Workboots on the ground
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FIRST PERSON

Workboots on the ground

Our correspondent writes about her week as a volunteer in southern Israel

Janice Stein, center, stands with a couple who live in Moshav Dekel. (All photos courtesy Janice Stein)
Janice Stein, center, stands with a couple who live in Moshav Dekel. (All photos courtesy Janice Stein)

I flew to Israel on December 27 to volunteer for a week on farms at Moshav Dekel, which is a few kilometers from the Rafah Crossing, very close to both Gaza and Egypt. My trip began and ended with photographs of the dead and missing.

When I arrived at Ben Gurion, the airport was empty, except for the passengers on my flight and the airport staff. Instead of the usual bustle and crowds, the main entry hall was lined on either side with pictures of the missing Israelis who had been kidnapped. The day I left Israel, I visited the site of the Nova concert, where there were soldiers and visitors, and photos of the Israelis who had been murdered were mounted on posts. Families and friends of the victims had erected memorials and planted flowers in their honor.

Between these two experiences, I met and worked with Israelis, as well as with volunteers from around the world who had come together to mourn, and to plant, sow, and reap. We were religious and non-observant, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, Jewish and non-Jewish, young and old. Despite the universal feeling that the Israeli government and army leadership had failed, I found myself part of a network of grassroot movements the Israelis had cobbled together to support their country.

PIctures of victims and makeshift memorials to them have been erected all over the grounds where the Nova music festival was held.

Buses have not run to Moshav Dekel since October 7, so I hitched a ride in an army jeep from a young Israeli soldier for the last leg of my journey there. He was from the area and took me all the way to the moshav. While he loved this desert region, he told me, his girlfriend, who also had grown up there, had experienced too much horror, and refused to settle with him anywhere near Gaza. My Hebrew is very rusty, and after I had “broken his ears,” as he put it, for a few kilometers, he admitted he spoke English, but did not tell me because he thought I “might want to practice.” This happened to me repeatedly throughout my stay.

While we were driving, his commanding officer called to find out why he was so late. “I’ll be there in a few,” he replied, even though we were far from the base. I asked if he would get in trouble and he laughed, “I don’t care,” he said. “I am taking you to volunteer.”

When I arrived at the moshav, it also was empty. The younger children and their mothers had been evacuated, the older children and eligible males had been called up, and the few remaining, out of the nearly 400 residents, were desperately trying to save their crops. Over 95% of their Thai farmhands had left.

Ben-Gurion airport’s eerily deserted terminals are lined with pictures of hostages.

One of the moshavniks had moved in with her sister and donated her house to the volunteers, an ever-changing crew from all over the globe. We slept on the floors, couches, and even on beds made from cardboard boxes with mattresses on top. The bed linens donated for our use were decorated with children’s brightly colored action figures. Grateful moshavniks provided much of our food; the rest of the time, we combined resources and cooked together. From 7 a.m. on, we staked tomatoes, weeded vegetables, and harvested strawberries. While we worked, we were serenaded by nearby birds, machine guns, and rocket fire. We soon learned to differentiate between the sounds of a crop duster and a fighter plane, and we knew where the fighting was that day, even before it was announced on the evening news, based on how far away the artillery sounded.

On my first evening there, three young, exhausted Israeli female soldiers walked in, took quick showers, and left. They cannot shower on their bases because they must wear their vests and helmets at all times while there, so our hostess had donated her home to them too. Every night, a few different soldiers came by.

Many of the moshavniks were refugees from Yamit, the Israeli settlement ceded to Egypt in 1982, and had moved to Dekel to restart their lives. The older moshavniks reminisced about going to the beaches and restaurants in Gaza years ago. Most of their farmhands had been their neighbors, the Gazans, but that ended with the intifadas. The moshavniks are particularly bitter that the warnings they had been giving the army and the government about a likely attack from Gaza had gone unheeded. As one resident explained it, more than 2 million Gazans were crammed into 140 square miles, “like a cage, with no jobs, hope, or way out. It was a time-bomb ready to explode. We knew they would just push through the fence one day and kill us.”

Generations of an extended family sat together for Shabbat dinner at Moshav Dekel.

Another volunteer and I were invited to a family’s home after work on Friday. Three generations of the family lived on the moshav. They all used to get together for Shabbat dinner at the grandparents’ house. For the first time since October 7, they would be together again for Shabbat; on Sunday, the children and mothers would return to their temporary living quarters, mostly in Eilat. The local communities all over the country have set up what they call “parallel schools” for the displaced children. No one knows when the children from this region will be able to return to their school because several of their teachers were murdered. Many of these children are deeply traumatized after witnessing family, friends, and neighbors raped, kidnapped, or slaughtered.

That Shabbat dinner was a joyful, raucous event. While the grandfather tried to say the blessings, the children ran around in ecstasy as their parents openly laughed and cried, finally together once again. We feasted on Tunisian, Moroccan, and Persian foods prepared by family members from each of those countries. After the meal, the children herded us all into chairs set up in the backyard so they could regale everyone with their spot-on imitations of the grown-ups. I was beside myself with laughter until my friend pointed out one of the little girls lying face down on the ground with her hands clasped behind her head. “This is how the children play pretend now.”

Most Israelis do not work on Shabbat, whether or not they are observant. However, by early Saturday morning, cars started arriving from all over the country, carrying volunteers who come every weekend to help on the local farms. Most have no previous agricultural experience, and the work is relentless and physically demanding. Some laugh and joke while working. Several confided that they go into their own mindless, trancelike state while working, and welcome the escape.

Mourners have put up memorials to the victims slaughtered at the Nova concert.

They all play Jewish geography. Where are you from? Go to school? Where do you work? Do you know so-and-so, their sister-in-law’s uncle, who is from the same town? During one of these conversations with a fellow volunteer who lives in Switzerland, we discovered that in 1982 I had been on an ulpan at Kibbutz Ramat David, where she grew up. We remembered many of the same people (but not each other) and spent the rest of the week swapping stories and reminiscences from our shared time there.

One particularly friendly couple was teasing me while we worked. “Do you feel fulfilled now?”

“Of course,” I answered. “This is what I came here to do! Do you?”

The wife responded sharply, “No, I don’t. All three of our children are fighting now. The oldest one is in Gaza. We were in the army in the last war. That’s where we met. So we know what is war. We volunteer because we have to do something.”

After work on my last day in Israel, two of the Israeli volunteers and I went to the location of the Nova concert. This is the site of the worst mass murder in Israel’s history. There were many young Israeli soldiers there, looking grim and weary. Across the road, army rocket launchers were firing at Gaza the entire time we were there. The sound was deafening.

I had gotten confused by the time difference between New Jersey and Israel, and I thought I was leaving the next day, but actually, I only had five hours until my plane departed, so I took a taxi all the way to the airport after we returned from the Nova memorial. I did not have time to shower or change my clothes before leaving. Fortunately, the only luggage I had with me was a student-size backpack.

As I was rushing through Ben Gurion to catch my flight home, two of the airport employees, taking note of my attire, dirtiness, and lack of luggage, informed me, “The plane to Thailand leaves from the gate over there.” Maybe I did not fit the profile of a tourist from New Jersey?

Janice Stein, a licensed architect, studied Hebrew at an ulpan at Kibbutz Ramat David in 1982, during the Lebanon war. She and her husband live in Radburn, a planned community in Fair Lawn that in some ways is similar to a moshav.

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