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Plan for Israel-style 'volunteer villages' in UK

    Students are to be offered help with housing costs in return for devoting some of their free time to voluntary service.

    It is part of an ambitious UJIA project embracing both the Jewish and the wider community, one in which organisers hope will help "work towards a society of engaged citizens".

    The Ayalim project is based on a wildly successful student programme in Israel in which students also get help with tuition fees. Just six years old, Ayalim now has 5,000 students living in dedicated volunteer villages around Israel.

    In Britain the programme will begin more modestly. Four Jewish students with a youth movement background will move into a rented flat in London in the autumn term, and, in exchange for a two-thirds rent subsidy, plus a budget to fund their Ayalim activities, they will give 12 hours voluntary service a week.

    David Janner-Klausner, UJIA's programme and planning director, said: "The volunteer activities can be anything, from education for children or adults, to helping vulnerable groups inside and outside the community.

    "We hope that Jews will light a beacon on this to other communities."

    The focus will be specifically on off-campus projects and will not be confined to the Jewish community: they could include, the UJIA explained, construction, decorating, working with children on after-school programming, or perhaps volunteering with a homeless group.

    Three of the four students who have been selected for the Ayalim UK pilot programme are going to Israel for a one-week training programme with Ayalim in Kiryat Shemona. They will be accompanied by David Yehuda Stern, who will be working with them in London. Dr Helena Miller, UJIA's research and evaluation director, said: "We know that it won't be the same as here but it will give them a great start."

    Dr Miller said that Ayalim UK would only take students from their second academic year onwards. The plan is for the volunteers to stay at the Ayalim flat for a year, with an option to renew if there is mutual agreement. Those who have been recruited so far, two female students and one male, come from the Noam, RSY-Netzer and Bnei Akiva youth movements.

    Noam Roth, of Bnei Akiva, and Deborah Blaustein, of RSY, said this week: "As individuals we have a diverse range of backgrounds from Bnei Akiva to RSY-Netzer, Leeds to North West London, but as a group we have strong common values. Ayalim UK is a hugely exciting opportunity to live and learn together and build a community focused around engagement in social action and Tikkun Olam. We hope to use our year to grow a focus of community in central London, a relaxed, open and pluralist space where diversity is celebrated."

    Doug Krikler, the UJIA's executive director, said that there had already been interest in the project from students in Birmingham and Glasgow. "If it is a success in London," he said, "we hope to roll it out nationally next year." But David Janner-Klausner went even further. "The Israeli system is so straightforward, volunteering in exchange for subsidies. There's no reason why Ayalim couldn't be adopted across British society."

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