Home inSight Volunteering in Israel: Part V

Volunteering in Israel: Part V

Jewish Policy Center

Editor’s Note: We received this today from our on-the-ground volunteer in Israel: “I made arrangements to fly home on Monday, so the reports will be winding down. (Much rejoicing.)” We have been pleased to keep you updated and will continue until he hits terra firma in the US. In the meantime, there is still this:https://hatzolair.org/campaign/funds-for-hatzolah-air-israel-operations. And our reminder that a generous JPC member will be matching contributions above $180 to a total of $20,000. Keep going.

Monday, November 20

I arrived at a farm down south early today and they put me right to work.  The farm is owned by a family displaced from Gaza when Israel withdrew in 2005 [Ed. In hopes of having the Palestinian Authority build an operative government under the terms of the Oslo Accords]. Now, most of the families were bombed out of their homes in Ashkelon at the beginning of the war in October.  About 30 members of the family that lived here were gone for about two weeks until things got sorted out.

I arrived at the farm and went into the processing area.  It smelled of onions because today was scallion packing day.  The packers are ladies who were born in India but are Jewish Israelis.  As Yogi Berra once said, “Only in America.”

There was a misunderstanding when Eli dropped me off.  I thought the farm would have a place for me to stay.  It didn’t.  I pointed to my sleeping bag and said I would sleep at the farm.  There was a lot of discussion in Hebrew that I didn’t understand completely, but it involved the words “American” and “stupid.”  I then showed them a picture of the shipping crate, and the conversation went from “stupid” to “crazy.”  The bottom line is that we were too close to the border to sleep in that area. Working there is fine because if anything happens you can go into the bunker with the Indian ladies.

My job today was to work with another volunteer tying off netting. The farmland is divided into about 10-15 acre lots that are covered with clear fabric – not a greenhouse but close, and each unit is huge.  During the summer, there are dark nets just under the ceiling, so the plants don’t burn in the sun.  In the winter, the nets have to be tied back and secured so the plants get more sun.  It goes like this: take ladder to post, secure ladder, climb ladder, gather and tie off netting, descend ladder, and repeat. Many, many times. Do this while trying not to step on the plants or fall off the ladder.  I was successful at each, mostly. My new motto: “Tying nets for the Eretz.”

Back to accommodations.  After the confusion, I made reservations at a hotel in Ashkelon, but Hila, who runs the farm office and is the daughter of the family that owns the farm, said she had spoken to her (Australian physician) husband and I was welcome to stay with them.  I’m writing this from her home.

My quads are dead.  According to Tim Cook’s little machine, I took 13,000 steps today, but he didn’t realize they were mostly up and down the ladder. My friend Mr. Aleve and I are looking forward to a good night’s sleep. Then back to the farm tomorrow by 7:00.

Love to all

Tuesday, November 21

I made arrangements to fly home on Monday, so the reports will be winding down. (Much rejoicing.)

I mentioned that I stayed overnight with Hila and her family.  She and her husband made a great dinner, which followed the Israel rule that for any special meal there must be at least four kinds of meat.  We talked politics, of course.  Hila’s husband Damien, an oncologist, and I also discussed how much it would help the Jewish people if Israelis gave up smoking and used sunscreen.

I slept in the bunker room, which was great since I didn’t have to worry about going anywhere in an emergency.  Everyone would come to me. There was no emergency last night.

This morning we went back to the farm and arrived at about 7:30. Today my job was planting lettuce, which is more complicated than it sounds. You might have heard of Israeli drip agriculture.  The irrigation water is fed to the plants through small holes in a hose. This means that each plant has to be situated properly next to the hose relative to the hole. And the plants next to adjacent hoses have to be situated properly relative to each other.  As you’re working this out, you have to plant each small, delicate plant without crushing the other ones around you. I felt a tremendous responsibility to Hila’s family to get it right, so thoughts and prayers for my lettuce plants, please.

The good news is that, unlike yesterday, there were about 30 other volunteers.  All Israelis.  Apparently, the new, new thing in Israel is for offices to take bonding outings and volunteer at farms.  Today, a group from a tech company called Ness was there.  There was a lot of flirting and arguing and laughing and Israeli pop music, but also a background of drones and artillery.

Eli made arrangements last night for me to meet with the mayor of Sderot, so he picked me up from the farm and we (me sweaty and covered in mud) headed over. Now, for all the talk of civilian casualties in Gaza, people may forget that Sderot has been under persistent rocket attacks from Gaza for about 20 years.  (Aside: Our son Ben came to Israel for his Bar Mitzvah trip with a Rabbi who shall remain nameless, but his initials are Shmuel Herzfeld. At the time, Sderot was under a fairly intense attack. Our only request for the trip was that they not go to Sderot. So of course, that was the first stop. The unnamed Rabbi also had Ben smuggle back a rocket casing, which is now in a time capsule under Ohev Sholom synagogue.)

Today, Sderot is a ghost town. Almost all of the 35,000 residents have been evacuated to other parts of the country. The mayor works out of a compound well back from the street and hard to spot.  His main job now is being mayor to six different scattered cities.  The national government provides a place to stay and certain necessities, but not schools, transportation, welfare services, and other programs the city provides.  So, he has to recreate these at locations around the country. Amazing guy.

I asked what he thought (or would like) Gaza to look like after the war.  He talked about a no-man’s land inside the Gaza border patrolled by the Israeli army.  The remainder of Gaza would be like the West Bank — under Palestinian control, but with Israel moving in to address security issues, like rocket attacks. There was also some discussion of international control, for example by a commission of Abraham Accords countries, but I didn’t follow whether that referred to the No man’s land or the entire Gaza.

On the way out, we bumped into Eyal Zamir, a senior Ministry of Defense official; we also bumped into his extremely menacing bodyguards.  We chatted with him briefly, but he was more interested in talking about his time in the US last year at a DC think tank.

Back to the farm and the day was winding down.  The Thai workers who stayed in Israel have returned (the farm had found places for them to stay in the far south). Today was cilantro and cabbage packing day.  Hila, Arye (a teen volunteer who is also staying with Hila and Damien) and I just got back to her house.  In her community, Yad Binyamin, groups of kids are running around from house to house collecting food for people who need it. It’s weirdly like Halloween.

Back to the farm tomorrow morning and return to Jerusalem tomorrow evening.  For now, I have an important appointment with Mr. Aleve and a hot shower.