What kind of crazy people get on crowded jets and fly off to Israel in the midst of a fierce and unrelenting war? Who are these people who forgo vacations on tropical islands so that they can dash to a nation in combat? And what about their plans once they arrive? Who leave their warm homes in New Jersey to seek out farms and fields in Israel, to pick lemons, tomatoes and eggplants? What do they know about picking vegetables? Truly nothing!
Yet they continue to strain their backs, scratch their bodies, harm their knees, and yield far fewer vegetables than the more agile, better paid Thai workers who have left Israel behind, at least for now. In the absence of the experienced farm employees, our suburban friends, neighbors and family members dash off to be of service.
A typical couple are P. and M. from West Orange. Both have undergraduate and advanced degrees from Columbia, he a Ph.D. in mathematics and she a master’s. Like most of our community, they sent goods and money for chayalim. They did not need to be cajoled. They ran to donate. But then they heard that the fields and farms would lie dormant, that those who usually took care of such things were no longer available.
As is the case with a people as ingenious as the Jews, the Israelis let it be known that help was needed on the agricultural frontlines. They learned that if you could not handle military strategy or become a spy, you could certainly pick some vegetables and food for those who could, and for their families, and for the entire economy in Israel. It’s a new turn for the old adage: when you have lemons, make lemonade! But first you have to pluck the lemons off the trees. And while you’re at it, there are also carrots and oranges and peppers and onions and potatoes, and fleshy sweet strawberries bursting with flavor, and apples, and berries for jelly, and Israel’s famous sweet-as-sugar little cherry tomatoes, and eggplant, and tiny grapes for an ever-growing wine industry, succulent produce from the vines and trees of Eretz Yisrael.
Yes, you could do that, even though it’s harder than you think, and you won’t pick as much as you expect and at night your bones will ache. But you can do it. And you will.
And in the case of M., not only did he pick vegetables but he learned to buy and cook meals for 200, and 200 chayalim enjoyed his previously unknown chef’s skills, never before tested. A new talent revealed.
In the middle of a vicious and tragic war, are we here in America, specifically in New Jersey, merely going about our business? Do we need constant reminders like my colleagues and I often create on these very pages? Are we out of the loop, figuring out our next travel destination, shopping for winter coats and filling our minds with trivial pursuits?
Definitely not. We are all obsessed with the situation in Israel. In conversation, that topic is the first and last subject, and usually the only one. We are overwhelmed, and the sense of guilt in not being there is profound. We listen to news, we read the Israeli papers, we speak on the phone to friends and families in the middle of the fray. We agonize about the rest of the world. Why do they often miss understanding our need to get our hostages back home? Why can they not understand the brutality against our people? What is it that we are seeing and they are not?
Our desire to be there is evident in the packed planes and the constant requests to make deliveries to our soldiers. We are going. En masse. We are going for ourselves, for our own needs. We feel compelled to be there, to help however we possibly can.
This past Shabbat a young woman came to daven with us in our West Orange shul. She was leaving shortly for her aliyah, where she hoped to become a chayelet bodedet, a lone soldier, a soldier whose family is not in Israel. I cannot speculate on how her family greeted that news, but her father’s presence in synagogue with her seems to me to endorse her decision. Parents worry when young people make choices like this. However, it’s usually a sign to the parents, and the community, that they have done a good job in raising their children to be committed Jews.
That’s how I regard our grandson Aaron’s desire to become a paratrooper. Maybe his four years in the Frisch School played a part, but there’s little doubt that his home and family were the major motivators. Aaron first attended a serious learning program at a yeshiva in northern Israel. He thrived there and knew his two years would be followed by two years in the IDF. He trained for that, independently, relentlessly, to fulfill his dream of becoming a paratrooper. He felt he needed to practice his climbing skills, conquering sand dunes, so he spent much of his free time traveling to Ashdod, where he challenged himself by running up and down the famous dunes. It was a joyful day when he was accepted into the paratroopers.
He never once complained about the army, the food, or the job, or the extensive and arduous training exercises, which often involved enormous hikes in frigid rainy weather with heavy burdens affixed to his back. And, trust me, anyone with a negative comment about the army who had to deal with Aaron, had to be prepared for a forceful argument, that the army did everything to make you a better soldier. That training might come in handy. And it did!
After two years Aaron became a sergeant, and the end of active service was almost there. The family made plans for the conclusion of his service, which would be attended by all of us in late October 2023.
That was not to be.
October 7 darkened the horizon, the nightmare from which there was no escape. Aaron was sent to Gaza. We all prayed and visited him a few days before he left. He was confident and brave and reassured us that he would be safe. He peppered me with statistics to calm me down. It was terrifying. His statistics didn’t soothe my fears whatsoever.
Finally his unit was sent home to resume their lives, unless they are needed again. Aaron returned to his yeshiva.
Years ago there was a wonderful quote that we Jews shared. It said, “We are one.” And the miracle is that it is true. We are one. There is clearly nothing good that has come from this agonizing war, but we here, in New Jersey, share the pain, the suffering, the urgency to be done with this horror and see our friends and family and our fellow Jews, as well as those non-Jews who live peacefully amongst us in our Holy Land, return to our bucolic peaceful countryside and our brilliant bustling cities and our charming small towns and our huge traffic jams and our shuks and markets, flush with amazing fresh produce, and our shops with their fancy goods, or our other shops with their more pedestrian stock, and dine in our exquisite restaurants or wolf down a falafel or share the space in a crowded shopping mall, and be tranquil.
We seek tranquility for our people. Is that too much to ask? We are one!
And may it come to pass that the flags, seemingly infinite, that now cover windows, doors, stores and cars, be carefully folded and put away for the next chag, the next Yom HaZikaron or Yom Ha’Atzmaut, so that their ubiquitous presence, which now symbolizes a nation fighting for its life, may once again symbolize the return to normalcy.
May we see peace again in our Land!
Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of four. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was! She welcomes email at firstname.lastname@example.org