A group of mostly Christians from the United Kingdom on Wednesday completed a two-week "working vacation" at Jerusalem's Botanical Gardens, where they tilled the land and planted trees in the garden's "Bible Path."
The unusual Israel trip, which is sponsored by the Jewish National Fund-UK in coordination with the British Friends of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens, brought a group of 14 people - ranging in age from early 30s to 70s - to work the gardens for two weeks in March, in the 20th annual delegation the group has organized over the past quarter century.
The group included five professional gardeners and a mix of young and old avid amateur horticulturists whose love of gardening was mixed with a love for Israel.
"I felt God told me to come," said Keith Berkley, 67, a pensioner from Worthing who is a member of the UK-based Christian Friends of Israel, an evangelical organization.
"We feel we need to support Israel because it is part of our heritage - not just the sites, but the people themselves," he said, adding that the trip afforded him with an opportunity to make personal contact with Israelis.
The members of the group paid about $1,300 for air and hotel fare to take part in the two-week "working holiday," which included 10 days of working in the garden on a rigorous 8:30 a.m.- 2:00 p.m. schedule and four days of sightseeing in the country.
Victoria Deschamps, 32, of Scotland, said she saw the ad for the trip in a gardening magazine. It immediately grabbed her interest, she said, as it offered her the possibility to return to the Holy Land, which she said had special meaning to her as a Christian.
A nurse by profession, Deschamps had previously come to Jerusalem to do volunteer work with disabled Arab children on the Mount of Olives, and was thrilled by the prospect of returning.
"I didn't want to come on a pilgrimage, and this was like a healthy holiday surrounded by plants," Deschamps said. She added that the project afforded her a great opportunity to speak to people living in Israel in a way that a normal church visit does not.
Others in the group came for the gardening challenge, and out of a purely horticultural interest.
"The first time I came I was attracted to the idea of an active holiday and was interested in seeing horticulture in a different country with like-minded people," said David Norton, 51, of Warwickshire, who was on his fifth such trip in the last decade.
Norton previously served as the head gardener at the Rugby School in the Shakespeare Country, where the sport began.
"You simply cannot do Israel in one visit, and I have long been interested in the history of Israel and Jerusalem, as well as watching how the garden develops," he said, explaining his multiple return tours of gardening duty.
Norton said his greatest impression from his work in the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens was seeing the flowering of different plants in association with others that would not happen in the United Kingdom, citing as an example the alyssum and the antirrhinum flowering together with daffodils and tulips.
"The plants and flowers here have adapted to a cycle of weather in a way not seen in the UK," he said.
The annual event, which is timed for the spring before it gets too hot in Israel, afforded the gardeners the perfect gardening weather, if not the omnipresent sun Israel is typically famed for.
"You have a group of professional gardeners coming on their holidays to do more gardening," said Barbara Steinberg, administrator of the British Friends of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens, which works in partnership with the JNF-UK.
"The remarkable thing is that people continued to come on this project even when there was violence in the region," she said.
Heather Booth, an Oxford septuagenarian and one of the few Jewish members of the group, said she came on the working holiday after hearing about it from a friend who said she had never worked so hard - or laughed so much - on a holiday to Israel.
The 500-meter long "Bible Path" in the Botanical Gardens has most of the 70 species that scientists have identified as some of the 400 types of plants mentioned in the Bible, said Sigal Ofek, the director-general of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens.
"Everybody who works here leaves as a goodwill ambassador for the State of Israel and the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens," Ofek concluded.