For These Israelis, Farm Work Offers Refuge From the Coronavirus Crisis

Over a million Israelis have been fired or laid off due to the coronavirus crisis, and border closures have left farmers desperate for workers. In that void the pioneering ‘Jewish labor’ ethos is making a comeback

Irmy Shik Blum
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Yali Novich.
Yali Novich. Credit: Meged Gozani

Yali Novich, a teenager with a trendy haircut and peach fuzz, wearing a tight-fitting, end-of-basic-training T-shirt, hung upside-down on a tree, picking oranges and dropping them casually into a container below, which was already filled to the brim. Three young women stood on ladders, placing the oranges they picked in sacks slung over their shoulders.

Between the rows of trees stood Yoel Zilberman, wearing a John Deere cap, flannel shirt and work pants, with a pistol sticking out in the back. Zilberman’s 4-year-old son Amos insisted on picking an orange by himself and after a short struggle, succeeded, proudly holding out the fruit to his father. Yoel peeled it with impressive agility and told Amos he was “the best picker in the country in your age group.”

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At 8:30 A.M., the sun’s rays blended harmoniously with the morning chill, and a gentle breeze carried the scent of citrus through the orchard. Rounding off the Land-of-Israel atmosphere was Yehoram Gaon belting out “Od lo ahavti dai” (“I Haven’t Loved Enough”) at full volume via a loudspeaker hanging from from a tree. All the pickers ecstatically joined in the chorus.

I myself was open-mouthed, witnessing this surrealistic, hormone-infused, utopian spectacle. My eyes began to mist over. I knew that wasn’t one of the symptoms, but I couldn’t help being scared: Maybe people go blind from the coronavirus? But then I remembered I was wearing a face mask – and that was probably causing the cloud of mist.

Whatever the case, the mask was a reminder that we were not in the euphoric period after the Six-Day War, but in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, with no end in sight. (For a moment I conjured up a picture of Moshe Dayan wearing a face mask, and I wondered whether it would add to or detract from the image of him with his iconic eye patch.)

Rattled sanity

On the way to the orange-picking session, the rental car I’d I’d picked up in Tel Aviv shook together with me, each of us for our own reasons. The car shook because it couldn’t gain traction on the bumpy dirt road; and I shook because of an invisible virus that left me unable to gain traction on reality. For the three days before the trip to the orchard, I imposed total home quarantine on myself, the idea being that it would be useful to prepare mentally for life in lockdown when it became mandatory.

At first the adrenaline flowed, and I remained awake until the predawn hours, like during summer vacation in high school. After two consecutive days between four walls, the constant state of alertness became totally bizarre and started to rattle my sanity. Funny how a day passes at a time like this. Without the footholds of the outside world to demarcate it, the day becomes monotonous. It just starts and then ends. Void of meaning, with nothing breaking up the day.

After a voluntary quarantine of 72 hours and another 26 minutes of driving to the Kadima-Zoran local council southeast of Netanya, I reached my destination. I parked the car by the side of the dirt trail and walked to the orchard.

Encountering dozens of young people there, picking oranges and singing, I wondered whether I was hallucinating, or whether I had arrived on the set of an apocalyptic commercial for orange juice. Would some local celebs like Ninet, Amir Dadon or Guy Zu-Aretz emerge in another minute from the nearby greenhouse, which had been converted into a temporary makeup room?

I wandered about between the trees and the pickers. Within a few minutes I removed my face mask, inhaled fresh air, bit into a juicy orange and returned to the condition of a human being.

Since its arrival here, the coronavirus has battered the Israeli economy. It has eradicated many types of jobs and in a month sent more than one million Israelis to the employment bureaus. At the same time, however, the pandemic has created an immediate demand for workers in some fields: One is agriculture, which lost most of its workforce when the borders, both land air, were closed. For decades now, farm work has not been a Jewish endeavor, but has relied largely on Palestinians and Thais.

