In recent years many a volunteer to be found in kibbutzim were following in the footsteps of a parent - and sometimes both - who had worked on kibbutzim in their youth.
Frances Street and her son Karim, originally from London but these days living in Wimbourne Minster and Boscombe respectively, is such a parent and offspring pair of former kibbutz volunteers albeit their experiences on the collectives were three decades apart and in different kibbutzim.
“My first visit to Israel was in 1966 and it was a truly rewarding time as for me it was a great way to experience a totally different way of life in a structured environment – an experience that definitely enriched my life,” explains Frances who spent a year volunteering at Kibbutz Usha near Kiryat Ata.
“I returned to Britain just as the build-up to the 1967 Six Day War began and so I returned some weeks later to once more volunteer and I was sent to Kfar Glickson where I stayed another 6 months.”
During her time in Usha Frances worked for 9 months in the kibbutz poultry farm as well as stints potato collecting, washing dishes and cleaning public bathrooms throughout the kibbutz.
“In Kfar Glickson I worked mainly in the gardens as well as here and there in the dining-room and laundry. I kept in touch with some of the other volunteers but sadly as we all went our separate ways this diminished,” said Frances, these days an award winning manageress of the British Red Cross charity shop in Wimbourne Minster, an historic market town in Dorset.
Frances’s son Karim volunteered in 1998 at Kibbutz Hulata in the Galilee.
“My mother always spoke so fondly of her time in Israel on kibbutz,” Karim explains to this writer – who volunteered together with his mother in the sixties and they have remained close friends since. “It sounded so ‘other-worldly’ compared to our London council estate existence and thus exotic and adventurous. By the time I was ready to leave school I knew that I wanted an adventure and could think of no place better to start than a kibbutz being as I was travelling alone and the concept of staying among likeminded people that were around my own age was an additional bonus. Also, it wouldn’t take bundles of cash to achieve,” he said with a laugh.
Arriving at the kibbutz around 10 in the evening, Karim was shown his room and then “quickly hustled to the ‘Disco’ where kibbutz youth and other volunteers were in full swing.”
“I have to admit that I had a little too much to drink that night out of excitement and remember trying to find my room in the dark and stumbling upon a dairy!” he reminisces.
“I was so amazed at the variety of fruits and vegetables that were being produced and was introduced to a few I’d never heard of before like pomello – now one of my favorites and also how impressed I was with how productive and industrious this little community was with their shoe factory, glass workshop and dairy.”
Like most volunteers Karim had wanted to work outside.
“I had to go through the right-of-passage that all the volunteers did then –the kitchens – but after a month I was given the opportunity to work in the orchards.”
Karim has special memories of one of the holidays celebrated during his time on kibbutz, that holiday being Purim.
“We were told it was fancy dress but nobody mentioned that that year it had a theme so amongst the sand that had been poured in the gym to create a beach and the Hawaiian shirts all the kibbutzniks were wearing we must have looked like a crazy bunch on the beach. I turned up as a vampire and then there was a Frankenstein, a ladybird, an angel and whole host of other non-Hawaiian related costumes. It was embarrassing to begin with but we got over it after a few cocktails,” he said laughing.
“I spent 8 months on Kibbutz Hulata. I was 18 years-old and it was a different world from what I knew, but the sense of community made me feel comfortable and left a yearning to become a part of that community, even if only in transit. Being taken out of my comfort zone with nothing or no one familiar forced me to stand on my own, as an individual, and I truly felt my time there helped me grow into a more rounded individual,” said Karim.
“I learnt what it was to work the land, I met many amazing people, both Israelis and foreigners and managed to experience a life I’d only ever read of before and also experience the country that had been ingrained into me through religious studies and discovered why it was called ‘the land of milk and honey’. I visited the old town in Jerusalem and was transported back in time. I swam for the first time in the Dead Sea and was at Christ’s birth place on Christmas Eve - amazing.”
Whilst this writer (a member of a kibbutz for over 40 years) was visiting Frances and family in England recently, a British newspaper published an in-depth article in one of the weekend supplements dealing with the topic of kibbutzim and volunteering in those communities, as it was and where things stood with the phenomena in present times. “Can the Kibbutz survive” a bold headline asks, a black and white photograph of young people working in a banana plantation and “Where now for Israel’s utopian dream?” asks another headline on an inner page. The magazine also featured an interview with the volunteer director of Kibbutz Baram on the northern border with Lebanon, a kibbutz that during apple picking season can be home to as many as 80 or more volunteers from all over the world even these days.
“I had thought that because of privatization of the kibbutzim I wouldn’t be able to send my kids to a kibbutz. As I followed in my mother’s footsteps, inspired by her journey thirty years before. I had always hoped that my children would do the same and keep the cycle going but due to the privatization of the kibbutzim that doesn’t seem like an option now,” said Karim sadly.
Not for long though once he read that 27 kibbutzim still take volunteers and that others are contemplating opening up the gates to volunteers once more so that others can share in the very special experience that enabled so many thousands of people from dozens of different countries to not only bond with each other but also with a culture and way of life that is unique only to Israel – kibbutz.