It was five o’clock in the morning when I finally landed in Ben Gurion Airport, Tel Aviv. I went through customs, grabbed my luggage, and hauled a taxi to take me to the city of Jerusalem. As I looked out the car window, all I could think about was taking the next flight back to my home in New York. I was exhausted from my twelve-hour flight of screaming babies and chatter and I already missed my friends and family. I quickly realized, however, that I was about to embark one of the most meaningful journeys of my entire life.
The program began with a week of orientation. We stayed in a hostel called Zippori, located in the middle of the Jerusalem Forest. Each day began with group bonding exercises and continued with a tour of different areas of Jerusalem. We explored the Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Armenian quarters of the old city of Jerusalem and visited various holy sites, including the Western Wall, the Al Aqsa Mosque, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We were also taken to an Arab-Christian cemetery to see the grave of Oscar Schindler; a German industrialist, spy, and member of the Nazi Party who saved over 1,200 Jewish lives during the Holocaust by employing them in his enamelware and ammunitions factories. Nights consisted of a trip to Ben Yehuda Street for shawarma or falafel and/or the Mahane Yehuda “shuk”, or marketplace, to get fruit, freshly baked pita bread, or, my favorite, rugelach.
The last day of orientation week we hiked to an area called Ein Karem where we were told we would be camping out for the night. As we approached the campsite, I began to panic. I had never gone camping before and we were going to be sleeping outside without tents! We each chose respective sleeping spots on the ground and began to unpack our sleeping bags. By this time, nighttime was already quickly approaching and we had to prepare dinner before it got dark. A small fire was made and pots were filled with chicken, vegetables and rice. That night was full of Israeli campfire songs and games, and, despite the ants and spiders, camping outside in the Israeli forest proved to be one of my most memorable experiences on the trip.
The next morning, we hiked back up the mountain to an area called Kiryat HaYovel where were would be staying for the remainder of our trip. Kiryat HaYovel is located on one of the highest points in Jerusalem. Its population consists of a mix of secular and traditional Jews, as well as a growing population of Charedi, or Ultra Orthodox Jews. We were going to be staying in a building called a “mechina.” It usually functions as a housing unit for high school graduates who undertake an educational program that prepares them to serve in the Israeli army or study at an institution of higher learning in Israel. During their year with the program, most students perform volunteer or community service work in the surrounding community.
We quickly moved in and proceeded with a group discussion about the beginning to our volunteer placements. Placements varied from working with children in kindergarten or with disabilities, to a focus on community renewal and beautification. All were located in Kiryat HaYovel or within surrounding communities. My placement was volunteering at a small organic farm called Kaima. Kaima Farm is an organic farm located in Beit Zayit that operates on a drip irrigation system and through the use of tobacco and other organic fertilizers. It works with other NGOs and the surrounding communities to grow and deliver purely organic produce, including eggplant, tomatoes, watermelon, basil, parsley, and Swiss chard, just to name a few. Kaima is part of a growing international movement called Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) within which individuals and communities pledge to support local farms, with growers and consumers sharing the risks and benefits of food production. CSA subscribers pay a set price for a share of the anticipated harvest and receive a weekly portion of fruit and vegetables based on availability.
Besides its agricultural production, Kaima Farm also strives to help Israeli high school dropouts through a multi-layered educational process, which combines hands-on organic farming with leadership, community and business development. Kaima believes that the acquisition of these skills combined with the healing powers of nature can give Israel’s youth-at-risk the possibility of a brighter future.
The safety and accessibility the Kaima team offers suggests new opportunities for these youth to relate positively to adults and to their environment, many for the first time in their lives. Kaima teaches participants to trust authoritative figures, as well as the importance of taking responsibility. It also helps develop their personal confidence and encourages them to pursue their dreams and full potential.
I worked on the farm Sundays through Wednesdays, with each week following the same routine. On Sundays, we weeded and picked string beans and cucumbers. On Mondays, we either planted basil and other herbs or raked the rocks off the land in preparation for the planting of winter produce. Tuesdays were harvest days. Everybody was spread throughout the farm to pick melons, watermelons, zucchini, eggplant, or squash and then place them in crates. After picking, we sorted the produce based on size and then placed them in a giant refrigerator to keep them fresh. On Wednesdays, we all went to the office to pack. We measured and weighed the produce into bags, eventually forming an assembly line for packaging into big boxes to be shipped out to customers. At the end of the day, we all separated into cars to personally deliver the boxes to the customers’ front doors.
As the weeks went by, I realized that mealtime was a very important part of each day. Every morning, I arrived at the farm at 7:30am. We sat around a table talking, drinking coffee, and eating cookies until Yoni, one of the founders of the farm, told us what we would be doing that day. At 10am, we all gathered for breakfast, which always consisted of tahini, bread, and a freshly made tomato salad. We gathered again at 1pm to have a lunch of stew and Israeli salad, made from produce not able to be sold to customers due to bruising or blemishes. Although at times I felt that I was eating more than farming, I later learned that mealtimes were another tool for developing a greater sense of community amongst the farm leaders and youth. The most important educational aim of Kaima Farm is to teach its young participants about the multiple definitions of sustainability, specifically what it takes to sustain our physical environment, as well as our relationships to other people. Simple conversation during mealtime about the ridiculously hot temperatures we were farming in or what we did over the weekend strengthened our bond to one another and created a true sense of family.
After eight longs weeks of exploring the streets of Jerusalem and intense farm labor, my journey had finally come to an end. I packed my suitcase, said farewell to my new friends and Kiryat HaYovel, and hauled another taxi back to Ben Gurion Airport. As I waited for my flight to finally take-off, as it had been delayed two hours and we were not allowed to exit the aircraft, I began to reflect on my recent experiences. As an International Agriculture and Rural Development major from Long Island, I often fell a sense of separation from my peers. I did not grow up with any exposure to farming and my greatest sense of an agricultural lifestyle stemmed from my grandfather’s small vegetable garden. My international experience in Israel, more specifically my time at Kaima Farm, allowed me to fully embrace my major and learn more than I ever could have in a classroom. Not only did I learn about Israeli society and international agricultural practices, but I also leaned a lot about myself. As a senior at Cornell about to enter the “real world,” I am truly thankful for this unique experience and encourage everyone to explore the mysterious land of Israel.
Organization:Onwards Israel Dates: 29-Jun-15 - 18-Aug-15
What I felt most challenged by: I definitely felt challenged by being away from my family for so long. I had never been out of the country without them. It was also difficult to communicate with them due to the large time difference and poor Internet connectivity where I was living.
What I enjoyed most: I enjoyed embracing Israeli culture most of all. I felt that eight weeks really allowed me to become a part Israeli society and gave me an idea of what everyday life was like there. I also enjoyed living in a community with other local Israelis. It gave me the opportunity to interact and learn their perspectives on life in Israel.
Would I recommend this experience: I would definitely recommend this program to anyone seeking a fun yet meaningful experience aboard. I have been all over the world but Israel continues to be my favorite place to visit. Its rich culture and sense of community is impossible to explain in words and needs to be experienced by everyone firsthand.