I land a few hours before Shabbat. Rav Shilo arrives at Kabbalat Shabbat with his M-16. He is still on the phone conducting army business. Military Intelligence gives him off every Shabbat because he is a congregational rabbi.
Eitan (14) has encyclopedic knowledge of IDF weaponry. He schools me in the differences between the ancient American M-16 (Vietnam era) and the Israeli Tavor that his father (on duty this Shabbat) is carrying at the border up north.
Rain all day Sunday. Debbie and I are packing vine-ripened tomatoes at a warehouse in Mishmar Ayalon, a moshav 20 minutes from our home in Modiin. In the Ayalon Valley, Joshua caused the sun to stand still during the conquest of Canaan. Mussa, an Israeli Arab, shows us how to use the machine that wraps the packages for sale in local supermarkets. In half a day, we pack a pallet of tomatoes (Is that a lot?)
Still raining Monday morning. We tend cucumbers in a greenhouse at Neve Mivta, a moshav near the ancient city of Yavne, refuge for torah scholars after the destruction of the second temple in 70 AD.
The war has deprived Israel’s agriculture sector of its laborers. Thousands of Thai workers returned to their country after 39 were murdered on October 7th. Palestinian day-laborers from Gaza (30,000) and the West Bank are no longer welcome. We are participating in an international volunteer effort to save this year’s crops and plant next year’s crops. On a small scale, we are re-enacting the difficult work of Zionist pioneers of the 19th and 20th centuries who came from Europe to develop farmland from rocks; indigenous agriculture was previously at a subsistence level. Numerous Whatsapp groups and websites have daily posts in English and Hebrew, directing volunteers to the farmers who need them.
We give a ride home to 2 fellow volunteers from Hashmonaim, an Anglo-Orthodox community. From the back seat, Michelle delivers a monologue. Her oldest son, “my chayal”, is home from Gaza for his first 2-day furlough. He is a newlywed. Michelle has the bittersweet experience of sharing him with his bride.
That night, I join 5 Anglos from Modiin for a trip to an army base 15 km from Gaza. We will grill burgers, wings and steaks for 100 soldiers. I ride with Rafi Mendelsohn, an executive at Cyabra, a social media intelligence company. His company (as reported in the NY Times) has exposed the use of thousands of bots that began posting fallacious anti-Israel propaganda on October 7th. Rafi and 60 of his friends have been making barbecues almost nightly at bases and tent outposts on both fronts. We prepare the meal with military-like efficiency, working to the soundtrack of an ever-circling drone, punctuated by the occasional not-too-distant boom. The soldiers are tired, hungry and grateful.
Sunshine on Wednesday. Moshav Hatsav produces 80% of Israel’s cauliflower. We stoop to arrange a sun-protective covering of leaves over each cauliflower, in rows stretching the length of two football fields. After a few hours, our backs are screaming and we are replaced by 10th grade boys. At the far end of the field, the moshav’s remaining Thai workers are harvesting with long machetes.
Wednesday night, Alyssa hosts in Modiin. Dr. Jennifer and her New Zealander husband J ___ bring their kids for a play date. Sergeant J ___ is home from Gaza for the first time. He commands a unit of mechanics attached to a tank brigade. His “pit-crew” works round-the-clock, and he barely sleeps. Jennifer is a busy pediatrician, caring for large Haredi families in the kupah, plus her own children at home.
The Sun holds up on Thursday. Jackpots of olives fall onto tarps as we rake the olive trees in Kfar Shmuel. Olive oil has been produced here for thousands of years, a staple dating back to biblical times. One of the volunteers talks about his son, a combat engineer who went weeks without taking off his boots while disabling tunnels.
Ceasefire on Friday. “Hostage Square” in Tel Aviv: Protesters. Megaphones. A long table set for the hostages and rows of yellow chairs with knitted children’s hats on them. To briefly escape the sadness, we stroll down the tree-lined median of Ben-Gurion Boulevard. We bump into the CEO of my hospital, who shows me OR pictures of a nearly fatal shrapnel injury to the heart. Skilled surgeons. Great save.
Shabbat Dinner: “Our Chayal” has returned. A belated Thanksgiving with turkey. So proud of him. And proud of his wife, mother of four boys, holding everything together for 7 weeks. Much to be thankful for, amid the misery that has been heaped upon us.
Most names have been changed