fee and the cost of a three month volunteer visa.
You’ll make your own way to the Kibbutz from Tel Aviv, though travelling in Israel is cheap considering it is a developed country.
When you get to the Kibbutz, they will normally ask for a 200 NIS ($52) deposit, which will be refunded if you don’t quit before 2 months.
6. When should I go?
Don’t book a flight that arrives on a Friday or Saturday. Public transport closes down for Shabbat, and the price of a taxi to the city centre will be more expensive than usual.
Volunteer in spring or autumn if you can, because all year the hills of Israel are bathed in light, but in summer even the night air is as moist as a sauna.
September is a particularly great time to volunteer. It is filled with Jewish holidays, so you’ll hardly be working. There will be feasts to welcome in Jewish New Year, lazy days spent with a shisha pipe by the pool, and you can ask if the volunteers can build their own palm-roof hut to welcome the fall’s harvest for Sukkot.
7. Where do I go when I arrive in Tel Aviv?
You need to go to the KPC office, who will assign you to a Kibbutz. It’s open from 8.30am to 2.30pm Sunday to Thursday, and the building is easily located a few steps up from the beach on 6 Frishman Street. Go down to the KPC office, which is in the basement, and introduce yourself to the staff. They’ll give you some forms, which are easily filled in with the help of other travellers in the office also organising their stint on a Kibbutz.
Give your completed forms to a member of staff, and after a short interview they’ll assign you to an available commune, unless it’s summer when you might have to wait a few days for the KPC to find you a free spot.
When you’re ready to go, the staff will take your passport so they can organise a volunteer visa for you. Armed with a set of directions to the commune, you’ll be on your way. Volunteers will be there to welcome you off the bus.
8. Can I choose my Kibbutz?
Not really, but if you have a Kibbutz in mind, let the staff know and they may be able to accommodate you. One of the most popular choices is Kibbutz Lotan, an eco-village made up of mud huts in the Neghev desert, but Lotan is only an option if you plan on volunteering for more than 3 months.
Another great option is Amirim, a vegetarian commune near the Golan Heights, which takes you back to a world without wifi.
Maybe you’re curious to try an orthodox Kibbutz. And if being one of six volunteers doesn’t appeal, you can ask for Kibbutz Bar’am, which can house sixty travellers at any one time. You may be optioned a Kibbutz close to Gaza. If you don’t want rockets to replace the sound of birdsong, you can refuse it and wait up to a few days for the KPC to find you another choice.
9. What can I expect when I get to the Kibbutz?
Life as a volunteer varies from Kibbutz to Kibbutz. But at every commune, you’ll have to work hard in thankless jobs. Aside from that, I can only describe my own experience, volunteering on Bar’am in Autumn 2010.
A commune of 425 people, nestled between pine trees and the Lebanese border, it felt like Israel’s answer to Center Parcs with its tidy houses and golf buggies.
From 6.30am Sunday to Thursday, all the latest volunteers would be packed beside conveyor belts in an airless factory, ready to shift tens of thousands of apples into boxes for distribution across the country. Some danced to their iPods, making the most of life. Others loved being just a pair of hands. I tried and failed to stay sane by searching for Israel’s Next Top Apple.
We had breaks in the dining hall every two hours, where most chain-smoked on the balcony and moaned about the Kibbutz.
Members reminded me of life-long seasonnaires. I thought I would find their alternative lifestyle beautiful, but their lack of ambition jarred with me.
We would finish work at 4.30pm, and most swam in the pool, played football or lay on the grass chatting until dinner.
The Kibbutz shop was open for a couple of hours a day, and smokers spent their daily wages on a pack of cigarettes, finishing them fast out of boredom.
We were a tight group with definite divisions. Nights were spent watching movies in the common room, or huddled under blankets by the bonfire playing guitar and messing around.
On Tuesdays and Fridays the school disco, sorry, Kibbutz pub would open. Segregated from young members and student soldiers during the day, it was an opportunity to drink shots of Arak, dance the macarena and desperately swap saliva. The next-day hangover was useful – a way of wasting Saturday, because our guaranteed day off was when Israel closed down.
Shabbat was spent wandering between rooms and conversations in a depressive daze, before an ersatz lunch of buffet food that almost tasted good. There would be coffee and cake as an afternoon treat, and broken promises to go for a hike outside the electric gates that shut us in.
Dinner came and went – a meal of cold spaghetti and not much else.
Then we would be too hyper to get ready for bed, even with the thought of an early morning start in the apple factory, the dining hall, the orchards or the kitchens.
I missed my freedom. Just six weeks in I hitch-hiked out, not looking back, until I realised I had just said goodbye to great friends.
10. What if I hate it?
You’ll lose your 200 NIS ($52) deposit if you leave before two months, but the KPC can assign you to a new Kibbutz before then if you wish.
If you really hate Kibbutz life, you can leave as soon as your passport is sent back to the Kibbutz from visa control. This normally takes two weeks.
Most people volunteer for a couple of months, and can’t wait to escape. But it only takes a couple of days to start missing the bomb shelter, because by sharing the den with your new best friends, you turned concrete into something beautiful.
Two years after my experience on the commune, I’ve spent a year in Korea with Kibbutz friends who in turn spent Christmas at my home in Scotland. I also spent a few months in Mexico, visiting old Kibbutz friends in the capital. With perspective, I can honestly say that the Kibbutz experience was a pivotal part of my life.