A Scholarship to Israel
by Jennifer Ayling
Kibbutz work was something that I had always associated with volunteer work in Israel. The cheesy video we had studied at our 'cram the programme into 24 hours' briefing weekend had succeeded in banishing many of the traditional stereotypes associated with kibbutz life from my mind.
However, I was still half expecting a strange combination of red faced, weather worn women scattering seeds in the blazing heat and flower power 60's children playing guitars and eating hummus around a communal camp fire. Oh yes, the first six weeks of the Bridge programme held many shocks for me, but needless to say I was in no way disappointed with what I discovered, and in many instances the phrase 'truth is stranger than fiction' rang true.
I'm not going to sugar coat the situation. Living in the pockets and amongst the dirty washing of five people for almost every minute we are here was never going to be frictionless. We have all tried to help each other through the ups and downs of the programme, and the fact that the group is (on the whole) a tolerant support system whilst away from home, has been crucial to my enjoyment of the programme. All in all, it would be an impossibility to go on a Bridge programme and not learn about teamwork. For me, the times we have spent just sitting around talking and looking at stars, obsessing about food, or just laughing at each other has been as much of a valuable insight as any of our placements or enrichment days.
So anyway, kibbutz life. I still don't know if it was the rough wilderness environment of the Negev, the heat, the isolation or simply the monotonous routine of the summery winters' days that we spent on Yahel that made it seem like a timeless community, disconnected from reality and normality. Our work was varied although we began by virtually martyring ourselves, labouring in the scorching fields to save pomelo trees from sunburn. As it happened, the harsh circumstances did wonders for group bonding - a definite case of 'if you didn't laugh, you'd cry' and within a short space of time, most of us were promoted to grander positions in the community. I was grabbed by the prestigious dining room and immediately put into training as assistant floor sweeper - a job that came with the perks of six hour breaks and unlimited food!
But, as anyone who knows anything will tell you, the emphasis of kibbutz life should not fall on the menial work that us volunteers are expected to perform, but rather on the stunning range of social activities that naturally occur when young people from all over the world are thrown together in the middle of the desert.
The group had a chance to acclimatise on kibbutz, develop relationships, and learn the very basics of Israeli society in a relaxed environment, enabling us to cope with our first really challenging project - teaching in a religious youth village in the heart of the Galilee.
If we had looked like quivering 'just-left-schoolers' on our first day, things may have turned out very differently. Mainly, I was teaching very basic English to the weakest kids in the school; the alphabet, simple phrases and names of objects. However, there were many opportunities to talk to the students about life in Britain using a combination of sign language, broken English (fluent English sentences resulted in blank looks) and our ever-increasing knowledge of Hebrew, courtesy of our eccentric teacher Esther. The days were fairly intensive, especially as we had started an enrichment program of lectures, tours and activities to expand our cultural knowledge.
We have had plenty of opportunity to satisfy our thirst for travel around and outside the country. The people that I have met along the way have often been colourful and charismatic, and have contributed more than even the breathtaking sights or stacks of history to my overall enjoyment of the country. Again and again I am shocked by people's hospitality, courage and sometimes just by their vast depth of knowledge. Although I can't as yet launch into a 'look how Israel has changed me' speech, I would certainly be saddened if I had, despite the varied challenges I have undertaken remained exactly the same person who stepped onto the plane in January to begin this collision with Israel.
The Bridge in Britain / Gap-year programme of Friends of Israel Educational Trust is a scholarship scheme. 6-12 school-leavers win awards covering air fare, insurance, board and lodging for 5-6 months.
The Trust organises work and educational placements on a kibbutz; in a boarding school for parentless immigrants/refugees; in a new town; and in an Arab community within Israel. Plenty of free time to roam and explore both within Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan.
Friends of Israel Educational Foundation
About the Author
Jenny Ayling of South Yorkshire spent six months in 2000 in Israel and the Middle East on the Bridge in Britain / Gap-year programme of Friends of Israel Educational Trust.
Image courtesy Masa_Israel