Ten years ago, Ronen Levy, from Tzoran, a community village in the center of Israel, east of Netanya, took a trip to farms all over the country, and published his impressions on a Hebrew website called Hava, which specializes in ecological construction and urban agriculture. The goal of his meanderings was to experience farm life: Levy took part in the day-to-day routine of those who hosted him. He worked with them, ate with them and slept on their farms – all without money changing hands. Eventually, he contacted Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF), to establish a local version of what is referred to as wwoofing.
The basic idea is straightforward: You do volunteer work on a farm for a few hours a day, five days a week, in return for room and board. The host in Israel might be a kibbutz, a moshav (cooperative farm) or a family-run enterprise. The work is quite diversified: “green” construction, making cheeses and other dairy products, tending an organic garden, looking after animals, installing gray-water systems and more. The length of the stay is determined in advance by wwoofer and farmer. The minimum commitment is two nights, but most local wwoofers spend at least two weeks on a farm before moving on.
Wwoofing has existed formally in Israel since 2007, but only recently has it begun to gather momentum. At present there are 767 wwoofers in residence on 75 farms, from the Arava in the south to the Golan Heights in the north. According to Levy, who coordinates the movement in Israel, about 15 percent of local wwoofers are Israelis, although efforts are underway, he says, to convince more locals to participate.
Many of the people I spoke with while working on this article perceive wwoofing as an alternative to volunteering on kibbutz, a tradition that is dying out.
Internationally, the movement was conceived in 1971, when, according to the WWOOF website, “Sue Coppard, a secretary living and working in London, recognized the need for people like herself, who did not have the means or the opportunity, to access the countryside and support the organic movement.” The original idea was to make it possible for city dwellers to do volunteer work on farms on weekends.
Interest in the phenomenon gradually grew, and the duration of volunteers’ stays increased. Presently, there are official wwoofing branches in about 60 countries, and the estimate is that there are 80,000 or so participants at any given time. Australia and New Zealand are particularly popular venues.
Volunteers make their impressions – of the hosts’ generosity or stinginess, of living conditions, and whether the type of work and the hours meet certain standards – available on the organization’s website. This form of transparency is intended to be helpful, but of course the worldwide wwoofing movement cannot guarantee good chemistry between volunteer and host, or that a relationship that will benefit both sides in general.
One foreign wwoofer here told me he was asked to do maintenance work and a paint job, neither of which is related to agriculture, while the host family watched television. Another wwoofer, an Australian with Asian roots, related that he worked in groves in the south, and that his host treated him like the Thai workers on the farm, both in terms of personal behavior and in terms the hours of work and living conditions.
“That’s not supposed to happen,” Levy says, adding, “It’s a bit tricky to monitor everything that happens between host and volunteer, but to prevent incidents like that we hold a long talk with the farmers beforehand. We try to visit everyone. There have been cases where we removed farms from the list, because the hosts turned out to be unsuitable. In one case, we discovered that the volunteer had been given chemical materials to work with, which is both dangerous and contrary to the movement’s organic approach. And in another case, the host told a female volunteer that she was welcome to sleep in his room. In practice nothing happened, but from our perspective the suggestion as such is out of bounds.”
Bustan Nof Meshutaf, in Mitzpeh Aviv
Hosts: Amiram and Tilda Goldin and their son Dor (10).
Wwoofers: Marta Zarzeka, 18, from Philadelphia; Lauren Howard, 23, from North Carolina; and Leonie von der Geest, 25, from Holland.
Living together: Leonie arrived first, followed by Lauren, who suggested that her friend Marta, who was then on a different farm, join them, too. The Goldins agreed, even though their home is too small for three wwoofers, so two of the young women sleep on mattresses in the living room.
Bustan Nof Meshutaf (“the shared landscape”): The site is about half a kilometer from the entrance to the community of Mitzpeh Aviv and covers 47 dunams (12 acres) leased by the Goldins, within the jurisdiction of the Arab community of Tamra. Formally, the land is designated for an olive grove, but so far its trees have hardly yielded much produce; this place is used more as a venue for social meetings between Jews and Arabs. There are tours, workshops and educational activities for students in elementary and high schools. The bustan (“orchard”), was established in memory of Omri Goldin, Tilda and Amiram’s son, who was killed in a terrorist attack in the summer of 2002.
