Working the Land. It was the animating ethos that shaped Zionism. It was the romantic vision that entranced and attracted generations of urban and suburban youngsters from Israel and all over the world.
Reclaiming the Land. Working the Land. Making the Land flourish. Working the Land meant creating and building Israel.
It did not happen overnight. But over time many of the same young people who were proud to work the fields in their communities, going on to become farmers themselves, had disappeared.
Once upon a time, teenagers and Nahal soldiers would even participate in “summer farming camps,” earning money as a group for different causes. But eventually these programs also ended.
Young people had left the hard scrabble, intense, demanding work of the fields for the work of the City.
They went to university, became professionals, and flocked to high tech.
Farming was seen to be for those with no options, no education and no future.
Thai workers were recruited by the thousands to replace the departing Israelis. Palestinian Arabs had always worked in Israeli fields, but were needed in greater numbers to fill the growing void.
Over time, agriculture became just another industry, one that still retained some allure for the countercultural or the sustainability oriented, but an industry with none of the cache of times past.
Then the Coronavirus struck. Businesses shut, people were furloughed. Almost inconceivably, an economy with one of the lowest unemployment rates in the developed world saw a million people jobless.
One consequence of massive shutdowns and compression was a prioritization of services and industries. Given closed borders and a cessation of international trade, maintaining a country’s food supply was clearly deemed essential.
Israel’s agricultural sector was operating in extremis as foreign workers, whether from neighboring PA communities or far off Thailand, were not allowed into the country. Farmers put out emergency calls for help, and there were heartrending pictures of fields being plowed over for the lack of people to harvest crops.
While volunteers from groups such as the Hashomer Hahadash and Im Tirtzu sought to help, their efforts, however welcome, fell far short of what was needed.
But of course crises create opportunity, and there have been entrepreneurial, creative and yes, Zionistic people who have risen to try to address two critical needs: maintaining our food supply, and providing employment opportunities for young people
One such resourceful visionary is Nimrod Berger, a 30 something serial entrepreneur from Rosh Pina. Nimrod grow up around agriculture, and had, several years ago a successful business, Avodah Glilit, in which he hired and managed teams of agricultural young workers from all over Israel on behalf of farmers in the North.
His workers were by and large post-Army young people willing to work hard and to make some decent money before they went on to other stages of their lives. Their motivation was high, as was their productivity.
Nimrod was successful and the business, demanding and time consuming, was growing. But in a microcosm of what has happened on a national level, Nimrod himself became enamored of a new challenge.
He left his agricultural management to others and started MTR, Inc. a tourism technology company that uses Augmented Reality to create adventure apps that enable visitors to engage with the site being visited in funfilled, stimulating and educational ways.
Nimrod had created a beta site, using the historic Rosh Pina restoration site as the backdrop for an engaging historical mystery adventure. Business was good and he was exploring expansion possibilities to other locations.
Then the Corona bottom fell out. Business stopped (although Nimrod did create a free adventure app to play at home) and he, like so many others, was left bereft.
But unlike many others, Nimrod had experience that would prove to be invaluable.
He reconnected with his former workers, team leaders and managers from Avoda Glilit who asked if he would be interested in stepping back into the business to help them connect to farmers, this time not only in the Galilee but throughout Israel. And so Nimrod returned to agriculture.
Within short order, he was able to reassemble many of the team leaders he had used before, since they too were now jobless.
While he had some 60 workers in his first engagement with the business, he quickly built the current business to 100 workers.
“My vision is to connect two sectors who very much need each other: young people who need employment, experience, but also a better connection to this country, its soil, its geography and its history; and farmers, who need not only working hands, but also some understanding for their historic importance and their current essential role of feeding us all and in many cases serving as front line security for our country.
"Many of our young workers were in elite Army units, as fighters or in the intelligence forces. They are capable of amazing things with the highest motivation and commitment. But they might not bring that motivation to the task of farming without a sense of the bigger picture, the historic connection, and a sense of mission.
"So I have tried to instill a comparable motivation with their agricultural work. And it’s working. Why? They are earning good money, and they see the results of their efforts. And very importantly, they know that, just as it was when they were in the Army, the country needs them now. They are not just farm workers, they are the ‘crop commandos.’
"And the farmers love them. Farmers pay our young people just the same as they are paying foreign workers. Interestingly though the farmers have the added value of not having a language barrier, so training and instruction are faster and more complete. The farmers are getting a very fair return on their investment.”
One thing that might bode well here is that many of the young workers have expressed a desire to continue doing what they do, even once the virus passes. They have expressed interest in learning farm management, and have developed a new appreciation and love for connecting with the Land.
Nimrod himself will have to make a similar decision when people actually return to visiting tourist sites here in Israel. He knows it will not be an easy one, because he too has made a renewed connection with our founding endeavor – agriculture.
There has much speculation about the lasting effects of Covid 19. Hopefully one of them will be an enduring desire by a multitude of young Israelis from all walks of life to work in agriculture: a strategic industry, and the historic lifeblood of our nation.
Douglas Altabefis the Chairman of the Board of Im Tirtzu and a Director of the Israel Independence Fund.