In Israel’s early years—even earlier, in fact, during the decades leading up to independence—the kibbutz played an integral role in creating the country’s economic and political infrastructure. Based on a shared economy and hard work, the kibbutz was designed to build Israel from the ground up. It was also, at least partially, meant to attract young Jewish volunteers from all over the world, in the hopes of them falling in love with the country and staying for good—which many ultimately did.
To visitors at the time, the early-day kibbutz shined bright with opportunity, freedom, and charm. Images of young men and women in shorts, picking oranges and tending to farm animals, had been, in the ’60s and ’70s, a useful tool of advertising the kibbutz as a DIY utopia with tremendous friend-making opportunities, a touristic getaway with a great purpose. As the years went by, however, the kibbutz movement underwent a decline in Israel, and as the kibbutzim shrank in size and stature, so did their appeal to visiting volunteers.
In recent years, however, a rebranding process has been taking place, making the kibbutz attractive once more, to tourists and locals alike. Behind the awakening is partially Israel’s appeal as a “startup nation”: instead of orchards, co-working spaces; instead of hothouses, startup accelerators. And, instead of the old ethos of working the land and working up a sweat on the field, kibbutzim looking to attract visitors increasingly focus on wellness, sustainability, and cultural immersion.
Take Gather, for example, a new initiative marrying digital nomad retreats with kibbutz amenities, allowing visitors to stay on a kibbutz while working remotely anywhere in the world. “Kibbutzim already have all the facilities that a community needs: accommodation, a mess hall, a supermarket, a pub, and even a hangar that can be turned into a co-working space,” said Gather co-founder Omer Har-Shai, a millennial entrepreneur who has been working remotely most of his adult life. “So, what if a group of digital nomads could become temporary citizens of the kibbutz?” With this thought in mind, Har-Shai embarked on a cross-country journey, visiting over 40 kibbutzim in search of potential partners. “Almost everyone I met was very positive and excited about the idea of bringing back the volunteers in this new, updated form,” he said. Gather offers visitors a month-long stay on a kibbutz, paired with trips to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, meetings with Israeli innovators, volunteering opportunities, and wellness-oriented activities.
So far, two stays are planned, for December 2019 and January 2020, at two different kibbutzim. While the retreats aren’t free, the idea aligns with the premise of the original kibbutz. “Kibbutzim have been drawing curious and adventurous people for decades,” Har-Shai explained. “Just like these original volunteers, our generation is also on the search for authentic and meaningful experiences. The main difference is that today people don’t want to put their career on hold, and thanks to technology they don’t have to pick between work and travel.”
The participants have the opportunity to volunteer at the kibbutz facilities, if they like, but the focus is a modernized “remote” work environment, in a setting unique to Israel. “Volunteering is definitely not mandatory,” stressed Har-Shai. “The idea behind it is to allow participants to incorporate some physical hands-on work into their schedule, and try out a more balanced lifestyle.”
According to Har-Shai, hundreds of people have expressed interest already. “I’ve been curious about the kibbutz ever since my Birthright trip to Israel in 2015,” said applicant Adam Kaufman, a freelance web developer from Toronto. “After graduating I began working, but also kept looking for opportunities to return to Israel for an extended period. Gather looks like exactly what I was looking for—I can experience life on the kibbutz and meet new people from around the world, while still getting work done.”
While entrepreneurial initiatives and the increasing flexibility of the workplace are global phenomena, the flipside of the coin is growing interest in spirituality, wellness, taking a break from work, and nurturing the planet in the face of climate change. Here, too, the kibbutzim have been working hard on capturing the spirit of the times. Lotan, a kibbutz in the south of Israel, has been running a couple of environmentally oriented programs, catering to anyone who’s “looking for something different and unique to do in Israel,” according to the website. The four-week-long Green Apprenticeship program is an immersive experience that includes lodging at the picturesque Eco Campus, plus classes and workshops centered on sustainability, from building solar ovens to making garden beds, at $445 a week.
“The course grew from an internal process on Lotan, when there was a growing awareness that we should be looking for ways to reduce our ecological impacts, grow some healthier food for ourselves, take responsibility for our waste,” said Mark Naveh, from the Center for Creative Ecology, a spacious facility within the kibbutz that offers eco-domes, an organic garden, a communal space, and workshops on natural construction, organic local food production, appropriate technologies, waste management, and more. “As we continued to develop projects, others became interested in what we were doing and wanted to learn from us. We realized that there was potential for teaching and so we established the Center for Creative Ecology and started running courses and workshops.”
Capitalizing on the millennial and Gen Z tourism to trendy Tel Aviv, the coastal kibbutz Ma’agan Michael is offering tours through the popular Tel Aviv branch of Abraham Hostels favored by young, hip travelers. During the day trip, travelers can tour the kibbutz facilities, learn about the culture and the residents, dine in the dining hall, and explore Ma’agan Michael’s unique aquaculture facilities, including fish ponds and innovative hatcheries—which have been, for years, off-limits to nonmembers, and recently reopened to visitors to encourage the type of eco-conscious visitor these tours facilitate.
Not far from Ma’agan Michael, a new program—powered, in part, by the Kibbutz Program Center—will be launched later this year in Haifa, under the name the Urban Kibbutz New Israel Program, for travelers age 20-30. While not technically on a kibbutz, the program utilizes the ethos of the “communal framework” and focuses on social justice and activism. Highlights include joining a labor union’s newspaper staff to produce a new edition, collaborating with an activist organization, or teaching in a high school.
For a similar age group, the new Free Spirit Experience is inviting young participants to “reconnect to your talents, your passions, your motivation, and also your inner obstacles and possible limitations,” while volunteering at Kibbutz Hazorea. Founded in 1936 by German Jews, this is the birthplace of Shomrat ha-Zorea, one of Israel’s leading furniture chains, and an example of a kibbutz that successfully went through a process of privatization. Free Spirit is centered around key kibbutz values: communal living, volunteering in a group, mentorship programs, outdoor excursions, and a highly social environment.
While the current offerings for visitors looking for a kibbutz experience are far from the idealistic volunteering days of the 1950s, according to Nir Meir, head of the United Kibbutz Movement, “the mechanics of the kibbutz have changed, but not the core.”
Har-Shai, too, believes that the kibbutz is newly relevant for the modern-day traveler: “It seems that the more flexible and freer our lives become thanks to technology, the more we search for belonging, meaning and human connection,” he said. “It’s not by chance that WeWork, the company that started the co-working trend, was founded by a former kibbutz member. The ideology behind the kibbutz, which may have seemed naive and irrelevant a few decades ago, is now very attractive for urban millennials who are looking for alternative lifestyles.”
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Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based food and culture writer.