By Judy Maltz
In their heyday, back in the 1960s and 70s, Israel’s kibbutzim would draw thousands of volunteers a year – young men and women from around the globe, eager to experience this unique form of collectivism with its strong emphasis on working the land.
These days, only a handful of kibbutzim still take in foreign volunteers. At best, a few hundred come every year. But as young Israeli entrepreneur Omer Har-shai recently discovered while traversing the country in search of potential kibbutz partners for a new initiative, their presence is sorely missed.
“These young people, coming from so many different countries and speaking so many different languages, added something very special to the landscape of the kibbutz,” he says. “And there is definitely a sense of nostalgia for those days.”
A brand new project he will be launching this week aims to bring young people from around the world back to the kibbutz – but in a framework better suited for the 21st century.
“This is about reinventing the kibbutz experience by making it millennial- and laptop-friendly,” he explains.
The name of his project is Gather, and the idea is to offer digital nomads – people who take advantage of technology to work remotely, often very far from home – the opportunity to experience life on a kibbutz.
Har-shai will begin accepting applications on Wednesday, and he already has two kibbutzim signed up.
“By its very nature, the kibbutz has all the facilities digital nomads would need: spare rooms, a communal dining hall, laundry services, tennis courts and swimming pools. So everything is taken care of for them,” he says. “Another major advantage is that kibbutzim tend to be located in very beautiful places, surrounded by fields and orchards.”
Har-shai, 30, sees his role as that of a matchmaker, connecting groups of digital nomads to kibbutzim that fit their specific preferences. According to the plan, each group of about 20 to 30 participants will spend a month on a kibbutz.
In the old days, volunteers would receive room and board in exchange for labor. That isn’t how it’s going to work this time, though: Digital nomads will have to fork out between $2,000 and $3,000 to cover their expenses (mainly room and board).
Still, Har-shai doesn’t think this outlay will be a deterrent, considering that the time spent on the kibbutz won’t come at the expense of vacation days and as many participants will probably cover the cost by renting out or subletting apartments elsewhere.
A recent survey by management services provider MBO Partners found that nearly 5 million workers in the United States define themselves as digital nomads, and that many more – an estimated 17 million – see themselves adopting this lifestyle sometime in the near future.
These digital nomads include both self-employed and salaried workers, among them writers, computer programmers and sales personnel. Generally young and without families, they like to say the world is their office. Some spend extended periods working in exotic countries, while others stay close to home, bouncing from café to café – wherever they can find a table for their laptop.
Har-shai, who has worked both as a film distributor and a marketing executive for a high-tech company, considers himself a digital nomad of sorts. For lack of a permanent office, he conducts most of his daily business from his favorite café in Tel Aviv. It was during a stint in South Korea, he says, that he became exposed to the international community of digital nomads. “That’s where I came up with the idea of doing something like this in Israel.”
In an attempt to feel out the potential market, Har-shai has shared his business proposal in several Facebook groups that serve the digital nomad community. The feedback was very positive, he says, adding that he “got hundreds of responses from people around the world.”
His target audience is young workers aged 25 to 35, and he believes many of those who end up coming will have already visited Israel.
“My hunch is that those who sign up will be looking for an opportunity to come back and do something different in the country,” he says. “Let’s not forget that we’re talking about a whole generation that missed out on the kibbutz experience.”
The first group will be sent to Kfar Blum, a kibbutz on the shores of the Jordan River, in December. A month later, the second group will be sent to Tuval, a relatively young and much smaller kibbutz also located in northern Israel.
To make sure his customers get the authentic kibbutz experience and don’t sit glued to their screens the entire stay, Har-shai plans to offer them a taste of the good old days as well.
“The program will also include opportunities to volunteer on the kibbutz,” he says. “As I see it, what better way for these people to stretch their bodies and get some physical activity than to get their hands dirty in the fields?”