A Few Tips for Volunteering on a Kibbutz:
Israel's kibbutzim are rather famous amongst budget travellers for the volunteer work program most of them use. The different volunteer programs have offices throughout the world, where people can sign up to work on a kibbutz for periods between three months to a year. Although the special volunteer visa granted by the government is only good for three months with a limit of one renewal, many volunteers (and kibbutzim) find ways to circumvent this and stay longer. All volunteers are paid a basic allowance from the kibbutz, in addition to getting free room and board. This allowance is generally only enough to keep you in cigarettes and beer.
Volunteering is a great way to spend a summer. You'll meet weird people (mostly British, German, South African or Australian, but there are plenty of others in the mix), see a lifestyle unique to Israel, get to work on a farm (usually), and maybe see some of Israel's tourist spots for free. All wrapped up in a great party scene masquerading as a sleepy little work collective that actually made socialism work for longer than the Soviet Union. It's fun and horizon-broadening. However, if you are considering volunteering on a kibbutz, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- First of all, you WILL be expected to work. Many prospective volunteers think they are signing up for summer camp. The reality is closer to indentured servitude with really friendly masters and fairly comfortable work hours. It isn't exactly hard labour, but it is work.
- You will be provided a few changes of work clothes, but they are not going to suffice, and they will probably not fit you anyway. Inevitably you will end up wearing your coolest clothes to work in the apple orchards. Do bring some "dirt clothes" and a pair of good boots.
- Most of the time you do not control what kibbutz you will be sent to. Although no one can force you to go if you don't want to, in many cases it's "take it or leave it" with no other options. If you end up on a kibbutz you don't like, you may be able to find another one to transfer to. However, most kibbutzim are shy about accepting a volunteer who only lasted two days on their previous kibbutz.
- Another problem with this is that Israel's weather is not all desert sun. The Galil (Galilee for the rest of you) can be chilly and wet at times, and the Golan Heights get downright cold from autumn to early spring. Winter in the Golan can bring deep snow and temperatures well below zero, and the wind gets pretty fierce. Jerusalem and the deserts can also get very chilly at night. Unless you are sure you are going to central Israel, you should at least bring a fleece jacket or something similar, as well as some good warm socks. On the other hand, sunglasses and a hat are basic neccessities almost everywhere in Israel, at least until you get that well-travelled tan.
- Israel's only official languages are Hebrew and Arabic. Yes, most people do speak at least a little English (mostly with British grammar and American pronunciation, due to the British Mandate and American TV). But don't expect them to use it in their own conversations. And note that it takes an average of six months to a year to pick up even a basic knowledge of conversational Hebrew, unless someone is actually trying to teach you. Which they won't.
- You will be working, playing and sleeping in close quarters with a variety of people from almost every developed country in the world (your fellow volunteers), as well as being surrounded by Israelis. Israelis are boisterous, outgoing, even invasive people, and they have very little concept of privacy. This is especially true on kibbutzim, which are after all communal settlements. Volunteering is not a good deal for meek, private people. I can't tell you how many times I've had to explain this mentality to volunteers who were shocked by what they considered extremely rude behaviour. The English seem to be more sensitive than most to this aspect of kibbutz life.
- While we're on the subject, I might as well mention volunteer sex. Yes, the natives get friendly. Very friendly. Since most kibbutzim have only a few hundred inhabitants including toddlers and retirees, the volunteer groups are a welcome source of variety in the range of romantic liaisons. If you're looking for action, it will definitely find you. Enjoy it, but be smart about it. You know what I mean.
- Drugs are another related issue. You might want to be careful about this one, too. Kibbutzim tend to be fairly puritanical on the subject of drugs. There's a lot of hash and Ecstasy out there, but the local authorities take a very dim view of volunteers who show up to work stoned or rolling. And please believe me, you do NOT want to be caught by the Israeli police. They are not nice people, and they seem to believe that all the drugs in Israel were imported by volunteers. Unfortunately I do know about this unpleasantness from personal experience.
- Drinking is a much safer option - alcohol tends to flow pretty freely in the volunteer quarters. It ranges from the free Sabbath wine and decent local beer to pretty strong vodka and the nasty concoction known as Arak, and when there are South Africans involved there is usually some homebrew to be found. Drink carefully and enjoy, for getting dangerously drunk every Friday is a volunteer's most basic right.
