For some 80,000 Ethiopian-born Jews, moving to Israel was an abrupt end to a tradition of agriculture that spanned hundreds of years. Most grew up working the same land year after year, as their parents and generations before had, going back 1700 years. Since the 1980s, most have fulfilled their ancient dream of moving to Israel. Today, however, many live in concrete apartment complexes in cities where open plots of land are scarce. Now, a group of elderly immigrants in Rehovot’s Kiryat Moshe neighborhood have come together to preserve their ancient agricultural traditions in a new homeland.
Twice a week just after dawn, twenty Ethiopian-born senior citizens, ages 65 to 93, trek from their apartments to a field on the Hebrew University’s Rehovot campus, where each tends his or her own patch of land. There, they meet up with enthusiastic student volunteers from the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment. Together, they make up a magical triangle: elderly farmers sharing ancient traditions with future agronomists, uniting over their love for the soil and growing food crops.
The transition to Israeli life has been painful for many Ethiopian seniors. They have experienced acute culture shock while adapting from a traditional society to a global Western society, and they worry about the changes that are taking place in the younger generations. But today, participants look forward eagerly to smelling and touching the soil again each time they come, harvesting crops they have tended and grown, and returning home with baskets full of produce, which they share with their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. Their smiles and pride at being busy, self-sufficient and providing for their families, while finally being given an opportunity to show off their expertise, are the best reward possible for those of us involved in the program.
Many students tell me they’re now “addicted” to their mornings with the seniors. Aside from the smiles, joking and laughter, they receive generations’ worth of traditional knowledge that would otherwise have been lost, including information about traditional methods and crops. For some students, working side by side with the seniors in the field is the first time they’ve left behind the theory of the classroom for the harsh realities of agriculture: irrigation, pests, climatic stress and more. Sharing failures and challenges with these elderly farmers who have overcome so many hardships offers these students valuable life lessons.
And I’ll admit: with my own parents gone, I have secretly “adopted” these new parents: fragile yet industrious, smiling, caring and generous. A while ago, I was out in the fields carrying a large bag of corn that some of the seniors had given me. An elderly woman came over and offered me more corn. I assured her, with a smile, that I had plenty. I could barely carry what I had already. Receiving the seniors’ gifts even made me feel awkward at first – I can afford to buy vegetables from the supermarket. But I’ll never forget what this woman told me. “That is fine, but I am Molonesh, and Molonesh, too, wishes to give to you.”
Sometimes we each need our own private Molonesh to comprehend that every person, no matter what his or her circumstances, needs to give back in order to find meaning in life. All they need is the opportunity. We’d love to expand our program. The seniors tell us that many in their community are eager to join in, but right now, we’re at the limit of what we can do. Our faculty has provided land, but there are other expenses and as the program grows, these expenses grow as well. Please join me in helping these individuals give back through reconnecting with the soil, with their agricultural traditions and with the next generation.
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Dr. Alon Samach is an Associate Professor of Plant Sciences at the Rehovot-based Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture Food and Environment of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.