Omri: He was the third child of Tilda, who is an economist in the Tax Authority, and Amiram, a town planner and former air force officer. Omri grew up in Yavneh and was a soloist in a punk-rock band called Hapussy Shel Lucy (Lucy’s Pussy). He moved to Mitzpeh Aviv with his parents, after he finished high school. “We wanted to slow down, change the atmosphere and enjoy the ‘Provence of Galilee,’” Amiram relates. After the move, he became increasingly involved in a joint, local project of Jewish and Arab town planners, as part of an effort to encourage the two ethnic communities to work together.
“On top of the discrimination, exclusion and inequality, it bothered me that on the very same stretch of land there was total separation in all areas of life, and that the encounters were limited to hummus in restaurants – us, visiting their places – or cleaners, meaning them in our places. We tried to promote joint initiatives in employment, culture and community,” adds Amiram.
However, the idyll, or the attempt to create one, was shattered in an instant by the outbreak of the second intifada and the October 2000 protests by Israel’s Arabs.
On the morning of Sunday, August 4, 2002, Omri and his girlfriend, Aviv, boarded the No. 361 bus on the way to his the army base where they both served. At the Meron junction a terrorist got on and blew himself up. Aviv was badly wounded and Omri was killed along with two more soldiers and six civilians.
Amiram: “A delegation from [the Arab town of] Sakhnin, including the mayor, came to our house. I thought it was natural for people I had worked with to be with me in this terrible situation. The funeral was held that evening, and there too I was aware that in the midst of the intifada, with the polarization between the sides getting worse – Jews and Arabs were standing side by side. I saw shared grief. It was a military funeral, but I asked the army not to fire a three-volley salute because there were quite a few Arabs present.”
Dor: About a year after Omri was killed, Amiram and Tilda decided to have another child. “When I’m asked how we did it, when I was 50 and Tilda 51, I reply that it was thanks to the mashiah [messiah]. Of course, I am referring to Prof. Shlomo Mashiach, the gynecologist who treated us. Naturally it wasn’t spontaneous, but the technology makes it possible.”
The bustan sprouted about five years ago, Amiram continues. “I wanted something that would tie me to the place, just like my Arab neighbors are attached to the soil. When I received the permits, people warned me that I would never recoup the investment from olives. So we looked for something else and decided that the grove would be linked to values of sustainability, to nature. We didn’t bring in tractors, we didn’t remove boulders, the trees are planted only where nature allows it. The fence too is minimal and is intended to prevent animal herds from entering. We don’t spray or use machines – all the picking is done by hand. And there are also the meetings with the Arab population, of course. The site is classified as a multicultural center for traditional agriculture.”
Wwoofing: “We got into wwoofing quite recently, when we joined the circle of people who are engaged in ecology, sustainability and so on. The first to arrive was Raoul, from Holland, a fellow of about 30, who helped us prepare the vegetable garden for the winter crops and look after the olives. Then came Elyn from Sweden, who helped put in the fence, and Steve from Australia, who was with us for a month and with whom we built the sink, the outdoor oven and the storage facility. They were followed by an English fellow and an American, and then came Leonie and Lauren.
“When Marta asked if she could join we said we would be able to accommodate her in a tent outside the house, but when she arrived, we took pity on her and we decided to crowd everyone together. They are turning over the soil, pruning, getting the vegetable garden ready for the summer and helping with irrigation. There is no end of work.”
Why we’re here: Leonie: “I am studying sustainability at my university and I worked in an organic store. On a trip in Europe I met a Spanish girl who said she was going to volunteer in Israel. Because my visa was about to expire, I joined her.”
Lauren: “I did wwoofing on an organic farm in Maui, Hawaii, for two months. I wanted to have the same experience in Europe, but in a more congenial climate.”
Marta: “I started wwoofing on a farm in the Negev, but it was hot there and I wanted to experience a different landscape, not a desert. The dialogue between Jews and Arabs here also attracted me.”
Ben-Naim farm, Moshav Be’erotayim
Hosts: Anat Ben-Naim and her partner, Guy Hasson, and three daughters: Nana, 7; Stav, 5; and Anava, 1 year.
Wwoofers: Sarah Horton, 19, from Minnesota; and James Haydock, 20, from Manchester, England.
Living together: Sarah has a small room – containing mainly a bed – next to a vegetable patch. Jamie lives in a trailer behind the animal pen, but the family’s house is always open and meals are taken together.