Yoel Zilberman.
Yoel Zilberman.Credit: Meged Gozani

“We are heading for a situation in which hundreds of tons of fruits and vegetables are going to be thrown out, because the farmers have no one to pick them,” says Yoel Zilberman, 35, founder and CEO of Hashomer Hachadash (“the New Watchman,” a voluntary organization intended to protect Israeli agricultural lands, whose name evokes the pre-state defense organization Hashomer).

“The window of opportunity remaining for citrus fruit is extremely short – three weeks before all the fruit falls to the ground. Look how much has been lost already,” Zilberman says.

Since the outbreak of the epidemic, the organization has devoted its resources largely to recruiting laborers, both volunteers and salaried, for the agriculture industry. In the past couple of weeks, Hashomer Hachadash has received more than 2,360 applications from job seekers, 72 percent of whom are aged 24 to 32, most from the big cities. As of late March, some 400 of them had been hired for pay and assigned to 60 farms around the country.

In addition, the organization is recruiting volunteers through an app called SunDo, which connects farmers with volunteers. In one recent week alone, 2,500 volunteers were recruited. Most of the orange pickers in Kadima-Zoran were in a pre-army gap year, either enrolled in the mekhinot (informal-education programs) or performing a year of service under the auspices of youth movements, and so on.

One exception was Dorin Hipsh, 30. Originally from Be’er Sheva, she lives in an upscale area of Tel Aviv and until the outbreak of the epidemic was an air-traffic controller at Ben-Gurion airport. She’s getting unemployment payments, but “not on the scale of the salary I had.”

What prompted you to volunteer?

“Until four days ago, I had no farming experience, but there’s always someone around to explain. At first I picked beans in Moshav Yarhiv, east of Kfar Sava. This morning I started on a small farm with a few hydroponic greenhouses, where they grow mainly lettuce and bok choy, and then I came here.”

Hold on – what time did you start working this morning?

“I’m one of the dedicated ones. I got to the lettuces at 5 A.M., and then came here.”

You’re serious?

“You have to be serious to be a air-flight controller. I left an army career for that job: I was in the air force for 11 years. Three years ago I left, did a civilian controller’s course, and I’ve been there since. It’s what I most love to do and what I’ve been doing all my working life.”

It must be rough when what you love most comes to an abrupt halt.

Dorin Hipsh.
Dorin Hipsh.Credit: Meged Gozani

“This is a scary time, filled with uncertainty. My destiny is that profession. Now suddenly, at the age of 30, the ground is trembling beneath your feet.”

So volunteering is your way of coping?

“Besides the contribution it makes to agriculture, this is the way to cope with the situation. At home you start to think too much. How long can you sit and watch Netflix, see another crime documentary and order take-out from Wolt? I’m a person who likes to do things.”

Is there any chance you’ll stay in farming after the crisis ends?

“I’ll go on volunteering. It’s something that will stay with me, but my job is unequivocally what I love most.”

Cousins at work

At around 11, I arrived in the clementine orchard of Moshav Gan Yoshiya, northwest of Tul Karm, near the Green Line. Nature had its effect on me. I left the face mask in the car and didn’t look at a single tweet from Channel 13’s Nadav Eyal.

The grove lies below the Nablus Stream, which was gurgling with water. Only salaried workers were picking there; they had just started the week when I visited.

One guy, with a mane of black curls, a thick black beard and a black dog, was strolling along the first row of trees. He approached one of the supervisors, who was sitting in a van, and asked him where the toilet was. The official said there was no toilet – but there was toilet paper.

Noam Bloch and Ella Herzlich, both 22, are cousins from the West Bank settlement of Tapuah. Bloch is a medical engineering student at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa; she returned to her parents’ home after the dorms were shut down. Herzlich had returned recently from a trip to the Far East. Before the crisis she worked as a waitress at a Japanese restaurant in Ariel, just west of Tapuah. The two young women had been picking clementines for five days. They were joined by other family members.

How many cousins are there here?

Herzlich: “Eleven.”

