Austrian Kibbutz volunteers at Kibbutz Ein HaShofet working in the apple orchard, summer of 1973
Kibbutz volunteers are people who come from all over the world to live and work in a kibbutz in Israel. These volunteers, mostly young people, usually stay at the kibbutz for a short period of time, working in various branches of the kibbutz economy (agriculture, kitchen, gardening and factory). Most volunteers typically come to Israel for a short period of two to three months under a volunteer visa and participate. Volunteers receive food and board, and sometimes pocket money. Some volunteers combine work with studying Hebrew at a kibbutz ulpan. Some kibbutzim organize trips and cultural events for the volunteers.
The volunteering phenomenon in the kibbutzim began in the mid-1960s when the young generation of Baby Boomers from western nations became curious about kibbutz life and eager to experience it first-hand, and as a result decided to come to Israel, volunteer in a kibbutz and gain experience of living and working in a collectivecommunity. Although up until the Six-Day War the kibbutzim had very few volunteers, after the conclusion of the Six-Day War the world's interest in Israel grew, and in the aftermath large numbers of volunteers arrived. As a result, many kibbutzim began arranging the necessary housing and infrastructure to accommodate this growing phenomenon. During this period there was also an increased interest in Israel among the Diaspora Jewish communities, from which the majority of kibbutz volunteers initially originated.
In the subsequent years kibbutz volunteering gradually increased significantly and was institutionalized. With time the proportion of Jewish kibbutz volunteers gradually decreased while the majority of the volunteers at that point were non-Jews who originated mostly from Western Europe and arrived either in organized groups or as individuals. Initially the kibbutzim were very satisfied with the phenomenon as it brought cheap labor, which minimized the need to hire workers and brought openness to the various cultures of the world. Nevertheless, over time some kibbutzim also became aware of the negative aspects of the phenomenon as it became evident that some individuals among the volunteers used drugs, consumed alcohol, and a growing rate of intermarriages with kibbutz members often involved the migration of some of those members to the country of origin of the volunteers.
During the peak of the kibbutz volunteers phenomenon in the 1970s, around 12,000 volunteers arrived each year, and worked in hundreds of different kibbutzim throughout Israel.
Following an acute economic crisis that many of the kibbutzim in Israel experienced during the 1980s, many kibbutzim began adopting an action-oriented market economy and concluded that basing the economy on the volunteer workforce was not a profitable model. Meanwhile, some kibbutzim gradually began to employ foreign workers from Thailand in the agricultural sector of the kibbutz and Israeli workers in the industrial and services sectors.
Following the intensification of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict during the last decades of the 20th century, and in particular after the Second Intifada started in 2000, many countries ceased to cooperate with the project and as a result there was a significant decrease in the number of the kibbutz volunteers. The decrease hit its lowest point in 2001, when only 100 volunteers arrived in Israel. In recent years, there has been a slight increase in the number of volunteers, and in 2007 approximately 1,500 kibbutz volunteers came to Israel.
In total, 350,000 volunteers from 35 different countries have volunteered in various kibbutzim in Israel since 1967, with most of the volunteers through the years coming from the United Kingdom (circa 50,000), South Africa (circa 40,000), Sweden (circa 25,000), Denmark (circa 20,000), and Germany (circa 15,000).
Debra Winger, American actress and the star of An Officer and a Gentleman, for many years told interviewers that she volunteered on an kibbutz, sometimes even saying she had trained with the IDF, but in a 2008 interview she said she was merely on a typical youth tour that visited the kibbutz.
"Debra Winger". People. December 26, 1983. Retrieved June 24, 2016. At 16, she ran off to a kibbutz and did her basic training in the Israeli Army.
Klein, Uri (July 14, 2006). "On Her Own Terms". Haaretz. Retrieved June 24, 2016. Exaggerated reports about her also concern her biography. For example, at one of the Internet sites devoted to her it is stated that she spent part of her youth on a kibbutz in Israel and even served for several months in the Israel Defense Forces. Winger laughs. Indeed, when she was 17 she spent four months at Kibbutz Beit Zera, but she never enlisted in the IDF. She took part in Gadna (youth cadet) activities, and apparently once told this to someone who told it to someone and it developed into an urban legend, according to which Debra Winger was once a soldier in the IDF.