One of my favourite jobs on the kibbutz- more fun than picking!


This is an extract from one of my stories. It is from 1996, when I spent four months volunteering on a kibbutz in Israel.

Kibbutz Horshim is located about thirty kilometres east of Tel Aviv, almost on the border of what is now the occupied territories, or the West Bank. Established in 1955, it has a residential population of around 200. Half of those are actually kibbutz members (kibbutzniks);most of the others simply rent accommodation here. A kibbutz is somewhat like a small town, except that the businesses and industries in a kibbutz are not owned by individuals, but by the collective, and profits are pooled, and then distributed as necessary by a council of kibbutzniks. There are over 300 such kibbutzim in Israel, and people come from all around the world to work on them as volunteers.

As you read on, you will see why.

Volunteers from south Africa, America, France, Japan and Australia; dressed up for the jewish holiday of Purim. Shaun, Johan, Collette, Alex, Makiko, Barbara, Sophie, Rhonda and myself.

Horshim earns income from enterprises including cotton, wheat, avocados, chickens and dairy cattle. There is also a large commercial greenhouse, a factory producing building insulation material, and five kindergartens. Many people are also 'employed' in service industry positions such as the communal laundry ( komuna ), the kitchen and dining room, the gardens, the offices and the garage.

The cotton and wheat fields sprawl out over 200 acres. This land is irrigated with water from the kibbutz' sewage treatment plant, which also treats sewage from the neighbouring Arab village of Kfar Bara. Luther, from Texas, is the only volunteer employed in the fields. He often works longer hours than the rest of us, but I think he enjoys this because it allows him to boast that he's the hardest worker. Funny that he's spent the last two days in bed. Maybe he's been 'sick'! He helps the three or four kibbutzniks handle the crops, with extra help only being needed at harvest time.

The avocados however, are being harvested almost all year, from September to May, requiring up to six kibbutzniks and four volunteers. This year, from forty-two acres, we picked a record 800 tonnes, up almost 100% on last year. During the hot summer months in between, we're kept busy pruning the trees and maintaining the irrigation system. At the moment, there's usually just myself and my boss Amos working. My Italian workmate Paolo has been incapacitated for three weeks with a knee injury he sustained while dancing!

My hairy Italian workmate, Paolo

Sometimes, we are 'helped' by some of the schoolchildren on the kibbutz, who have to put in a certain number of work days per year. The kids also help in the chickens- well, what can I say about the chickens? Every six weeks, a truckload of baby chickens arrives, and several volunteers are called upon to unload these cute, yellow, fluffy little things into their new home; a huge, empty shed with the only luxury being a layer of sawdust on the concrete floor. Six weeks later, we are again called on to empty these sheds, now wall to wall with dirty, scruffy, smelly, noisy white beasts. What happened to the adorable little pets we put there just six weeks ago? Needless to say, this is not something we look forward to. The raffet or dairy is another place most of us choose to avoid. Unlike dairy farms I've seen in Australia and New Zealand, the 400 cows here do not roam and graze in green fields, but are kept under cover and fed on hay. The smell of this place can be really something! However my roommate Alex, another American, has been working in the raffet since he arrived here four months ago, and really seems to enjoy it. I think he's become used to the smell. I hope I'll soon get used to the smell of his dirty work clothes and gumboots lying around our flat. Just joking, Alex!

My roommate Alex always insisted on making the gilrs feel very welcome in our room!

The girls didn't even seem to mind that he smelt like a cow!

All I know about the greenhouse is that it looks very big, and that other volunteers who have escaped from there say that the boredom of working here is the worst torture known to mankind. I don't dare to attempt to find out any more, lest I become the next victim. The Termokir factory is also somewhat of a mystery, not unlike Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. People arrive, and people leave, and there are strange noises coming from within. But the real mystery is that almost everyone on the kibbutz owns a Termokir t-shirt, and try as I might, I can't find out where they get 'em. I must be fair to Johan, the South African volunteer who works in the factory. He has invited me, on several occasions, to have a guided tour of the factory. I just 'haven't gotten around to it'- life's a bit like that around here.

I began to wonder how a kibbutz of two hundred people could need five kindergartens. Actually, most of the children come from outside the kibbutz, and their parents pay for them to be looked after here. Working in the kindergarten is difficult if you don't speak Hebrew, so only one volunteer, Makiko, a crazy Japanese girl ( my girlfriend ) works there. She is fluent in Hebrew, and her main interest is making kids cry.

