First Impressions Don’t Last
John Carson, author of Beer And Bagels For Breakfast, spent 12 months on a Kibbutz near the Gaza Strip. He provides a look at what to expect when working and playing in a small community.
I arrived on the kibbutz, a few miles from the Gaza Strip, full of anticipation and enthusiasm for trying out a new way of life for twelve months. When I first saw my kibbutz volunteers’ room, I thought that I had made a big mistake. There was just a bed with a sheet, a table, chair and a small wardrobe. The walls were covered in graffiti and there were cracks in the uncovered windows.
I had saved up enough money for a year in Israel, and wasn’t going to give it up straight away – I had an open mind and was willing to give the volunteer life a go. In the weeks that passed, as I got to like the kibbutz more and enjoyed myself, I discovered that we spent very little time in our rooms anyway – it was just a place to sleep, have parties and get some privacy with a loved one! (Privacy is a VERY rare commodity as a kibbutz volunteer – you live, work and eat with the same people every day of the week so everyone knows everyone else’s secrets.)
It is a six-day working week in Israel, so getting up on a Sunday morning took some getting used to, especially if you had been in the pub the night before and had got home a few hours earlier. New volunteers do not have a choice of what job they do; people are put where they are most needed.
I have stayed on three kibbutzim for a period of two years in total, and every time new volunteers started in the dining room. This is an easy job, and great in the winter months because you can have lots of hot tea and cakes, and listen to the radio as you work. The dishwasher is a busy job too, but prepare to get wet, especially when the machine is cleaned and the hoses come out. Don’t worry about your clothes because the kibbutz provides free working clothes, boots and a laundry service.
In return for working hard – and I mean hard – everything is free for a volunteer on a kibbutz: food, accommodation, a trip every three months (this can vary from kibbutz to kibbutz), swimming pool, tennis courts, gym and we had free alcohol on a Friday night in the pub which was a fantastic bonus.
Some of the kibbutz members (people who live there permanently) are a bit aloof at first. This is not a sign of being unfriendly, but they see so many volunteers come and go that they really can’t get to know them all. I found that the longer you stay, and the better you get to know them, they are actually very hospitable and sociable. I made friends there that I still keep in touch with and meet up with even now I’m back in London.
You will meet other kibbutz volunteers from all over the world, get to know them, party with them and – very often – sleep with them. Nationalities I met included American, French, German, Australian, Dutch, British, Scandinavian, Brazilian, South African and even Japanese. There is a great camaraderie between kibbutz volunteers and they tend to stick together because everyone is there for the same purpose, and living together, so even if you are travelling alone, or are shy, you will DEFINITELY make friends – so don’t worry about being a lone traveller.
I mentioned trips. Normally, kibbutz volunteers are taken on a three-day trip every three or four months, paid for by the kibbutz. Places I went to included Eilat, the Dead Sea, Jerusalem and my kibbutz gave me ten free days of to go to the Sinai and Egypt – but I had to pay for that one myself.
Kibbutz volunteers are paid a VERY small amount of pocket money. I only got four shekels a day, but certain necessary things are provided free such as toiletries, aerogrammes to any country and condoms.
The social scene is fantastic. Beer is very cheap on a kibbutz and plentiful. There are always barbecues going on, national holidays and weddings when everyone is invited for free food, drinks and dancing. That is one of the best aspects of being a kibbutz volunteer – the atmosphere at a social gathering when there are around 300 people having a good time.
I have been a kibbutz volunteer four times now and had such a great time that I wrote a book about it called Beer And Bagels For Breakfast. I guarantee that you will have an excellent time if you try it for at least a month. I bet you stay longer!
Image courtesy Chadica