Volunteering: Four months in the Negev

There are few places left on this planet that are organized after the original socialist principles – and even fewer, where every single person of this place agrees with these principles.

Some of these communities are located in Israel and they are called Kibbutzim. Most of them were established after the foundation of Israel in 1948 and whereas plenty Kibbutzim have turned to a more capitalistic orientation during the last decades, some of them still hold on to their former values.

I had the opportunity to volunteer in such a Kibbutz for almost four months. Part one of my three-part-series on volunteering in the holy land is about my personal experience in Kibbutz Yotvata.

It’s all about milk

Yotvata is a place right in the middle of the Negev desert, a five-minute-walk away from the border with Jordan and about 40 kilometres away from Eilat and the Red Sea. It’s inhabited by approximately 350 permanent members, many non-permanent workers and about 20 volunteers.

K1600_IMGP2243View from Kibbutz Yotvata: The mountains on the Jordan side of the Arabah Valley

To make ends meet, they produce lots of milk. Chocolate milk, banana milk, coffee milk, vanilla milk, strawberry milk and, yes, even normal milk: Yotvata’s market share of Israel’s dairy market is about 60 per cent, which is why Yotvata is one of the richest Kibbutzim in the country (this is why they are still socialist). Also, they are completely secular.

Arriving in Yotvata

On January 6 of 2015, I flew from Frankfurt to Istanbul (there was a snowstorm), then to Tel Aviv (there was a rainstorm) and from there I took a bus to the south (there was a wind- and sandstorm). I arrived on the coldest day of the whole winter. A group of 13 volunteers welcomed me, most of them Latinos, some Europeans, one Korean girl and one South African girl.

Our lovely volunteer-caretaker Voulla showed me around. I got to know my new Colombian roommate Juan, and two days later, I started working at the dishwashing-machine.

Getting to know Yotvata

The first few days were not easy, and I guess it’s like that for most volunteers. I arrived in a foreign place, with foreign people, and they all knew each other quite well already. I’m not really shy, but I also don’t tend to be the most outgoing person in the room.

The work as a dishwasher, eight hours per day six days a week, was unbelievably monotonous and boring. But the good thing was that I saw almost every person in the Kibbutz for breakfast and lunch, making it easy to talk to people and integrating into the group quite quickly.

Finding the charm of Yotvata

The environment in such a place is truly special. No one knows anything about your past except for what you tell them. You learn about the Israeli culture and the Jewish traditions. You don’t have to worry about rent, studies or bills. You have a wide mix of people and get to know different lifestyles from all over the world. You work for eight hours a day and other that that, you don’t have any sorrows. And you are in the middle of the desert, which means that you there’s not much to do but tons of time to spend with the other volunteers (and of course with the Israeli girls who are stunning 🙂 ).

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If you are open-minded, it’s almost impossible not to make good friends. Every other night we played football, watched a movie or just relaxed with some Shisha and good music. The Latinos tried to teach me Spanish, it didn’t really work out though. But the highlight of every week was Friday night, when the Jewish weekend starts. It was like a ritual. We dressed up, went to the special Shabbat-dinner and had some cake with coffee. We put some wine and vodka on the table, pretty much everyone got drunk and then we went dancing in the Kibbutz-Club. It was great.

Leaving Yotvata

If there’s one thing I can’t stand in my life, then it’s routine. Maybe that’s why I travel so much. After two months, I decided to switch from the dishwasher to the gas station because I couldn’t stand my work anymore. A few weeks later, boredom set in again. Around the same time, a few really cool people left the Kibbutz and the Volunteer table in the dining room became quite empty.

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Our group of volunteers

Even though I was still happy with life, it didn’t feel like there was any progress. So after 110 days in Yotvata, I decided to leave. Saying goodbye to my newly won friends was hard. I think it’s only possible to understand that feeling if you’ve lived in a place far away from home and then you abruptly leave without a return-ticket. You build relationships with people that you like, you form a social network, get used to a place and then from one moment to the other everything is gone. Just like that, in the time of a heartbeat. I hadn’t cried in a very, very long time.

Looking back, my time in Yotvata feels more like a social than a socialist experiment. The beginning and the end were not easy, but in between, I had a great time. There’s a lot to learn about group dynamics, and also about life.

I’m still in contact with some of the people that I met there and this is one of the few places I’ve travelled that I actually might visit again.

I’m glad that I was a Volunteer in Kibbutz Yotvata.

Pictures from Israel

Petra: Magie im Tal der Nabatäer

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