The komuna (communal laundry) usually has one volunteer helping the few kibbutzniks who run it, but at the moment they're on their own; Sanna, the Finnish volunteer asked that she never, never, never be put back in 'that place'. Apparently, your boredom threshold has to be quite high to survive even one day in the komuna. Stop the presses! - Yoko, our new Japanese volunteer, is now working two days a week in the komuna, and seems to be handling it okay.

The kitchen and dining room are probably the most 'social' places to work, with up to six kibbutzniks and as many volunteers working there at once. Most of the jobs here are quite menial; washing pots, cleaning tables, and peeling potatoes, but there are certain 'perks'- such as kitchen staff Coenie and Masuko being seen a few days ago gorging themselves on supreme pizza when the rest of us were served plain cheese pizza; and dining room staff always licking their lips after 'tasting' another one of Mosher's wonderful cakes. The kitchen not only provides food for the whole kibbutz, but has a contract to cater for groups outside.

Meanwhile, just outside the cool sanctity of the ceiling-fan-ventilated-fly-screened-for- comfort- Mosher's-cakes-for-everyone dining room, toils David. David is an American volunteer (yes, another one!) and is the man of the garden, helping two women...and loving it! I've worked with David on three occasions now, and it seems that someone has neglected to tell him about a morning break. I'm certain he won't leave until his personal battle to rid the kibbutz of every thorn, thistle, weed and damned lantana bush has been won.

Volunteers are not asked to work in the offices, but we are often found in there, as that is where we can send and receive faxes -for free! The ladies in the office are very sweet; I wonder if it has anything to do with the avocados I supply them? The post office downstairs is guarded by a gruesome gargoyle. The owner of this hideous beast (she thinks it's a dog, poor soul ) is Jaffa, the postmistress. Jaffa's manner can be even more intimidating than her garg... dog, possibly explaining the five degree drop in temperature as you dare to walk through her doorway. But if you get past her gruff exterior with gifts of avocados and flowers, and flattering comments about her hairstyle, you may just start to receive some of your mail. We are allowed to send three letters or five aerograms per week at no cost, and we can also leave our films at Jaffa's office for developing.

The kibbutz has a small fleet of about twenty cars and vans and it is up to the four or five men in the garage to keep these, and other machinery, maintained. It seems miraculous to me that most of these vehicles still run, since on the numerous occasions I have visited the garage, I have never seen these men actually performing any mechanical duties. Instead I find them talking on the telephone, talking on a mobile phone, just talking, having a coffee break/ cold drink break/ cigarette break, driving in or driving out, or washing their hands ( I think to wash off the traces of Mosher's cake).

The kibbutz has it's own nurse, and a dentist in attendance certain days of the week. These services, and any necessary medication, are free for kibbutzniks and volunteers- all part of the idea of a collective.

Three meals a day are provided in the dining room ( except on Shabatt ) but if you tire of salad for breakfast and dinner every, every day ( how could you ever tire of that? ), there are two stores on the kibbutz. Hereupon, we discover one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of the modern world. The two shops are open different hours from each other, and different hours on different days...sometimes. For example, the kolbo is open from 2:00 till 4:00 on Sundays, 1:00 till 2:00 on Wednesdays, and 11:00 till 12:00 on Fridays....maybe. The marcolit is open sometimes in the daytime, and sometimes in the evening.... maybe. The kolbo sells vodka, wine and cordial; the marcolit sells beer, cider and fruit juice. The kolbo sells chocolates, sweets and chips; the marcolit sells ice creams and coke. Amazing! Life as a volunteer becomes much easier when you finally give up trying to figure out what times the kolbo, marcolit and komuna are open. I've been here over three months now, and I'm proud to say I have no idea ( about anything, I'm sometimes told!)

I guess each volunteer's personal experience here is unique, but generally speaking, our average workday is as follows: we start work at 6:00am , after a cup of coffee together in the dining room. The work is often hard, but in a relaxed atmosphere. We break for breakfast at 8:00, which is a big social occasion; we break again for lunch at 12:00, and our day is over around 2:00. Favourite after work pastimes are: sleeping, drinking, and going to the pool. The long, hot July afternoons are ideal for all of these.

Volunteers spending a lazy afternoon sunbathing on the lawn ouside our rooms

The arrival of new volunteers is always looked forward to with much anticipation. It is fascinating to watch friendships, relationships and romances unfold. Also, people's character seems to change as they adjust to the worry-free lifestyle of the kibbutz. After dinner, we usually gather in each others rooms to tell tall stories and drink a little of our $2 a litre vodka. we also have our own bomb shelter- the only one which is above ground- where we can go to play loud music and carry on like idiots.! One of the bomb shelters has recently been converted into a pub which is open on Friday nights. Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath, and our only day off. For most of us, it's a welcome day of rest, but sometimes our volunteer leader Arielle organises a day trip to the beach, or to a good spot for hiking and swimming.

