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Allen Selis
Education is the launchpad for social change
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Pulling tomatoes off the vine to the sound of artillery fire

We 15 volunteers needed to fill 80 pallets of 6 two-liter tubs each, if we wanted to help keep the farm on its feet
Every week, dozens of volunteers help keep farmers across the country going strong. (courtesy, Dean Lichtman)

It’s barely eight in the morning, and I’m crouched on hands and knees in the red silky soil of Otef Azah, picking cherry tomatoes at Meshek Lichtman. We left Jerusalem with the sunrise and now we’re about 10 kilometers (6 miles) east of the border with Gaza. A half-hour south of Be’eri. Just west of Patish. We took a wrong turn on our way here, driving through fields until we hit a large sign that read מקום התכנסות לגבעתי — Givati Staging Area. Soldiers in their underwear and t-shirts were brushing their teeth aside Humvees and armored personnel carriers. We doubled back and took the long way around until we found Dean near the farm.

Dean runs the greenhouse on a small plot of land nestled inside Ein haBesor that he works along with his father. He stands astride a mountain bike with Yoga, a chocolate-colored Labrador. Yoga greets us with a wag of his tail as Dean pushes the strap of an M16 back over his tattooed shoulder, freeing a calloused hand and gives me a firm handshake. We don’t know each other aside from a few WhatsApp messages, but the moment you step into Dean’s life, you’re a friend. That’s just the kind of person he is.

After a quick tutorial on tomato picking, we get to work, filling pallets of two liter tubs, six to a pallet. There are about 15 volunteers from all over Israel, and in order to keep Meshek Lichtman on its feet financially, we have to fill 80 pallets today. Usually a group of expert pickers from Thailand would do this work, but most of them fled after October 7. Only two of Dean’s foreign workers remained, and he treats them — and us — like family.

The work is relaxing, though it’s physically intense. We crouch down to pull bright red tomatoes off the vine, leaving others to ripen, then slog forward, as our boxes get heavier and heavier. Lavi, working the row next to me, has a great playlist going. RB and some Santana mixed with Israeli rock from the ’80s. Velvet soil. Birds chirping. Inspiring music. Then the booms start. It’s artillery fire from Tzahal (IDF) positions into Gaza.

You don’t just hear the outbound fire, you feel it, a basso profundo that you sense with your gut as much as your ears. It goes on for about two hours, pausing, then resuming with no particular rhyme or reason, as helicopters and drones clatter and whine overhead. I look across to another, more seasoned volunteer and ask if one gets used to the sound…and does it help to know that it’s outgoing fire from our forces, not incoming missiles from Hamas? She purses her lips and dismisses my last question with three curt words: “תופת זה תופת.” “It’s all the same hell.”

During our lunch break, Dean sits with us and tells harrowing stories of how a small number of his friends saved Ein haBesor on October 7 through a combination of grit, good tactics, and a few outright miracles. Dean was supposed to get married last month, but since the השבת השחורה, that black Shabbat, every ounce of his energy has gone into recruiting volunteers, picking vegetables, and filling orders. He thought about closing the farm, but Dean is a fighter and “as long as I’ve got air in my lungs, I’m moving forward.” On October 27, Dean’s family asked him to take a break for just one evening. He arrived home in dusty blue work pants and found his parents, a few friends, and his fiancée…wearing her wedding dress. They got married on the spot. After the ceremony, Dean went back to the greenhouse to run the irrigation pumps one last time.

We make quick work of the last 20 pallets, overshooting our goal generously. Dean scolds us to stop picking and gathers us for one last thank you. He sends us home loaded down with boxes of tomatoes, with good wishes, and with the request that we send more volunteers his way. We pile into the car, aching from a long day of hard work, dusted generously with Otef Azah’s red soil, and happy to see Otef Azah alive and in bloom.

Be a part of this story! Reach Dean via WhatsApp to volunteer and help keep small farms in Otef Azah strong.

About the Author
Dr. Allen Selis is the founder of the educational technology startup STEM Crafters. Allen is passionate about great teaching, skeptical about "Startup Nation" hype, and invests personal time and energy in children's learning on a daily basis.
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