Goat pen: Four dogs, three cats, 15 or so sheep and a few dozen chickens live in friendly coexistence on the Ben-Naim farm, but the crowning glory is the goat pen, which holds a population of about 100. Sarah and Jamie’s work starts early in the morning, when they milk the goats. The fruit of their labors will be used to make cheeses (salty, white, Camembert and feta) for home consumption. Then they have a break, before taking out the herd for a four-hour graze in the meadow. (Anat: “We are sticklers for a long daily walk, that’s our pride.”)
Every girl goat has a name: Shilgiya (Snow White) is Anat’s favorite (“She’s not outstanding but is very sociable”), but it’s Katzefet (Cream) that gets her goat (“because she’s anxious and cowardly”). The male goats are not given names, because at the age of three to six months they are sold to the meat industry (“They’re no longer tasty afterward”). Sometimes the ritual slaughterer comes from nearby Moshav Tnuvot, and the whole family watches as he does his work (“We all eat pleasurably, totally cognizant of what’s on the plate. Billy goats are violent and not nice, creatures that don’t contribute anything. Many farms actually forgo dealing with males and use artificial insemination, but we leave one or two for natural reproduction,” says Anat).
Why wwoofing: “At first we did everything alone, then we expanded and took on a hired hand, but even though we needed the help, it was hard for us to keep him on. We have plenty of meat, eggs and cheeses, so it’s much easier for us to host someone than to pay a salary. The volunteers are my right hand on the farm, and in most cases they are really good people – though you do have occasional foul-ups.”
Foul-ups: According to Anat, these include volunteers who are afraid to get dirty, smelly or sweaty; dreamy types who aren’t able to grasp the nature of the work; city slickers who arrive with a fantasy of living the life of a fellah only to discover in real time that it’s not for them; chronically lazy people (“One time a wwoofer arrived who said that four hours of walking in the meadow was too much for him, so we just went our separate ways that same day”); and weirdos of all kinds (“There was an American guy, a former soldier from New Mexico who had moved to Vegas, who said he was trying to escape capitalism. He got rid of all his property, left his tablet and his laptop here – kind of a freaked-out guy”).
Your average wwoofer: “They’re mostly in their early twenties, some of them came with Birthright and extended their stay,” says Anat. “There are also older types, usually people who were knocked off their course of life due to complicated circumstances, or they might be going through a crisis, personal difficulties. There was one 60-year-old woman from California who had lost both a son and a husband at Christmas, and came here to escape from home, for a change of atmosphere.”
Sarah and Jamie: Sarah says she felt she wasn’t yet mature enough to start adult life and looked on Google for a solution (“I wondered how I could spend a year instead of going to college. From there I got to the wwoofing site, and a few days later I arrived at the moshav”). The temperate climate of Israel’s Sharon region, compared to the cruel winters of Minnesota, also played a part in her decision. For Jamie, wwoofing is part of his genetic makeup (“My father did it for five years when he was young, I was raised on his stories”).
Formative experience: Sarah: “The first time I took the animals to graze, I lost a goat. The sun went down, we had to go back, and I didn’t feel good about it. The goats walk together, you know; it’s almost impossible to lose them. In the end it turned out that it had fallen asleep at the start of the walk. It was very moving to find her.”
Financial benefit: Jamie: “Obviously it’s an advantage if you don’t pay for room and board, but I would have come here anyway. I didn’t come as a classic tourist who just has to see every site and every attraction, but to get experience in farm work. Besides, Israel is so small, and this farm is so centrally located that you can make trips, see things and come back.”
Kayama farm, Moshav Idan
Hosts: Adi Rappaport and Yinon Offaim and their children Iri, 11; Tano, 8; Goni; 7; Ahai, 5; and Solu, 2. [Offaim is the brother of Hedai Offaim, who writes a food column in Haaretz.]
Wwoofers: Leah Pabst, 20, from Germany; Laetitia Brami, 33, from France; and Ruth Solomon, 18, and Brett Smith, 26, from the United States.
The family farm is at the entrance to Moshav Idan, in the Arava, at the end of a road that passes through date-palm groves and army firing zones. We take the perimeter road, count five speed bumps and stop next to a metal sculpture of a goat. The hills of Edom rise in the east, while to the west lie the Hatzeva ridge and the cliffs of Makhtesh Hakatan (the Small Crater). Together all this creates a desert pageant – glaring and broiling during the day, but between dusk and sunset granting more conciliatory hues, with streaks of pink and orange.