Ella Herzlich. She and several cousins from the settlement of Tapuah are now picking oranges.
Ella Herzlich. She and several cousins from the settlement of Tapuah are now picking oranges.Credit: Meged Gozani

Bloch: “Ten.”

What’s the story? How many cousins do you have altogether?

Herzlich: “Seventy or 80.”

Bloch: “Grandma has stopped counting.”

So the dozen or so who are here are a representative sample.

Herzlich: “That’s because work here is limited to the age of 17 and up.”

Bloch: “But it changes all the time. There’ll be two more of us in another week; yesterday one left.”

The whole of Tapuah, everyone is picking clementines? Did you ever work in agriculture before this?

Herzlich: “I worked for four months doing it, as a preferential job [for newly discharged soldiers]. I prefer this to waitressing, and believe I’ll work in farming down the line. My dream is to have a farm.”

Bloch: “I worked during school vacations and also here and there. I worked in vineyards, in apple groves. Agriculture is a serious thing in our family; we’re really close to it. We also believe that it’s healthy for the soul and a way of feeling connected to the country. We grow vegetables, we raise fowl. We will grow whatever we can ourselves, instead of buying.”

You’ll survive the apocalypse.

Bloch: “We will survive unequivocally. We can also foreage from the fields, survive on mallow.”

Explain to an ignoramus like me what mallow is.

Herzlich: “Hubeza [the Arab name of the leafy plant].”

Ah, well, I also like hubeza. There’s lots of it in Tel Aviv.

Bloch: “There you go, you’ll survive the apocalypse, too.”

I’ll survive, except for the fact that I don’t know how to build anything, I don’t know how to use a drill. But I do know how to cook and clean.

Bloch: “Cleaning is less critical during an apocalypse.”

Herzlich: “And you can’t survive on hubeza – it’s a seasonal plant.”

Yana Leibzon, Omer Mosenzon, Ben Kalamaro and Omri Shenfeld.
Yana Leibzon, Omer Mosenzon, Ben Kalamaro and Omri Shenfeld.Credit: Meged Gozani

No hand sanitizer here

A strong aroma of black coffee wafts from one of the rows of trees. Yana Leibzon, 31, Omer Mosenzon, 31, Ben Kalamaro, 24, and Omri Shenfeld, 30, are all taking a lunch break under the clementine trees. They and others from Kibbutz Sarid, in the Jezreel Valley, organized independently to come to Gan Yoshiya.

Hey, what did you bring to eat?

Leibzon: “There’s fennel, carrots, rice with peas, avocado, pita with za’atar [wild hyssop] from Kafr Kara, wafer cookies, black coffee in a finjan and cups of real glass. Write down that it’s not plastic, that the glasses say ‘Pillow Fight Club,’ and that we don’t believe in hand sanitizer!”

What did you do before the epidemic?

Leibzon: “I am a doula instructor and I work as an au pair for a family in Givat Ada. Their mother is something like the CEO of Google [Israel]. Now she’s working from home, so there’s no reason for me to go, so I’m here.”

Mosenzon: “I had a startup in its very first stages. The goal was to rebrand the environmental concept at the visual level and make it accessible to people who want to be involved [in ecological efforts] but don’t want to be perceived as activists. We also wanted to reduce the use of one-time plastic at mass events and in places that pollute a lot.”

How did it go until the epidemic?

Mosenzon: “When we launched the service, it was quite a big success, it caught on – and then came the crisis. There were some really big events that we were supposed to do at Purim, but they were canceled. We stopped just before we began to recruit investors. That’s a bummer, but on the other hand, if we’d raised money and invested it in projects that didn’t pan out, we would have been in a problematic situation.”

Kalamaro: “I worked in sports festivals and Ninja [athletic-competition] events. I’m also involved a little in internet commerce, I sell all kinds of things on eBay.”

Shenfeld: “I’m an environmental engineering student in. Before the crisis, I worked in a company that treats water and sewage – the whole unit was put on leave without pay.”

An orange grove
Credit: Meged Gozani

Had any of you ever done farming before?

