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'There's something in the air that tells you you're needed'

Israeli students add fruit-picking to gap year experience during coronavirus

Volunteer work on farms, in communities and with the young and elderly has offered an alternative for hundreds of 18-year-olds in pre-military academies, or ‘mechinot’

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Mechina students from Eliav, a pre-army prepatory program near Kiryat Gat, where they have been volunteering in farmers' fields during the coronavirus (Courtesy Dafna Novik)
Mechina students from Eliav, a pre-army prepatory program near Kiryat Gat, where they have been volunteering in farmers' fields during the coronavirus (Courtesy Dafna Novik)

Volunteering has long been part of life for Amihud Zoldan, a 19-year-old student in Eliav, a pre-army academy known as a mechina based in Moshav Shekef, near Kiryat Gat in south-central Israel.

He has worked with kids with cancer and kids with cerebral palsy. That came after a complicated high school career, when he ran into trouble with the law and ultimately found himself through a rigorous boarding school program.

But since COVID-19 emerged, volunteer work has become a mainstay of his existence and the way in which he and his fellow Eliav students can remain together in some fashion.

Some of them work in fields owned by farmers in the community where the mechina is located; others create online activities for families with young kids; and some deliver food and supplies to people in Kiryat Gat, the nearby town.

While the mechina normally has 40 students living among a cluster of caravans, now they’re living and working in clusters of nine or ten, following the regulations set by the Israeli government in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

Amihud Zoldan, right, picking fruit during the 2020 coronavirus crisis, when his pre-army mechina turned to volunteering (Courtesy Dafna Novik)

“We don’t meet with the other groups, because if one of us got corona, then at least it would be the ten of us and not 30 of us, in quarantine,” explained Zoldan. “There are also the families some of us are working with, and our families and elderly people in some peoples’ families — it’s just more dangerous.”

While most mechina programs have had to close indefinitely during the COVID-19 crisis because their living and study arrangements don’t allow for social distancing, some were able to turn to volunteering and switch to living in smaller groups, either in their own housing or in borrowed housing.

It’s a constantly shifting process, said Dafna Novik, who heads Eliav. Those who are volunteering in Kiryat Gat wondered if they could still go home to their families for weekends and holidays, given their exposure during the week.

“They have to figure it out,” said Novik. “They’re volunteering, and you have to feel secure in doing that, but you take risks during an emergency situation. It’s like a war.”

Mechina students from Eliav, a pre-army prepatory program near Kiryat Gat, where they have been volunteering in farmers’ fields during the coronavirus (Courtesy Dafna Novik)

When the coronavirus hit, local moshav farmers needed extra help, as some of the Palestinian and Thai workers they usually hire to help in the fields weren’t allowed into the moshav.

“The students don’t work like Thai workers did,” said Novik. “We help in the orchards because if the oranges don’t get picked, they’re ruined.”

Other Eliav students ran Passover holiday day camps on Zoom for moshav kids, and spent the last week preparing online ceremonies for Israel’s Memorial and Independence Days.

“I feel that this period is going to create a change for them,” said Novik. “If they came here to learn, this period of coronavirus says if you want to continue this year, then you have to make a switch and become volunteers. You’re asking these young kids who are really attached to one another to stay in their separate groups. It’s hard for them.”

The volunteer work ultimately allowed them to remain together as the close-knit community they have formed since September.

Some of the Mechinat Eliav students volunteered in the community during the 2020 coronavirus, creating Zoom activities for local kids or delivering food and medicine to locals (Courtesy Dafna Novik)

“I’m really happy that we’re here, doing this,” said Zoldan. “The values that we’re talking about all the time, about being good people — well, this is our test. It’s no less meaningful than learning. And it’s a great feeling to get up early and work in the field and see the smile on the farmer’s face and know that you’re helping him.”

From the very start of the crisis, it was clear to Novik that she had a responsibility to her students, but that she needed to offer only responses appropriate to the pandemic.

She wasn’t working alone. As a member of The Joint Council of Pre-Military Academies (Mechinot), she worked closely with the health, education and agricultural ministries to figure out if these post-high schoolers could offer the right kind of assistance.

“This whole situation pulled the rug out from under the mechinot,” said Novik.

