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Kibbutz volunteers keep on cultivating communal spirit

Picking oranges under glorious Mediterranean sunshine - this is the popular perception of volunteering to work at an Israeli kibbutz.

Coming to Belfast later this month is kibbutz veteran Lydia Aisenberg. Lydia runs educational programmes for kibbutz volunteers and is keen to renew contacts with past volunteers living in Northern Ireland. She will also meet people who are interested in volunteering in the future.

The kibbutz movement, which many people credit with making the desert bloom, is this year celebrating its centenary.

The first kibbutz was established in 1910 at Deganya by Jewish pioneers escaping pogroms in Russia. They were faced with swamps and malaria and had no experience of farming.

From such beginnings, the kibbutz movement established thousands of Jews on the land, developed thriving agriculture and made a disproportionate contribution to the development of Israel.

Lydia explains that, over the years, tens of thousands have come from all over the world to work on kibbutzim as volunteers - including many from Northern Ireland.

"The figures are an incredible 350,000 volunteers since the 1960s, from over 35 different countries, of all ages and from different religious and ethnic groups," says Lydia.

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"A kibbutz is originally an agricultural settlement where everyone shared communal ownership in just about everything. There have been many changes over the years, including more private property and factories as well as farming.

"But what makes it still unique is the very strong community bonds and shared ideals which hold a kibbutz together."

Lydia, who was born in Wales, has lived on kibbutz for over 40 years, having started as a volunteer herself. "What makes kibbutz volunteering so special is the principles which govern everyday life.

"Many people volunteer because they fancy an extended stay in the sun. But they come away with an insight into the kibbutz's ideals of communal responsibility and sharing."

As well as fruit-picking, volunteers might find themselves cleaning out chicken coops, or working in kitchens or factories.

In return, they get some pocket money and receive accommodation, food and social activities put on by their host kibbutz.

There are scores of kibbutzim in Israel. Kibbutz Lavi in the Galilee is a religious kibbutz. Many of the pioneers at Lavi were trained in farming at the Jewish refugee settlement in Millisle, Co Down, during the Second World War.

Lydia's own kibbutz, Mishmar Ha-Emek, in the Jezreel valley, has more recent connections with Northern Ireland. Lydia has been a 'kibbutz parent', mentoring a number of volunteers from the province over the years.

One she remembers, in particular, is Jim Black, who made the journey from Belfast to Israel in a Rolls-Royce, raising money for charity, but soon got used to less luxurious conditions on the kibbutz.

As part of the centenary celebrations, an international network for volunteers, past and present, is being set up on the web and there will be opportunities for trips and reunions around the world.

Lydia Aisenberg will be speaking at an event of the Northern Ireland Friends of Israel in Belfast on everyday life on a Kibbutz. She will also be available to meet kibbutz veterans and prospective 'kibbutzniks' individually.

For more information, contact nifriendsofisrael@ymail.com, or visit the website: www.nifi.org.uk.

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