Feb 8, 2024  By Polly Levine  Category: Travel,

Ensuring Israel’s Food Security and Future

“We are building a country, not martyrs,” said Yael, my guide in Israel. Despite the most horrible circumstances, Israel continues to thrive, head held high, with dignity, determination, and resilience.

Recently, I spent five days volunteering in Israel’s communities bordering Gaza, and never have I been prouder to be a Jew and a Zionist.

On October 7, when the savage brutality of Hamas was unleashed on innocent families and music festival attendees, I didn’t hesitate to look for a way I could help. I didn’t just need to be there. I had to.

Israel is a place I consider my homeland, in addition to the United States.

My first instinct was to work on a kibbutz out in the fields like when I was 16. At the time, I was assigned to Kibbutz Hatzerim, tying weaker avocado branches to stronger ones. It was hard work for a young girl not used to the Israeli summer heat.

Now, a few decades later, the imminent war seemed much more intimidating than the heat, so I looked for a group that would provide me with a tangible and meaningful way to help while also providing some measure of security. This time, I joined a Jewish National Fund-USA Volunteer in Israel Mission Trip to serve the country in any way I could. Agriculture was guaranteed to be a big part of the week.

Gardening gloves packed and boots on the ground, I arrived Friday just in time to join a friend of a friend’s home for Shabbat. That’s how it works: you tell someone you are heading to Israel, and the next thing you know, there are 3 invites waiting in your WhatsApp chat—Jewish geography at its finest.

Walking around Tel Aviv, trees brimming with oranges, one could hardly tell a war was going on. Many soldiers were out and about with rifles slung over their shoulders, but that’s everyday life in Israel. Notably, if it wasn’t a weapon, it was a musical instrument. It’s not a surprise, considering Israel is home to one of the finest Philharmonics in the world. 

Sidewalk cafes were filled with people having a coffee or glass of wine before heading home for Shabbat. I walked the streets alone, feeling very safe.

The next day, I walked through the old city of Jaffa and visited one of my favorite bakeries, Abulafia. Open on Shabbat, Abulafia is owned by Arabs, coexisting with Israelis baking the most delectably soft pita bread topped with zaatar. Happily savoring my snack, my walk quickly turned to sadness as the hostage posters were everywhere, a constant reminder of the pain our friends and family here are dealing with.

Monday started with a trip down south, picking clementines. Upon arrival at the Kibbutz, the farmer could not stop thanking us for coming. Due to rain from the night before, he had his doubts about our abilities. However, having flown 6,000 miles, there was no way that rain and mud would stop me and the rest of my group - we were ready to go.

Before October 7, there were about 25,000 Thai workers on the farms. It is a great opportunity for them to send money home. However, after Hamas took 14 Thais hostage, most left on their own and the remaining few followed at the behest of their government. The other workers were Palestinians and young Israelis, the latter now called to serve in the war. Therefore, the farmers desperately needed laborers to help them maintain Israel’s food security. Furthermore, if the fruit is not picked, it negatively affects the following year’s yield.

Despite the mud and the ever-present war just miles away, we managed to pick 13 huge bins of citrus – a lofty achievement for our budding group of agriculturalists. 

The next day, I arrived at Noor, a restaurant owned by a Druze Israeli. I say that because so many people are surprised to learn that many Arabs live peacefully in Israel. In fact, Basma is an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) widow, proudly living and working in Israel’s north - the Galilee. Her restaurant, Noor, named after her son, offers a beautiful traditional food menu using fresh ingredients harvested from surrounding farms.

Due to the lack of tourists, Basma was financially unable to continue operating her restaurant. Therefore, she pivoted and became certified Kosher so she could cook for the IDF, which her son is also serving. After several weeks of doing this alone, many people, including Jewish National Fund-USA, rallied to help provide her with the funds and volunteers needed to assist her venture. 

I loved working with her and learning about her authentic recipes. We made grilled chicken, cabbage slaw, and mejedra (a warm lentil concoction topped with fried onions).  Four hundred fifty hot meals were prepared that morning with her staff. As a former restaurant owner myself, I can fully appreciate her passion, hard work, and quality of food and cleanliness. It was such a pleasure. 

On the Wednesday of my week-long volunteering mission, I found myself back in southern Israel, near Be'er Sheva, at an IDF base preparing food boxes for the soldiers in Gaza. I was surprised to see hundreds of volunteers from all over the world. Australia, Great Britain, South Africa, France, Mexico, and beyond. It was quite heartwarming and only confirms my belief that we are a people of unity and problem solvers.

Everyone volunteering at the base worked together on an assembly line, making boxes, adding stickers, and filling them with canned food and dried soup. Never one for self-pity, we Jews do what must be done – a spirit that has sustained us for 4,000 years.

On my last morning, I arrived on the bus with my eyes half closed, only to learn I would be heading to a farm near Haifa to plant broccoli. Immediately, I perked up as being in an open field on a warm day was most certainly my happy place. We ended up planting broccoli seedlings. It is laborious yet gratifying. The sandy earth was a gorgeous color and had a soft smell. Surrounded by Cypress trees, I literally felt as if I was in an impressionist painting.

That afternoon, I stopped at a coffee shop to find 2 Muslim women sitting peacefully at a table while a tall IDF soldier was ordering his drink, rifle slung over his shoulder. Another untold example of coexistence that most of the world doesn’t know or chooses to ignore.

Although it’s only been a week since I returned, I look back on this most meaningful experience with such joy in my heart, hoping I made a difference, however small. I’m already planning my next trip back, with at least ten friends in tow. I’m not quite sure what the end game was for the terrorists on that day in October, but we Jews are strong and will continue to stay in Israel and pick up the shattered pieces that were left behind with grace. We will never succumb in numbers and in spirit. Am Yisrael Chai!

Polly Levine, a Jewish native from California, spends most of her time in Arizona. She is the mother of three wonderful sons and had a restaurant in Phoenix for several years, serving farm-to-table food. Among many things, Polly is passionate about human and animal rights, WW2 history and Israel. She serves on the boards of the American Friends of the Musée d’Orsay and the Israeli Philharmonic.