Myself and Makiko, with Sanna, Masuko, Alex, Luther, and David- out for a late afternoon hike near the kibbutz

Hint, hint Arielle! During my time here, we've been taken to Zavitan Falls in the Golan, and to the Banyas, also in the north. On that trip, we took a slight detour and (very illegally) photographed the Lebanon border.

Zavitan falls. Beautiful but icy, coming straight from the melting snow in the Golan Heights. Even a quick dip leaves your whole body bright pink!

Every second week, we are taken on an outing, usually to the movies, but this week we're going to the Dolphinarium in Tel Aviv - nothing to do with marine mammals, but a South American themed beachside dance club. Tonight, we're all going to Jaffa, near Tel Aviv. There's some sort of festival going on, but for most of us (especially the 'long termers') it doesn't matter what's on. It's just a free chance to escape from the kibbutz for a while. We are also allowed three days off per month. Last month, Makiko and I used our days off to see the sights of Jerusalem. That used up much of my three month bonus, but it was worth it.

Many of us learn a new value for money after a while here. As a volunteer, we receive ten shekels a day pocket money (US$3). To avoid the problems associated with a high turnover of volunteers, they have introduced a retroactive ten-shekel-per-day bonus for anyone who stays three months. That's 900 shekels- well worth sticking around for, and most of us do. After that three months, we are paid twenty shekels a day, which is enough to allow you to save a little, if you're frugal. But for me, the biggest bonus was the all-expenses-paid volunteer trip which they hold every three months. The last one, in May, was to Masada, the Dead Sea, and Eilat.

The mineral levels in the Dead Sea are so high that the water has a density greater than that of a human body. A very strange sensation!

Luther and I 'swapping sides' under a hot and cold waterfall at Ein Gedi

We were taken on a 4 -wheel drive tour through the desert, we abseiled, we cruised on a yacht and snorkelled on the Red Sea.

This was just a small obstacle. The main event was a hundred foot cliff!

A relaxing way to spend the day; drinking icy cold Carlsberg on a yacht on the Red Sea out of Eilat.

All in all, I'd have to say, the t-shirts are right - "It's Fun To Be A Volunteer!"

Visit my favourite books page for some recommended reading relating to my time in Israel. Roll your mouse over the cover photo for a brief description. Click for more details, to purchase online at a discounted price from Amazon, or to view other titles. (if you buy a book, or any other product from Amazon, through this link on my site, I get a small commission- even more if you buy the book you clicked on. Go on, buy a book today!)

tips for surviving the kibbutz experience

In many countries, there are agencies which make a living from Israel's kibbutz system. If you are interested in spending some time as a volunteer on a kibbutz, these agencies will give you information, arrange your airfare and initial accommodation in a hostel, and guarantee prompt placement on kibbutz. However, you will save a lot of money if you do it yourself, and all of the volunteers I spoke to found a position on a kibbutz almost immediately, by visiting the Kibbutz Placement Office in Tel Aviv.

Try to talk to some other backpackers who have been on a kibbutz. If you are going to Israel independently and applying through the placement office in Tel Aviv, you should be able to have some degree of choice regarding your placement. For example, you may prefer a kibbutz close to the city, or you might want to 'get away from it all'. It should be possible to find out what sort of work you will be asked to do. Most of the work is fairly menial, so don't expect to be too choosy, but you may have good reason for wanting to work (or not work) in a particular field.

I can only speak from the experience I had at Kibbutz Horshim, but generally it seems that kibbutzniks are quite accepting of foreign volunteers and our different ways. Just remember that the kibbutz is their home, and you are a visitor there. In such a tightly knit social environment, a little respect goes a long way.

Some volunteers think a kibbutz experience is going to be a holiday, and understandably kibbutzniks will resent this sort of attitude. Everyone appreciates a little effort and hard work, and you will be accepted all the better for it.

Understand from the start that this is not a backpackers' hostel; this will probably be your home for the next few months. The other volunteers will be your circle of friends for the length of your stay. An ill placed remark, or a dalliance into the wrong person's bed early in your stay can have lasting consequences. 'Sus' out the situation first.

A kibbutz is a very social environment; you will enjoy your time more if you get involved. However, if you plan to stay for a matter of months, you should also find other activities, outside the kibbutz. The kibbutz can become your personal prison, if you don't make the effort to get away on your own sometimes.

Just have fun; everyone else will be!

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