The pre-army programs usually revolve around intensive study, leadership training and some form of volunteer work in the local community in which they’re situated. It’s a year in which the students, individually, and as a group, develop their own identity and expand their communal horizons.

The coronavirus has both hindered and shifted that process.

There’s an unusual tension and dissonance between individual and national needs during this pandemic, said Rabbi Avia Rosen, who heads Natur, a mechina in the southern Golan Heights that focuses heavily on theological and philosophical study.

“Even if you’re in quarantine, it’s not because of what’s happening to you, but because of the others around you,” said Rosen.

Natur was one of the first mechina programs to turn to volunteering when it became clear the coronavirus would change its usual schedule.

The mechina at Natur was one of the first of the 100 pre-army preparatory programs to turn to volunteer work during the 2020 coronavirus crisis (Courtesy Sammy Wurtman)

“I don’t think the year is stopped but it underwent a change in focus,” said Rosen, who has led Natur for the last eight years. “It comes from the same vibe, though. The students don’t feel that their year was taken away, but that all of a sudden, they got the opportunity to do something very different.”

Natur’s pivot to volunteer work was aided by its belonging to The Joint Council of Pre-Military Academies, which includes 100 mechina programs across the country, said Rosen.

The council has organized the placement of 700 students in more than 40 farming locations countrywide, as well as 150 volunteers in four Magen David Adom units and 1,600 working in 50 locations to distribute food and medications.

A map of The Joint Council of Pre-Military Academies, showing where mechina students are volunteering during the 2020 coronavirus crisis (Courtesy The Joint Council of Pre-Military Academies)

Given the agricultural issues that arose as a result of the crisis, it became clear that some 30% of the crops could be saved with the help of 18-year-olds, “and that changes the results of the game,” said Rosen. “Suddenly this young person says, ‘I’m a part of this,” and that’s facts on the ground. It’s very meaningful.”

His students agree.

When the mechina eventually returns to Natur, people will understand that there is fellowship even in fruit picking, said Adele Nissim, one of this year’s Natur students.

Nissim has experienced an intense eight weeks, which included mourning her maternal grandmother, who died suddenly from the coronavirus in New York. Her mother couldn’t attend the funeral and sat shiva alone in their home in Elazar, in Gush Etzion.

She hadn’t yet had the chance to volunteer with her Natur friends, but was planning on it after Passover.

“There’s something meditative in picking [produce] and your thoughts run, and you have ideas and you had no idea that those thoughts were even there,” she said.

Natur mechina students taking a break from agricultural volunteer work during the 2020 coronavirus crisis (Courtesy Sammy Wurtman)

Volunteering on a daily or weekly basis is the new reality for some of these gap year students. Living at home again, reunited with their families, is another.

Shir Weinstein returned to her family’s Jerusalem home weeks ago, leaving behind her books and personal items at Midreshet Matat, a gap year study program for young women in northern Israel.

“It was weird because I wasn’t used to be being part of the dynamics of the house, I haven’t been living here all year,” she said.

Weinstein lived together with 30 other young women at the midrasha and has spent the months since September studying Jewish thought and connecting to her spirituality.

In fact, she didn’t hear about the coronavirus at first because her group was in the midst of three days of meditative silence, without any phones or contact with the outside world.

They completed the meditative period after Israel’s third set of elections on March 2 and immediately wanted to know what was going on with the election results.

“Everyone said, ‘forget about that, it’s all about corona right now,'” said Weinstein.

Itai Klahr also had to move home when the coronavirus emerged, leaving his dormitory room at University of Haifa, where he is enrolled in his first year of a nursing program, part of the Atuda IDF Academic Reserve army program.

Since returning home to Jerusalem, the 19-year-old has been sleeping on a couch in his mother’s office at his family home, where she’s often busy teaching online nursing courses for many hours of the day.

“They gave my room and bed away,” said Klahr, who is the oldest of four, and had his room taken over by his younger siblings when he left for school. “It’s a challenge.”

His saving grace, besides the online college courses he takes four days a week, are the days he volunteers for MDA Magen David Adom, Israel’s emergency medical services.

