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Reflections from Our BDJ Members in Israel #1

12/28/2023 03:16:01 PM


Gail Katz

Here are some thoughts/volunteering advice on our first day together as a family.

It is actually somewhat hard to navigate volunteering on your own, and especially with kids.  There are so many WhatsApp groups, it's overwhelming.  And the information is often confusing as to what the actual needs are and when.  Most agricultural volunteer opportunities are limited to people 18 and up.  I believe it is because of insurance issues.  There are two general places where farms are concentrated.  One is the Otef, and one is north, with a bunch concentrated around the area between Netanya and Haifa.  So putting together a location you feel ok going to/have easy access to and one that takes kids is challenging.  Kids can help in the Leket distribution center, but not their general picking.

However, if you sign up in enough WhatsApp groups, you'll find farmers like Shaul, who I suspect has the same insurance terms as his colleagues, but who could give a flying fig about section 7b roman numeral iii of his contract when faced with an entire field of pomellos and grapefruits that are rotting and his whole livelihood is at stake.  In fact, he told me "yeladim, ze chashuv tagiyu".  We drove down to his farm in Kfar Menachem, which is close to, but still outside the Otef.  We weren't sure about going to the Otef ourselves, since there are restrictions on driving routes and we're not familiar enough to navigate.  Luckily, it was a quiet day and we had no azkarot.  The weather was beautiful and we picked for hours.  We had to use a combination of ladders and just good old fashioned climbing in trees, but we filled multiple giant bins with fruit.  Shaul was right, because the kids were prolific, much more than the 18+ volunteers!  And of course I agree with him that it was so important they partake.  Even my mother at 85 was a big part of it, as she and Sam had a system where he'd climb into a tree and throw the fruit down to her for collecting in bags and buckets,  It was really a drop in the bucket, but Shaul was very nice and grateful. He told us that normally, these fruits would have been picked much earlier, while they were green, so they could be exported and ripen over time.  Now, all of it will get juiced.  He told us that his Thai workers, when they were here, could fill 1500 bins in 2 weeks.  The volunteers have done that same amount since the war began, so he is very behind.  We asked him if the government will assist in any way and he said sadly - they've been talking about solutions, but it is all talk.  He has no faith in their talking.  His only moment of being able to express anything not depressing was when he talked about the volunteers and how much people have tried to help him, even if it is a drop in the bucket.

From there we went to a vegetable packing plant in Moshav Azaria where we processed herbs, lettuce, onions (sort of giant scallions) and cut and cleaned pumpkins.  We then ran them through machines that bagged them and then we boxed them.  Elior and Shir, the owners, were amazing about organizing volunteers.  They had "avodah b'yeshiva," work that could be done by older volunteers while sitting.  So they had my mother and a group of four other 80+ folks at a table weighing, trimming and boxing herbs.  Of course, it turned out that the older man next to my mom was someone she went to camp with as a kid.  He spent a lot of time talking to my kids about what a great second baseman my mom was when they played baseball at Camp Northstar.  We evidenced her continuing skills earlier in the day as she caught and tossed pomellos, but it was really fun to hear about it from a first hand witness.  The other couple was from Riverdale and turned out to be connected to us too - the best friends of the in laws of one of my closest friend (it's closer than it sounds, that's just Jewish geography for you).  My kids took tons of pictures of the elder zone, it was truly a sight to see these people come together, working and chatting.

In the meantime, we were cutting and cleaning and operating machinery with the kids.  It was work that in other circumstances would have been the subject of a NY Times expose on child labor, but seemed totally normal under the circumstances.  Elior had 60 Thai workers previously, but he is down to 11 very dedicated workers who stayed.  None of them spoke English and few had limited Hebrew, so we really had no way to communicate, but somehow we worked really well side by side.  One of them handed 13 year old Ayala a pumpkin cleaning and cutting tool and immediately realized that she was struggling with it because she is a leftie and the tool is curved for rightie handling.  He took it back and started to fiddle with it until he managed to curve it the other direction for her.  Sophie was operating the machine that bagged the scallions, and Sam, Aliza and I were cleaning them prior to Sophie feeding them into the machine.  Shir showed us how to cut the hairy part off the bottom, but admonished us not to cut the onions themselves - "kashrut", would then be an issue because it was onions, he said.  Only in Israel.  His only nod to safety issues with a 12 year old handling the knives was "tizharu - don't be a ninja" and walked off.  It was a wonderful afternoon of humanity, connectedness, and kindness.

We came home exhausted, filthy, scratched up and covered in dried blood from all the scratches (climbing pomello trees is not easy work) but totally grateful to be part of this amazing tribe.  My belief in the ability of the Jewish people to overcome has never been stronger.  It is mostly depressing to have conversation after conversation around how bad the government is and how painful each soldier death is and the feeling that there is no ability to even imagine  what the future looks like, but yesterday was dominated by a better feeling, even if it is just a day before we have to go back to the hard stuff.                     

One other observation - on Monday, I spent the morning in Tel Aviv at meetings with law firm colleagues of mine and visited their office near the Kiriyah.  I was there in March too, and at that time, we would wander down to the kiriyah to the lunchtime judicial reform protests, which filled the streets around the Army headquarters.  Now, the exact same streets surrounding the kiriyah are entirely devoted to the return of the hostages.  Signs demand a new deal, people camp out in tents demanding action, and hostage square is right there, with a giant electronic sign reminding us down to the second how long people have been in captivity.  It is intense.  For a second, I did a double take to realize I was on the same street I stood on seven months ago, it has an entirely different feel. It feels like these are demands intended toward the government, but also somehow towards a higher power.  I say this because there is a vibe of helplessness, watching that clock just continue clicking away.  It's just so sad.  There are a lot of signs that say things like "there is no left and right, we're all in this together" but it's not enough to counter how desperate you feel looking at picture after picture of those still left and those who never made it out alive.  People are working and in the office and trying to ignite the economy and keep moving, but in the main part of commercial Tel Aviv, they make sure you never have a second where you don't have the hostages top of mind. 

Please G-d, we will get some good news soon.  We need it.


Mon, June 17 2024 11 Sivan 5784