More tomatoes. I reach into a leafy overgrown tomato plant, groping for clusters of ripe cherry tomatoes to pick. This time I found a trove. I pluck them from their stems and place them in a small plastic container on the cart in front of me. Six containers per crate, six crates per cart. My picking partner today is a young Frenchman, a new Oleh, in the process of converting to Judaism. Somehow, over the course of five hours we fill three carts’ worth of tomatoes. We’re in a huge greenhouse, hard on the Gaza border. The steady bang of artillery fire and the chop of helicopter rotors, punctuated by the occasional earthshaking boom of an aerial attack or the roar of a jet engine, provide the soundtrack for our work. Leaving the greenhouse, we see plumes of smoke rising over Gaza.
Since October 7, most Israelis who have not been mobilized have been volunteering their services in whatever way they can. People have volunteered to provide food, clothing, toys, books, and household supplies to the 200,000 citizens who have been displaced from the North and the South. Volunteers are teaching school, providing childcare, psychological counseling, and every kind of support to the thousands who suffered trauma on October 7. Soldiers receive additional supplies and equipment paid for and delivered by volunteers. There are countless examples of the generosity and selflessness exhibited by Israeli citizens.
Like many, I have been doing farm work, for which there seems to be an insatiable demand. I’ve found my volunteer farming gigs through various Facebook and WhatsApp groups that match farmers in need with those willing to work. But I have arranged most of my volunteer agricultural jobs through Leket Israel which buses volunteers daily from Tel Aviv to farms in the Gaza envelope.
To date, I’ve worked picking, pruning and packing four different kinds of tomatoes. I’ve also harvested and packed celery and cucumbers. All my work has been inside enormous greenhouses, though plenty of volunteers are put to work harvesting, planting and weeding fields and picking fruit.
My fellow volunteers are a varied lot. They have ranged from a young Israeli woman who recently completed her army service and isn’t sure what she wants to do next to retirees from the US who have come to Israel for a month just to volunteer. I met a 20-something, non-Jewish woman from Spain who came to Israel to be with her Israeli boyfriend, and decided to stay after they broke up so that she could help with farm work during the war. Others are Israelis living abroad, responding to the pull of their homeland during its hour of need. Recently, I met a couple of unemployed Israeli tour guides harvesting cucumbers. My picking companions have also included Israeli mother and daughter teams, and American father and son pairs. One particularly muscular man, with a shaved head and both arms adorned with elaborate tattoo sleeves, told me he lives in Portland, Oregon with his husband. He is Jewish, but until October 7 had no real sense of Jewish identification. This was his second month-long stint volunteering in Israel. He works at a different farm every day. But most of the volunteers are Israelis who use their spare time to stoop and squat in muddy fields and carry crates full of tomatoes in hot greenhouses.
On a couple of occasions, our busload of volunteers from Tel Aviv has been joined in the greenhouse by others. Once, a unit of young navy recruits, mostly women, came in, semiautomatic rifles in hand, to help prune tomato plants. After neatly stacking their guns near the beehives at the entrance to the greenhouse (leaving one of their number to guard the weapons), they spread out and, laughing and singing, worked through the rows of tomato plants. I asked one of them why, when there is a war going on, they were doing agricultural work. She replied that they were recruited to serve their country, and this is what the country needs.
Another day, a group of about 30 yeshiva high school boys arrived with their teachers. Some wearing white shirts and black slacks, others in dark T-shirts, they noisily set to work harvesting celery. They attacked the plants like locusts. In no time, they, together with our group, had cut all the celery in the greenhouse.
After thanking us for coming, a farmer at Moshav Mivtachim shared with us the story of what happened there on October 7. As word of the terrorist infiltration started to get around on the moshav’s chat group, members of the moshav’s security team left their safe rooms with guns to confront the terrorists at the gate. He said the moshavnikim were greatly outnumbered by the terrorists. They called for reinforcements from the neighboring moshavim. A battle ensued in which many terrorists were killed, but so were a significant number of people from the moshav, including one of his partners in the farm. Fortunately, the civilian defenders of the moshav were able to rebuff the terrorists, who went elsewhere without wreaking the havoc they wrought on nearby kibbutzim. No houses were burned, and there were relatively few casualties. The moshav’s residents were relocated to Eilat. However, this farmer and his family have since rented an apartment in Be’er Sheva, from which it is easier for him to commute to his farm. He told us that the huge greenhouse we were standing in was one of 20 he and his partners owned. They used to have 30 Thai farmworkers, of whom only four remained.
Each day, as the bus wends its way on the muddy, rutted roads of the moshavim, I am struck by the vast sea of greenhouses. I wonder how these farmers can continue to bring their crops to market, without the thousands of Thai and Palestinian workers who were the bulk of the Israeli agricultural workforce. Can the busloads of inexperienced volunteers possibly fill the gap? Yet, a representative of Leket Israel told me that notwithstanding the devasting labor shortage, since the war began, Leket has continued to receive sufficient “surplus” produce from farmers across Israel to support their normal program of distributing food to needy people throughout the country. She said not one family who customarily received food assistance has missed a weekly food package since October 7.
Israelis are remarkable people!