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Israeli farming volunteers to the rescue

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Since the attack of October 7, the State of Israel has been in a state of war. Hundreds of thousands of reserve soldiers have been mobilized. These IDF troops are taking part in intense battles against Hamas inside the Gaza Strip and against Hezbollah on the border with Lebanon. However, the vast majority of Israelis are not heading to the front lines. These civilians are at home, trying to stay safe. But for these millions of civilians on the home front, known in Hebrew as the “oref” (meaning back of the neck), it’s not just life as normal. Tens of thousands of Israelis who live in towns close to the Gaza and Lebanese borders have been evacuated and are currently living in hotels. Many businesses have closed temporarily, and employees have been furloughed. Schools are meeting intermittently, leaving many children at home.

In this atmosphere of uncertainty instability, many regular Israelis have felt the need to help their country by volunteering. We went down south to the moshav of Ein HaBesor located just a few miles from the Gaza Strip to meet some of them. Ein HaBesor is a farming village, one of dozens in this Gaza border region which is the “breadbasket” that supplies most of Israel’s produce. Hamas terrorists attempted to attack this small village on October 7, but miraculously they did not succeed. Consequently, the residents were not massacred as their neighbors in Beeri, Nahal Oz, and Kfar Azza were. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the farm laborers who lived and worked here were so terrified by the experience of the attacks that they quickly returned to their homes in Thailand. The sudden departure of thousands of laborers has created a huge void in Israel’s agriculture sector. Many Israelis with no farming experience have decided to fill this void. Every day thousands of civilians drive hours from the cities in central Israel to come work in the greenhouses located on the Gaza border, just minutes from the battlefield. Some pick tomatoes, others prune cucumber plants, others pack boxes of courgettes and prepare them for market.

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We spoke with David Gordon, from New Jersey, who is currently spending the year studying abroad in Israel. He arrived in Israel in September eager to begin his studies at Tel Aviv University. Due to the war, the semester has not yet begun, so David has decided to volunteer alongside Israelis at Ein HaBesor.

“Like everyone, I was totally shocked and horrified by the events of October 7. At first, I was afraid to even leave my apartment in Tel Aviv. But after two weeks barricaded at home, reading the horrific news, I felt the need to go out and make a change. Since I am not an Israeli citizen, I cannot serve in the IDF, so I decided to contribute to the war effort by volunteering on this farm. I really feel that in a very small way I am helping to bolster Israel’s food security. Coming here has also been an amazing cultural experience. I have met so many Israelis who have taught me many things. I have also learned a great deal of Hebrew.

One of my favorite Hebrew words is the word for “volunteer,” מתנדב mitnadev. This word is based on the root NDV which means “to donate” however in appears in the reflexive form known as hitpael used for actions done to oneself. So volunteering is literally “donating yourself” and I feel that is exactly what I am doing.

Growing up in America, I was taught in Jewish day school that Hebrew word for farmer is איכר ikar. Although this might be true, I quickly learned that no one here uses that word. The preferred term is חקלאי chaklai, which comes from the Aramaic חקל chakel meaning “field.” So, farmers are literally “people of the field” or “fieldworkers.”

In reality, the farm work we are doing is not actually out in open fields. Every morning we pick vegetables that grow in a greenhouse, which in Hebrew is called a חממה chamama. This comes from the word חם cham “hot” – so these are literally “hothouses.” These are large growing areas covered in fabric that protect the produce from insects and shield the plants from the direct sunlight. But they mainly trap warm air, creating a hot environment that allows tomatoes, cucumbers and other summer fruits to grow all year.

Since I started volunteering here, we have been picking mostly tomatoes, which are called עגבניות agvaniot in Hebrew. This comes from the root עגב AGV that means “to woo.” This is because when tomatoes were first brought to Europe from South America in the 1500s, they were called “love apples” in some European languages, and this concept made its way into Modern Hebrew. So in Hebrew tomatoes are literally “passion fruits.” Most of the tomatoes that grow in Ein HaBesor are cherry tomatoes, which is actually an Israeli innovation developed by scientists at Hebrew University.

One of most amazing agricultural innovations from Israel is drip irrigation. Instead of flooding the plants with large amounts of water much of which simply evaporates, small amounts of water drip onto the roots from plastic hoses that line the base of the plants. In Hebrew these perforated hoses are called טפטפות taftafot which is a great example of onomatopoeia, from the sound (tif-tif) that dripping water makes.

Almost every conversation I have had with an Israeli over the past few weeks has ended with the words בשורות טובות  שנשמעshenishmah besorot tovot, which means “may we hear glad tidings.” It’s an optimistic way of wishing for better news, a positive resolution to the current crisis.

Many of us are currently following the news and are eager to get involved and to make a contribution to Israel’s security. Few of us will be able to actually travel to Israel and devote our time to volunteering like David Gordon has. If you cannot make the trip to Israel right now, the next best thing is to connect to Israel virtually. By enrolling in an online Hebrew course through eTeacher, you will have an unparalleled opportunity to learn about Israeli culture and language. Over the past 25 years, our institute has become the premier online school for Hebrew studies. Join us today.

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