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Volunteering during a time of need

 

Leiah Elbaum is a freelance writer and mother of five from Modiin. Since October 2023 she has been administering a  local forum connecting volunteers with Israeli farms in need.



Around 6am on an overcast morning, the clouds taunt us into thinking maybe June’s extreme record-breaking heat will finally break.

 

My teen and I are at a bus stop dressed in old denim and work boots, broad-brimmed hats and light cotton kerchiefs. Despite the hot weather we're covered head to toe, to protect from the strong sun and prickly branches we know from experience to expect.

 

A few regulars arrive and we greet each other with tired "boker tov"s. We're all there for the volunteer bus that will take us to a farm somewhere in the Otef, Israel's Gaza border region.

 

All over Israel, people are getting up at the crack of dawn and boarding buses that will take them to farms from the north to the south. Volunteers come from all walks of life, from teens to pensioners in their nineties. Most I meet are local Israelis, but some are volunteers from many different countries. Everyone is doing their part to ensure Israel's food security.

 

I remember sitting down with my husband late at night on October 7, as we were still absorbing the shock of what had happened - was still happening then - the vast numbers of Israeli casualties, the massacres of agricultural workers, the news that many had been taken hostage. Hearing the names of the kibbutzim and moshavim that were attacked, I commented to him that the impact of this attack on Israel's farming sector could be devastating.

 

This region is one of Israel's prime agricultural areas, the salad bowl and granary of Israel, where a huge percentage of Israel's staple crops such as tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, wheat, citrus and greens are grown.

 

In the chaos of those first days, there was a tremendous swell of grassroots activity to support the war effort and maintain civil society. People cooked meals and packed supplies for refugees and civilians in frontline areas, as well as first responders and the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who received emergency call-ups to the army reserves. Ordinary people drove to the war zone near the Gaza border to evacuate civilians and deliver aid even as hundreds of Hamas rockets continued to fall on Israel. It was clear the state was overwhelmed, and without these efforts we could not have made it through that terrible time.

 

I worried about the farms. Many farm workers, both Israelis and foreign workers, were massacred or taken hostage by Hamas during the October 7 invasion. In the immediate Gaza border area farms were decimated, facilities and orchards burnt, livestock slaughtered or stolen, dairies destroyed, farm equipment looted or severely damaged. The Hamas attack was in part clearly targeted at Israeli agriculture and Israel's ability to keep food on the table.

 

All over the country farms found themselves overnight without labour, having relied on Thai workers who fled the country, workers from Gaza who for obvious reasons were no longer coming to work in Israel or young Israelis who had received emergency call-ups to the army. Massive assistance would be needed to rehabilitate the damaged and destroyed farms of the Gaza border, and to help farmers across the country care for and harvest their crops. Otherwise Israel would be facing a serious food crisis. Thousands of Israelis came forward to volunteer.

 

In the first few months of the war the volume of rocket fire was intense. I remember volunteering in fields and orchards in central Israel and hearing the thuds of rockets and whoosh of Iron Dome. More than once after some particularly intense booms I looked up to see multiple rocket interceptions over towns just a couple of kilometres from the open farmland where I was working.

 

Volunteering in farms in south-central Israel, only a half-hour drive south of the Tel Aviv area, we'd hear the regular thunder of artillery from the Gaza war zone just another 20-30 minute drive south. Often we'd be deafened by the constant roar of military aircraft overhead.

 

I realised that there were lots of people who wanted to help but didn't know how to connect with the farms in need. Online groups were organising, but it was a deluge of information from desperate farmers all over Israel, hard to sift through.

 

I opened a WhatsApp group to connect farmers in my region of the country with local residents. What started as a close-knit group soon had hundreds, later thousands, of members. I began getting phone calls at all times of the day and night, from local farmers and from volunteers, including people overseas in all different time zones who wanted to come and volunteer but didn't know how.

 

I found similar initiatives elsewhere in Israel, big and small, some well established NGOs like Leket, Israel’s national food rescue service, some grassroots groups born of the war. We reached out to each other and to farmers and volunteers alike. Group members stepped up to share knowledge and advice, and help organise the information.

 

People came and gave their all, and most importantly kept coming.

 

I've picked pomegranates with secondary school kids, civil servants, swimming instructors and accountants. I've harvested olives with librarians from Israel's National Library and Hebrew University and with the pupils and teachers from a Bedouin special needs school who came all the way to central Israel from their town in the Negev desert to lend a hand.

 

I've weeded strawberries with exhausted medical professionals on their days off and trimmed trees with law students from Nazareth and scientists from Rehovot. I've picked clementines in the pouring rain with tour guides and English teachers, sweated buckets tending to tomato plants in humid greenhouses with dog walkers and rabbis and pruned grapevines with hi-tech employees, university lecturers, chefs and truck drivers, fried in the burning sun working in fields of lettuce and beetroots with sports coaches, lawyers and translators.

 

Jews, Arabs, Druze, Christians, religious and secular, volunteers come from every part of Israel’s diverse society. And everywhere there have been pensioners, sometimes in the majority, people in their 70s, 80s and even 90s in varying states of fitness who've put in hours of hard work in often difficult conditions.

 

October 7 was an earthquake for Israelis, a trauma we are still in the thick of, but in these dark, sad and stressful times the volunteering spirit of Israeli society is a beacon of light and hope.

 

By Leiah Elbaum 

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