Living together: The wwoofers live in air-conditioned, well-equipped mobile homes – situated in the yard of Adi and Yinon’s house – each with toilet, shower and kitchenette. There are three wwoofers per unit, with no separation between men and women. Meals are eaten collectively, usually al fresco, in an area at the entrance to the farm. Adi and Yinon consider themselves “semi-vegetarians,” eating meat only on Friday and Saturday, in some cases from goats that Yinon slaughters himself. During the week, the menu is based on lentils and vegetables. For snacks there are cheeses produced in the farm’s small-scale dairy.
The upheaval: Fourteen years ago, Adi and Yinon, who are both originally from the north of Israel (she from Kibbutz Misgav Am, he from Haifa) did a geographical U-turn and settled in Idan, in the deep south. They launched an intensive agricultural effort aimed at export of vegetables, mainly tomatoes and peppers, an enterprise that at its height employed about 40 Thai workers and included a packing house. Seven years ago, they decided to take a break: They leased their hothouses and embarked on a long trip to India and New Zealand, from which they returned with a new sort of consciousness.
Adi: “Instead of employing a large number of working hands and harboring the ambition to keep expanding, we wanted to devote ourselves to our true love: animals. We reestablished the business as a sustainable farm with a commitment to preserve community and environmental values. We built a pen of about 130 goats, and we also grow dates and mangoes. The aim is to eventually stop exporting tomatoes. At the moment we are also building a free-range chicken coop. The idea is to remove our carbonaceous footprint, so our brand is local and sold only in Israel. We reached the conclusion that this is the best way for us, and it is part of our whole approach to life. Since making the change, for example, our children no longer go to educational institutions but are homeschooled.”
The quotidian: The couple are local pioneers in the wwoofing “genre,” and have been hosting volunteers for five years. At any given moment, there are four volunteers on the farm – and more in the winter. “Hundreds have come through here,” Adi says, showing me a guest book filled with testimonials. The minimum required stay is two weeks, but most volunteers stay a month on average.
Work begins at 7 A.M., and includes decidedly suh un-glamorous chores as weeding, cleaning, sterilizing equipment and the preparation of dried tomatoes. The more attractive tasks involve looking after the goats and making the cheeses. The workday ends at 2 P.M., when everyone gathers for a meal.
Ideal wwoofer: “Adi prefers European women above the age of 24,” Yinon says. “The romantic notion is that men are stronger and more physical, but in practice they are less efficient. Women usually have more mental resilience. They can work a whole day with a scythe, even if the work is Sisyphean and repetitive. Why Europeans? Because they mostly come with more meaningful cultural ‘trappings,’ certainly compared to Americans.”
Unhelpful wwoofers: Adi: “There are some of those, but before we ask someone to leave he will have to be extremely unproductive and unsocial. We had a Canadian couple once: The guy was a drinker and a bit violent, especially toward the girl. They had a huge row in the middle of the Friday evening meal, and he banged on the trailer door until 3 A.M. Fortunately, there was also an American wwoofer here at the time, a Jewish psychologist of 56, who assumed the role of conciliator and was able to calm things down a little. But the next day we parted with the couple with unpleasant tones of voice.”
Brett: Tanned and lean with a blonde goatee and a bandana, his appearance contrasts flagrantly with his career as a Los Angeles-based film producer (“It’s exactly because of the disparity between Hollywood and the Arava that I came here. The farm is one stop of many for me in my trip to Israel, which is meant to become a film. There is no concept yet, but it will be a kind of ‘capsule’ of contemporary Israel”). From here he will head for Tel Aviv, which he has already experienced, without being especially impressed (“It felt like any generic city in the Western world, as though it’s severed from the Israeli identity”).
Ruth: The youngest of the current crop, freckled and smiling, she recently graduated from high school and lives in Rockland County in New York, on the banks of the Hudson. She plans to study culinary arts, with an emphasis on organic farming, so for her, the stay on the farm is a form of internship (“besides which, goat’s milk cheese and tomatoes are two of my favorite things”). When she arrived, she was surprised to discover that her roommates would be two men almost 10 years older than she (“It was pretty weird, but we got along”). Her formative experience so far has been the birth of a goat (“I held her in my hands as she came out – amazing”).
Laetitia: The oldest and most senior member of the wwoofer group. This is her second stint at Idan, following a three-week stay last November. She’s from Lyon, where she was a department head in a cosmetics corporation. Separation from her partner prompted her to seek a different atmosphere (“I just got tired of my life in France”) and to return to the solace of her true love in the Arava: cheese. This time she has been at Idan for three months now and was recently appointed deputy chief cheese-maker. She has also begun a relationship with a new partner – this time, it’s a woman – which is another reason to settle in Israel (“but not as a wwoofer; I will probably start to work here as an employee”).