He began volunteering for MDA while in high school and has returned to two shifts each week, working on the ambulances and with corona-related testing.

“It’s very different now,” said Klahr. “You spend a lot of time putting on and taking off the suits. And I’m terrified about bringing the virus back home; my dad has asthma.”

Magen David Adom workers wearing protective clothing disinfect their ambulance after taking care of a patient with a possible coronavirus infection on April 14, 2020 (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

There are other changes at Magen David Adom, where most of the local volunteers are minors between the ages of 15 and 18, who have been barred from doing their work because of the highly contagious virus.

“Before the virus, volunteering was something I did if I had time,” said Klahr. “Now, there are moments where if I don’t go, there won’t be anybody. There’s more of a feeling of pressure, but I feel so lucky to be able to help.”

The pressures of the coronavirus have been myriad, said Rosen, the Natur director, but peoples’ reactions and willingness to help have eased some of those stresses.

The Israeli public has pitched in, buying farmers’ crops that weren’t getting exported to Europe or sold to hotels and restaurants, he noted.

The reactions of the parents helped as well, said both Rosen and Novik, many of whom continued to pay tuition and didn’t balk at the idea that their kids would be picking fruit instead of learning Talmud.

“There’s something in the air that tells you you’re needed,” said Rosen. “That was the name of the game.”

Now, however, even if the mechina is allowed to return to its regular programming, something “has changed in its hard drive,” said Rosen.

“The ideas of being together will be different,” he said. “Will we be 100 people hugging or connecting in other ways? What corona has done is make us ask about identity, what are our preferences in life, what’s important.”

At Natur, there are both philosophical concerns and more practical ones, like what learning at the beit midrash, the mechina’s study center, will look like, if the students are allowed to return.

Sammy Wurtman, 18, is a mechina student at Natur in the southern Golan Heights, where he is picking oranges as an agricultural volunteer during the 2020 coronavirus crisis (Courtesy Sammy Wurtman)

Sammy Wurtman, a Natur student, said he deeply missed the beit midrash, which has been the heart of his experience at Natur. He focused his studies on theology and film, taking part in havruta, daily one-on-one study with a friend, and alongside other students who are studying everything from Talmud and math to poetry and history.

“It’s a year of figuring out identity, through study,” said Wurtman, who didn’t initially plan on attending a mechina, but fell in love with the program when he visited.

“There’s a balance between freedom and responsibility,” he said. “The staff give a lot of freedom so that we take responsibility.”

Now he’s redefining those responsibilities into getting up at 5:30 a.m. to pick fruit, and spending his afternoons on Zoom classes led by the Natur instructors.

For some mechina programs, however, the year ended abruptly with the arrival of the virus.

Half of the 63 students at Jerusalem’s Hartman mechina had to head home to the US when the coronavirus arrived. The program is made up of Israelis and Americans, part of its ethos to create a pluralistic group of people from a mix of backgrounds and to create a new conversation about what it means to be a Jew in modern times, said Shira Ben-Simon Schonfeld, who directs the program.

They work hard on creating a cohesive community, said Ben-Simon Schonfeld. At the end of the nine months in Israel, the Israeli students go to the US to volunteer in Jewish summer camps, where they “get to be guests and join the other culture,” she said.

Probably not this year, though, given the uncertainty regarding international travel and summer camps.

Meanwhile, when distancing rules regarding the coronavirus were first set in Israel, the Hartman mechina students were on a weekend off and the Israeli students didn’t return to their Jerusalem dormitory.

“That’s hard in communal living,” said Ben-Simon Schonfeld.

The remaining American students were put into smaller groups of ten, with the two-meter distancing. When the government belt tightened with additional coronavirus restrictions, the American students had to be sent home.

With the Israelis at home, the mechina couldn’t meet any of its goals, she said.

For now, it’s only offering online classes. The Israeli students are going to the army in seven months, and have a lot of time on their hands. The American students are ensconced back home and far away, both from the mechina and from one another. They’re thinking about their upcoming college experiences in the fall.

“We’ll see if we can create some kind of volunteering to navigate all this,” said Ben-Simon Schonfeld. “We want to answer a real need, and not just do something. Volunteering is really not in our wheelhouse.”

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