Kalamaro: “I worked in agriculture for about a week after my army service in the communities along the Gaza Strip, pruning fruit trees.”

Mosenzon: “I have harvested olives, and I found that working in nature is liberating. As long as the crisis lasts, I’ll stay in agriculture. How often do you have the opportunity to stop your life like this? I think it’s like meditation, it’s Zen, you’re listening to your music, in nature, very relaxing.”

Leibzon: “I think it’s like karma yoga – you get involved in some sort of automatic activity, and thoughts arise, and along the way you clean them out and organize them. I’ve picked apples and also supervised pickers before. This is our third day here. Before this we were with a different farmer and it was no fun; we were paid by the hour, and here it’s piecework. They bothered us all the time there: ‘Don’t smoke, don’t sit.’ It’s great among the clementine trees.”

Shenfeld: “I live in Gan Yoshiya, near the grove. I moved here five years ago. My wife is from here, her parents have farmland here, and we have a 9-month-old daughter.”

What’s it like being a new father in the shadow of the epidemic?

Shenfeld: “I have to admit that we feel it less here. We live on agricultural land, there are forests around. We haven’t been imprisoned in the house, except for a few rainy days. You can’t go to restaurants, but that’s not something we did much anyway.”

Do you have anything you’d like to say about the coronavirus?

Shenfeld: “I think we need to treat the coronavirus as a kind of global wound – to understand that we’re not all that strong, not all that dominant, and in the end nature and Earth are what’s important, and we need to give them all due respect, because otherwise they dump on you, and we are just hurting ourselves, not them.”

Leibzon: “I think we haven’t had enough yet; we need to suffer more damage. This coronavirus is only the beginning. In my opinion, there’s a lot more on the way; there should be more massive ‘human filtering’ than is taking place now. I’m very happy about the coronavirus. Unequivocally.”

Mosenzon: “That’s easy to say until it gets to you and something happens to your relatives.”

Leibzon: “That’s true, it would be rough for me if it got to my family, but if I personally have to be part of the human filtering so that the planet will go on existing in a good way, ecologically, then absolutely, I’ll just fade away, with love.”

Dmitry Kravitzky, a recent immigrant from Russia. “All in all, people are aiming to do good.”
Dmitry Kravitzky, a recent immigrant from Russia. “All in all, people are aiming to do good.”Credit: Meged Gozani

‘Until the rooster bites’

At the far end of the grove, Dmitry Kravitzky was sitting on a folding chair and picking clementines; occasionally he took off his kova tembel – Israeli sun hat – to reveal an impressive silver mane of hair. To interview him I called Valery, my partner’s father, and asked him to interpret from Russian to Hebrew.

Kravitzky is 55. He and his wife and their 16-year-old daughter made aliyah last August from St. Petersburg and settled in Kiryat Haim, a Haifa suburb. In his last years in Russia, Kravitzky, a boat mechanic by training, worked as a truck driver, which is what he was doing here as well.

How long have you been working in the grove?

“This is my second day.”

That’s all? You work really well. Have you done farm work before?

“No. I am efficient because I need the money, so I want to pick as much fruit as possible. I wouldn’t say it’s easy work, but it’s in the fresh air, so it’s actually quite nice – a lot nicer than swallowing dust in some factory.”

What’s the story with the chair? I really like that.

“I like to travel with the family, and my wife and sister like to sit, so I always have chairs in the car. Yesterday was my first day here, and I found that it’s better for me to work sitting down. There are clementines on the edges of the trees, close to the ground. It’s easier for me to do the picking that way.”

What’s it like having a epidemic break out in a country you’ve only just arrived in?

“There is more fear than complexity in an epidemic. I am careful about hygiene, I wash my hands, but everyone must do that every day. There’s no reason to be afraid of an epidemic, but they’re scaring us, so who knows, maybe it really is frightening. People around me haven’t become sick, and I also feel good. It’s as though a volcano erupted somewhere far off; it’s scary, but it isn’t really close to me.”

Do you have any idea what’s going on in Russia with the coronavirus?