- On to more serious things - the army. The military is a basic part of life in Israel, and nowhere more so than on kibbutzim. Many field workers carry handguns every minute of their lives, and assault rifles when they are working at night outside the kibbutz borders. In addition, if the kibbutz you are working on is in the Golan or the Negev, you should be aware that the IDF exercises constantly with all sorts of equipment in these areas. (There are more soldiers than civilians in the Golan). This can mean tanks maneuvering rather loudly near the kibbutz at night, constant artillery fire, and Apache helicopters practicing low-level flying over the orchards. The first time you hear these things in the middle of the night, you will probably think war has broken out. Look out your window. If there are a lot of kibbutzniks running around in battle gear, then you're right. If everybody is still sleeping, it's business as usual, or Just Another Fucking Exercise. Go back to sleep or whatever you were doing.
- Israeli Jews and Arabs alike take politics very seriously. This is a country where politics kill people on a regular basis. Do not get into a political debate with an Israeli unless you are absolutely sure you have a healthy friendship going. And even then, make sure you know all the facts and be prepared to make a hasty and apologetic retreat if you see them getting worked up. Bickering over politics is one of Israel's national pastimes, but outsiders are not invited to participate. Finally, you should be aware that most Israelis do not believe in "conscientious objectors" and may be very offended if you mention such a thing. This is even true with left-wing people - most Jewish Israelis have been in the army, regardless of their politics. Hey, it's a strange country, but isn't that what you came to see in the first place?
- A political sub-note - American Jews are strongly advised to refrain from mentioning how much they have supported Israel. It may be true to a point, but it's not going to win you any friends. Please remember that almost every living Israeli, Jew and Arab alike, has lost at least one family member or close friend in the wars.
Despite the seriousness of the last few warnings, Israel is a great place to visit, and volunteering on a kibbutz is a fantastic way to see another country on a tiny budget. You won't see too much of the tourist sites while you are working, but you will be immersed in a society unlike anything else on Earth. While most travellers just pass through their host countries, as a volunteer you actually get to live the life for a while. And you'll meet a lot of other travellers, and probably get friendly with the natives in way most travellers only dream of. On top of all this immersion, most kibbutzim do take the volunteers on free trips around the country every month or two, with native guides thrown in at no extra charge.
If you go on a weekend trip to Jerusalem, be sure to say hello to the Underground for me. And please, do dance on the tables every time that Pogues song or any part of the Trainspotting soundtrack comes on.
UPDATE (NOVEMBER 16, 2002):
Things have changed all over since I wrote this advice. America has suffered terrorism on a scale that shocked even most Israelis, the peace process in Israel has disintegrated into a terrible wave of strife, and tourism is down worldwide. Even as I write this update, George Bush is threatening to invade Iraq, an action which just might throw the whole region into a new war. If this invasion takes place, Israel will undoubtedly be the first country to feel the fallout, just as it was in 1991.
Even if it doesn't, the volunteer program seems to be a dying entity. The last time I visited my kibbutz, they hadn't had volunteer workers in almost a year. Other kibbutzim still have volunteer groups, but the numbers are declining.
But the program still exists. You can still go there, and I still recommend it as a unique and almost always enjoyable way to spend a few months abroad. Contrary to what you may see on the news, Israel has not become one big battle zone. The likelihood of your being involved in any kind of "action" while employed as a volunteer is still comparable to the likelihood of being shot by a mugger in any large American city. Keep in mind that most kibbutzim are small, quiet, out-of-the-way places that are hardly ever targets for terrorist attacks.
Honestly, people, it isn't that dangerous.
All of my advice still holds true. The army maneuvers you will see all the time are still likely to be exercises. There are still a lot of drugs available, and you should still be very careful about using them. The Israelis still don't want your opinion on local politics.
However, you may be asked what you think about the impending conflict with Iraq. Do not take this question as an invitation to tell your hosts what's wrong with the Middle East. A lot of people do this, and a lot of people quickly find themselves branded as unredeemable idiots. I would advise giving the most ambivalent of responses, unless you are very sure of your questioner's own opinions.
I will be happy to give further information and advice to anyone who is interested in volunteering. /msg me and we'll chat.