Yahad Center for Jewish meditation, Moshav Mata
Hosts: Yosef and Rachel Ben-Shalom, and their daughters Anael, 4, and Odelia, 2.
Guests: Laen Hershler, 35, from Canada; Tutsi Kaseke, 29, from South Africa; Asher Gunzburg, 25, and Marni Cameron, 25, from Australia; and Ezra Bookman, 23, from the United States.
Yosef and Rachel: He’s French, she’s originally from Mexico, they’ve been married 14 years and speak three-and-a-half languages: French, Spanish, English and a bit of Hebrew. They are tillers of the soil who wear white, members of the Bratslav Hasidic community with hippie frills. Yosef is from a family with Orthodox roots, but he carved out an independent path for himself, particularly after encountering the writings of the late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, among the first to connect meditative practices with Judaism. Rachel is a medical masseuse by training, and also a doula. Until recently, their life project was a center for Jewish meditation in the Montmartre quarter of Paris, which they founded and managed. About five years ago, they immigrated to Israel and settled in Jerusalem (Yosef: “It was not Zionist-motivated, but stemmed from a deep process of awareness and consciousness that obliged us to emigrate”). Their two daughters were born in that city. “Selling the center in Montmartre gave us a breathing space, so in Jerusalem I was able to study with rabbis who interested me, and to focus on research,” Yosef says. “Because we are also involved in movements of spiritual ecology, we looked for a place where we would be able to live in harmony with nature, and an opportunity came up here.”
Rachel adds: “In Jerusalem we helped people cope with the pressures that are typical of city life, but after the girls were born, it was a natural evolutionary step to move to a place with a better quality of life, so we did a ‘restart.’”
Mata: A moshav south of Beit Shemesh, whose population is a mixture of Yemenites and Moroccans from the founding generation, bourgeois-secular people who want to improve their quality of life, and “alternative” types like the Ben-Shalom family, which is renting a spacious, pink-walled house with a large yard and a separate plot of land on a nearby hill.
Yurts: This is the flagship project of the Ben-Shalom family, for which they have recruited five wwoofers. A yurt is a kind of traditional structure whose shape recalls a tent; its skeleton is made of wood and it’s covered with felt. The couple is planning to erect two yurts in an area in the upper part of the village, one of 50 square meters, the other of 30 square meters, one for living and the other for purposes of worship. At present the space has only a vegetable garden, where the family is growing tomatoes, lettuce, garlic and onions, all for their own use, plus a grazing area for their two white donkeys. When Yosef leads them by a rope he looks like an iconic, almost-cliché image of the messiah himself.
Jewish meditation: Yosef: “Jewish meditation is very much connected to kabbala [mysticism], and one of its important aspects is to translate spiritual understanding into deeds. For example, to give a person tools to be aware of what he is eating. Jewish meditation encompasses all spheres of life and tries to inject concrete content into activities that at times are performed automatically in Judaism – without intentionality. From the point of view of prohibitions and commandments, we are connected more to what is written in the Torah than in the Talmud. You could say that we observe 70 percent fewer commandments, which allows us to devote 70 percent more energy to more practical consciousness-driven processes.”
The wwoofers: Laen and Tutsi, experienced wwoofers who have already been to Canada and Australia, are a couple, and therefore share a room. So too are Asher and Marni, from Australia, who have already used this method to travel in Thailand and Malaysia. For Ezra, who has separate housing, wwoofing here is a corrective experience after he fled from a farm in the south of Israel, where, also as a wwoofing volunteer, he was asked to do distinctly unspiritual and nonagricultural work such as scouring toilets and dealing with his hosts’ laundry. The five wwooofers start the day at 7 A.M., with guided meditation under Yosef’s direction. They then eat breakfast and work until the afternoon, eat, rest and then work some more, according to need.
Money: This is always an important factor in making the choice to travel as a wwoofer. Asher: “Israel is a very expensive country for tourists, at least when it comes to the price of hostels and public transportation.”
Laen: “Wwoofing is a type of alternative to being a kibbutz volunteer, which is a disappearing practice. It’s hard to find kibbutzim that take in volunteers these days, and those that do demand a lot of money.”
Ezra: “A trip can be a very egotistical experience. You are concentrated on yourself, you buy things for yourself, waste money. When you contribute something to the environment, it can be a balancing energizing factor.”