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Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Zionism 2.0: Kibbutz volunteer work lives on in the 21st century

The kibbutz experience is still attracting adventurous young people from all over the world, who work as volunteers in a variety of capacities.

Ujjwal Pramer, 29, from India, is responsible for packing peppers at a plant on Kibbutz Yahel in the Arava Desert. His compatriot, Karuwell, 22, is peeling onions, while Ravida Jushay, a rather quiet fellow of 25, also from India, is arranging cardboard cartons for packing. The three are not migrant workers laboring in the kibbutz fields for a minimum wage; rather, they're new volunteers.

According to the figures of the United Kibbutz Movement, about 350,000 volunteers have spent time on kibbutzim since the volunteering project began in the 1970s. The wave has died down a bit since then, but about 1,200 volunteers still come to Israel annually, a third of them from the United States and a third from South Korea. The others come from Latin American countries and India.

Pramer, who worked as a tour guide at the diamond exchange in India, says: "For me it's a tremendous experience to come to Israel. I love the people and I love the work and I am even planning to come back again if I can."

Mitali Parekh, a journalist from Mumbai who volunteered in 2007, fell in love with the people, the simplicity of life and the nature she encountered. She described her experiences on Kibbutz Baram in a column published in the Mumbai Mirror last year, noting she had come from a hierarchical society and a large city, so the kibbutz's social values attracted her: "I joined the housekeeping staff at the Elcam factory: Sweeping and mopping large floor spaces give you enough time to put your life into perspective."

However, there are also those for whom volunteering is a kind of "working tourism." Says Dave Jignesh, who volunteered on Kibbutz Tze'elim in the Negev: "There are volunteers who come from India to a kibbutz for the money."

From a different perspective, according to Ariel Immerman, the secretary of Kibbutz Yahel and also the manager of its packing plant, "This is nonsense. They come for the experience."

People who want to go to a kibbutz get a volunteer's visa for three months, which can be extended for up to nine months. They work for about nine hours a day in agriculture, the dining hall and in cleaning; in return they receive lodging and pocket money from the kibbutz - NIS 500 in the cooperative kibbutzim. Privatized kibbutzim pay more in order to cover the volunteers' expenses for food, but once the kibbutzim discovered that volunteers tried to scrimp on food, some replaced part of the salary with meal coupons.

The sum the volunteers receive is far from the minimum wage, but some manage to save and even send money home.

"I hear about this from the coordinators at the kibbutzim," says Aya Sagi, director of the movement's volunteers department, "but my control and theirs over this matter is very limited. If this is what is happening, it is not the aim of the project."

Liaison involvement

The connection between the volunteers and the kibbutzim is made by liaisons employed by the kibbutz program center. There is a preliminary selection process; in India, for example, the intermediary is a veteran volunteer familiar with the requirements who tries to organize potential participants into groups and generally facilitates the whole process. Pramer, for example, paid approximately NIS 6,000, including his flight. Volunteers who apply directly pay NIS 850 to the kibbutz movement, which includes a visa, health insurance and a registration fee.

In the movement they emphasize that these liaisons are not emissaries but freelancers who work with the volunteer department. The United Kibbutz Movement Internet site says, "this is the only way to ensure a place on a kibbutz immediately upon arrival in Israel."

According to Sagi, "The intention is not to make money at the expense of the decent volunteer but rather to provide a service - and pure Zionism."

During busy seasons, in agriculture, for example, when the need for workers increases, volunteers are offered the opportunity to work overtime outside the framework of their program. For this they will be paid NIS 16 per hour on weekdays and NIS 24 on the Sabbath. Still, according to one volunteer, "In India, even if you are working at two jobs, you will save a sum that's equivalent to NIS 100. Here it is possible to save more."

At the United Kibbutz Movement they make it clear that no kibbutz compels volunteers to work overtime. In some instances, volunteers are given the chance to work additional hours, in order to help purchase airplane tickets to return home or continue traveling the world.

Relations between the Israelis and the volunteers around the packing table at Yahel are good; in their free time they go to the kibbutz pub together. Yahel veterans comment that, if in the past volunteers taught the Israelis to drink, nowadays it's the kibbutzniks who are teaching the volunteers from India to do so. In addition, volunteers take part in the social activities, go on field trips and attend a seminar about Zionism at Kibbutz Givat Haviva.

What is the difference between the volunteers and migrant workers, some of whom also come from India? The volunteers come for a short period and for the most part do not have any technical knowledge per se.

"I am very glad they come and I am grateful to them for helping us, but tomorrow they could inform us, 'We're leaving,' and that is entirely their right," explains a coordinator of volunteers at a kibbutz in the north.

In fact, the only commitment is to get up in the morning for work. If someone happens to have drunk too much the night before and comes to the packing plant with a hangover, this is usually accepted with understanding.

"If I go to a kibbutz where I want volunteers to be accepted after people there have been working with Thais [migrant workers] for many years," explains Sagi, "I stress repeatedly, 'Three volunteers might do the work of one foreign worker.'"

Why do the kibbutzim need this?

Sagi: "Kibbutzim want to feel young again, and the universality of the volunteers, their vivacity. Volunteers require a bigger investment of energy; you have to see to their conditions, to trips, vacations - not every kibbutz [is willing to] do this. Some say, 'It doesn't suit us to run a kindergarten.'"

At a recent conference of kibbutz movement volunteer coordinators, the coordinator on Kibbutz Almog, Avi Cohen, explained: "Just as the movement is changing, so is the attitude toward this project." There are kibbutzim that have lost their fervor, he noted, "but to my mind they are the country's ambassadors and for that this project was born - not for cheap labor."