“Russia is as Russia was: People don’t wake up until the rooster bites them on their asses. Anyway, it’s the same as here. But nothing is clearly understood. Yesterday, [President Vladimir] Putin said, ‘It’s not a lockdown, it’s freedom.’ He’s afraid to say ‘lockdown,’ because he knows that will cause a panic.”

Have you formed an opinion about Israel?

“When I started to look into living in Israel, it seemed to me that the most progressive people came here. But when I got here, I realized that I’d been suffering from illusions. There’s a lot of disorder here, especially when it comes to guaranteeing workers’ rights. That surprised me, because even in Russia things are more orderly and systematic than here. People in Israel dismiss safety regulations, maybe because they live too well.”

Valery (the interpreter): “Yes, I understand that, but listen, I’ve been here 30 years. There are a lot of dumb, funny things, but I don’t for a minute regret making aliyah.”

Kravitzky: “I agree. I don’t regret it, either. All in all, people are aiming to do good and trying not to feed the people lies, at least not like in Russia.”

Genia Smolkin. “Here my mind rests. It’s hard physically, but it’s like a whole new world, inside. It’s great.”
Genia Smolkin. “Here my mind rests. It’s hard physically, but it’s like a whole new world, inside. It’s great.” Credit: Meged Gozani

On the way back to the car, crossing the central path in the grove, I noticed a young woman wearing a phosphorescent green head covering that looked like a hijab. I thought I’d stumbled on a scoop: an Arab working for Hashomer Hachadash. Instead, it turned out to be Genia Smolkin, who’s better than any scoop. She’s 19, from the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Bialik. “It’s not a real head covering,” she tells me. “When I first started out the thorns stabbed me in the hair, so I put on this shirt and it’s been protecting me.”

Were you born in Israel?

“No, I made aliyah five years ago from Smolensk, in Russia, with my father, mother and sister. But only mother and I stayed. My sister went back to finish up medical school and my father went back because it was too hot for him here. Now my sister has made aliyah again under a special program for doctors.”

How long have you been working in the grove?

“A week already. The first day was hard. I got bruised and scratched up, but that’s the only thing that bothered me – the rest was terrific. I told a girlfriend about the work, and she said, ‘Did they hold a pistol to your head and force you to say that’?”

What did you do before getting into agriculture?

“I’m still enrolled in an agricultural boarding school, in Afula. I waited tables at a banquet hall in Hadera and all kinds of other venues. That was hard. The people there spoke disgustingly and were rude. Here no one is rude. There are clementines here and also Vlad.”

Who’s Vlad?

She runs to the next row of trees and calls to Vlad Rauf, who’s 43 and immigrated just a month ago from Samara, in Russia, to Kiryat Haim – and the coronavirus – with his wife and their son, Mark. Because of the crisis, they were unable to attend an ulpan (an intensive Hebrew course) or find work. Vlad was a lawyer in Russia. Today he’s wearing the button-down shirt he would wore in the courtroom, which makes him look like an early-Zionist pioneer, who was frozen in time in the early 20th century and who thawed out in the grove.

Genia, what else do you have to say?

Vlad Rauf immigrated to Israel one month ago. He was a lawyer back in Russia.
Vlad Rauf immigrated to Israel one month ago. He was a lawyer back in Russia.Credit: Meged Gozani

“That I will never again go back to waitressing. I’ll keep working here forever.”

That’s amazing. What do you like so much about the work?

“Here my mind rests. It’s hard physically, but it’s like a whole new world, inside. It’s great here. In every other job I’ve had, I would come home irritable, go to sleep, then back to work again, and at the boarding school, I would let off all the steam I didn’t manage to release at home. Here, all the shouting and pain that were stuck inside vanished.”

Sounds like you found something that you like to do.

“When I work, my head is completely empty, I think about clementines and how to peel them. I’m relaxed, I have no problems. In Russia, my mother liked to collect mushrooms, so I guess the clementines are for me what the mushrooms were for her. I’d like to come here every day.”

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