Kibbutz Program



By Lydia Aisenberg

Within the space of a few weeks events celebrating the input  of some 350,000 former volunteers to kibbutzim since the mid-60s took place in Dublin, Belfast, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo.

Tied in with year-long celebrations in Israel of the 100th anniversary since the first kibbutz was founded, the Kibbutz Movement and Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs worked together with former volunteers and organizations that sent individuals and large groups of youth to work in kibbutzim primarily in the sixties, seventies and eighties, to build events that would attract people to what were highly successful events.

Yuval Danieli, Director of the Kibbutz Movement Art Archives, Artists and Exhibitions prepared an exhibition of photographs walking visitors through various aspects of the kibbutz movement from the beginning to modern times, the original Hebrew text translated by Maurice Herman, a former volunteer and long time member of Kibbutz Hazorea and who just happens to originate from Dublin.

Following the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s the number of would be kibbutz voluntary workers dropped drastically although until present times there has never been a period of no volunteers at all.  Nowadays 27 kibbutzim continue to take people between the ages of 18-30 from abroad seeking an experience of a different kind living and sharing the unique way of life of those kibbutzim that adhere to the ways of old, and the still community spirited but privatized kibbutzim known as the ‘renewal’ kibbutzim – the latter making up around two-thirds of them today.

Among the participants at the Dublin, Belfast and Amsterdam events – attended by the writer as a speaker –  many of the ex-volunteers riding a nostalgic blast from their youthful pasts centered on what a great time they had had – ‘the best time of my life,’ or ‘the most important period of my life’ were expressions that cropped up again and again whether it be in Eire, Northern Ireland or among the hundreds of Dutch folks taking a nostalgic stroll down memory lane and in true kibbutz fashion – together.

A large number of the former volunteers were people in their fifties and early sixties – white haired and slightly less agile than they were in their kibbutz days – and not a small number of younger folks who had volunteered because one – and in some cases both – of their parents had had a kibbutz experience and imbued in them the wish to do so as well.  Among the former volunteers attending the Dublin event were Andy and Dolores Ellman who volunteered at Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek in the Jezreel Valley some 30 years ago.  Andy, who is originally from Manchester, met his Dubliner wife Dolores on the kibbutz and naturally both have extremely fond memories of those days. 

Other Dubliners who attended were a number of nuns and a priest – not the path taken by most former volunteers for sure!  Stan Brindley, nowadays in his early eighties, volunteered in 1969 for a couple of weeks at Yodfat in the Galilee. “It was a marvelous experience and Yodfat was a beautiful place,” said Stan – who also dances a mean hora!

Dubliner Rachel Carleton volunteered a number of times during the 1980s at Kibbutz Ein HaHoresh and Mick Kunz, a farmer, volunteered at Kfar Giladi in the Galilee and Sde Boker in the Negev.  Mick’s friend and fellow Irishman Gregori – a sociologist - volunteered both at Kfar Giladi and Kibbutz Shfayim on the Mediterranean coast.  Both gentlemen have followed with a heavy heart the development of the kibbutzim and privatization of some of those they had experienced and grown close to during their volunteering youthful days. 



Temperatures below zero and snow on the mountains around Belfast did not deter well over one hundred folks from Northern Ireland attending the Belfast event.

Organized by the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel,  Aya Sagi and the writer were extremely warmly welcomed by NIFI co-chairman Steven Jaffe who in the early 1980s had been a volunteer at Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek where the volunteer leader – the writer! – was the volunteer director.

“During the time I was there you got me a ‘cushy’ job in the kitchens and remember you giving me books about the history of the kibbutz movement and how I marveled at the ideological commitment to Chinese or Soviet models.  I was 18 then, 43 now!” exclaimed Steven.

Again many of the people gathered in Belfast who had spent time in kibbutzim had done so mostly in the 60s, 70s and 80s and included North Belfast Assembly member Alban Maginnes who said his own kibbutz volunteer period had had a formative influence on his political career.  “I learned a great deal about social responsibility during my time on kibbutz – where, by the way, I worked preparing chickens for market in a nearby town and in the banana plantations,” the Assemblyman told the audience.

An exhibition of photographs explored the connections between Northern Ireland and the Kibbutz movement, showing Kibbutz pioneers training at the Millisle refugee farm during the Second World War – many of whom were to eventually make their home at Kibbutz Lavi in the Galilee.

Ex-volunteers from Northern Ireland spoke very positively of their experiences in Israel, whatever the period of time they spent there, or the year.   Belfast vintage car renovator and businessman Jim Black, who also volunteered on Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek in the 1970s, told those gathered that his kibbutz experience had been lifesaving.  He has remained in close touch with his ‘kibbutz family’ since and some years ago spent a week on the kibbutz together with a small group of Catholic and Protestant trainee mechanics who had renovated a vintage Rolls Royce together.  Jim drove the car through Europe to Greece, continuing the journey to Haifa by ship. Those involved in the project plus two instructors flew to Israel and all were hosted at Mishmar HaEmek for the duration of their stay in Israel.

In a fascinating building converted into a theater, community center and art galleries and situated just meters from one of Amsterdam’s many picturesque canals and bridges, almost four hundred former kibbutz volunteers - their spouses and in some cases also their children - gathered to celebrate the special period when they volunteered on kibbutzim. Some came laden down with battered photograph albums tucked under their arms or pulled out envelopes bulging with photographic memories of days long gone.  Some, in discovering others who had been on the same kibbutz at the same time squealed with delight when recognizing each other – and even more picking up on a name of ‘their’ kibbutz connected with those who had been on the same kibbutz but maybe years before or some years after.  The atmosphere was charged with emotion and stories flowed like the waters in the canal outside!  Expressions used to describe their time on kibbutz were no different from those heard in Dublin and Belfast – “best time of my life” being among the most common.

Retired bicycle shop owner CEES SWINKELS not only came with his volunteer certificate awarded in 1971 but also with a copy of a book about bikes that his photograph appears in – and through the window behind where Cees was sitting, rows of Amsterdam two-wheelers of course.  Cees volunteered in Kibbutz Amir and Sde Nehamia where he picked apples, worked in the fishponds and kitchen and how else not – repaired bikes!


Taking a pictorial walk down volunteer lane – left are Elise Okhuizen who also volunteered in Sde Nehamia in 1976 and with friend Marita who volunteered with her.  During her 6 months at Sde Nehamia Elise worked in the kitchens, fishponds, orchards and coffee club whilst Marita also worked in some of the same places but also in the cotton fields.  A few gentlemen sitting around an album of kibbutz adventures some 30 years beforehand joked with each other about the days when they all seemed to have a lot more hair and were much slimmer than in present times!

During a workshop the former volunteers were given the opportunity to further discover who else among the hundreds present had volunteered in the same kibbutz as they and during a coffee break small groups gathered with more than just being former volunteers as the area of commonality but also the same kibbutz.

“Today I turned the clock back over 30 years and I want to thank those who have given us the opportunity to recap on those marvellous days in Israel,” said Michael from Amsterdam, a volunteer in a Galilean kibbutz in the early 1970s who milked cows for 3 months and said he was constantly made fun of – good naturedly – by the kibbutzniks cracking jokes about a Dutchman milking Holstein cows in Israel

The full day event was capped with a few hours of energetic Israeli dancing – and a good time had by all

The paper as a word doc.