When I visited Kibbutz Shamir last June, I was surprised to learn that the kibbutz no longer takes international volunteers, that it hadn’t for five or six years. The reasons were largely economic: since privatization, much of the work formerly done by volunteers is now assigned to kibbutzniks or to hired outside labour, from nearby communities or Asian guest labourers, which maintains a more efficient continuity—you’re not always training a new set of backpackers—for managers.
My friends on the kibbutz said that they missed the volunteers—the energy and new perspectives that they brought to the kibbutz. (Of course, my friends are biased: most are either former volunteers or kibbutzniks who married former volunteers.) When I visited the kibbutz movement’s Volunteer Office in Tel Aviv, there was a line of disappointed travellers who were being told that there were no spots available anywhere at that time, which suggests that other kibbutzim have also cut down or eliminated their use of international itinerant labour.
One kibbutz spokesperson also told me that, despite the line-up I witnessed, volunteering has become less attractive because there are fewer agricultural jobs for young volunteers to do (like me, most come from the city and find toiling in the cotton fields or avocado orchards for a few months an exotic working vacation) and the remaining needs tend to be for “service” jobs like kitchen and clean-up duty—and who wants to travel halfway around the world for a McJob they could get at home?
It’s clear the heyday of the kibbutz volunteer movement has passed. (When I told a friend recently I’d been a volunteer, he said, “That’s a very 80s thing to do.”) Travellers who might once have journeyed to Israel to work on a communal kibbutz or moshav now often head to different countries to do WWOOF’ing—that is, to be a Willing Worker On Organic Farms. There’s a whole movement, which began in the U.K. in 1971 and which I’d first heard about over a decade ago, and I was reminded of it again by a recent article about a WWOOF experience titled “Costa Rica: A 21st-century kibbutz.”