Ethiopian Jews fulfill Earth’s Promise
Yocheved Miriam Russo
Struggling new immigrants from Ethiopia are building meaningful new lives by transforming a vacant lot into a vegetable garden.
Never underestimate the power of a new immigrant. A few years ago, several young “Anglo” olim, most in their first years after aliya, believed they could transform an ugly, trash-strewn, vacant lot in one of Beersheba’s troubled neighborhoods into a flourishing vegetable garden – and, in the process, help struggling new immigrants from Ethiopia build meaningful new lives.
The idea was nothing short of audacious. To try to coax a “community garden” – a concept totally foreign in Beersheba – out of the Negev’s rocky earth would be enough to make anyone think twice.
But from the standpoint of bureaucracy-busting, the notion was even more daunting. First the newcomers had to create a non-profit corporation, no small task given that none of them had much practical experience in dealing with Israeli bureaucracy.
Beyond that, they had to convince city officials to allow them to use the three-dunam parcel of land for a purpose none of the city officials had heard of, let alone tried.
After that, they had to deal with the myriad officials who structure the lives of recently arrived immigrants from Ethiopia – not to mention convincing the Ethiopians themselves that spending time working in a garden in the Negev heat was something they actually wanted to do.
But Israel is the land of miracles – or maybe it’s that extra help seems to appear for new immigrants who tackle the impossible.
Whatever the answer, they did it. “Earth’s Promise” – Shvuat Ha’adama – came into existence as a charitable corporation and managed to attract sufficient funding to get started. The City of Beersheba gave its consent for the creation of a community garden on city property, and Absorption Ministry officials all down the line not only agreed to the project, but in time, became highly enthusiastic about it.
As for the Ethiopians themselves, they liked it. As one, Amarah, said, “For us, there's nothing better than being together in the garden. It’s not just about what we grow. It’s that we showed ourselves that we can succeed – we showed the whole community what we Ethiopians can accomplish. The garden has been wonderful.”
Everything is tough at the beginning. Isaac Hametz, Earth’s Promise founder, nearly turned into the proverbial monomaniac with a mission as he dedicated himself to the project.
“Talia and I were both 22, married less than a month, when we made aliya from Baltimore in 2006. Talia had been accepted in medical school at Ben-Gurion University, and I intended to become a farmer – working the land in Israel was my lifelong dream.
“I found out almost right away just how complicated it was going to be to become a farmer, so I started exploring other options on a smaller scale.
I discovered that Beersheba had a lot of seriously neglected open spaces, land set aside as parks, but which through neglect had become rubbish-strewn garbage dumps instead, so I was thinking of urban farming on some scale; but my personal goals were evolving, too. I decided I’d rather forgo my dream of working the land for that of creating a project of greater social impact. I wanted to benefit more people than just myself.
“I WAS considering all this when Talia and I moved to the Gimmel neighborhood, not far from the Kalisher Absorption Center where new Ethiopian immigrants were being housed. Living in that neighborhood, I couldn’t miss seeing the Ethiopians, especially the older men, spending most of their days just sitting around outside. It wasn’t laziness – it was that there was no outlet for their energies. They had no way to engage the larger community.
“I started to think about it, and realized that these Ethiopians had come from a rural, agricultural, background. They’d been farmers themselves.
I began to see how our needs meshed.
“I wanted to start an urban farm, they needed an outlet for their ability to plant and produce. If we created a community garden, we could all enjoy the benefits of growing at least some of our own food. We’d both benefit, and so would the whole neighborhood.
“As the idea began to take shape, I approached the head of the absorption center. And, as it turned out, there was a piece of open land right behind the center itself.
“We began holding community meetings – with the neighborhood as a whole, but especially with the Ethiopians. It was very important that they saw this project as theirs, created as they wanted it, accomplished in such a way that they could express their cultural heritage. At one meeting, we asked them to draw a picture of what they thought a community garden should look like. It was an exciting time.”
Bureaucracy followed, lots of it, but today Hametz says he’s forgotten most of the frustration.
“What I remember of the process now is how much help we had all along the way. Sure, there were times when I felt I was running around in circles, but at the same time, there was always someone there to help, people who knew and understood the various bureaucracies. Looking back now, it doesn’t seem as though it was all that difficult. It was fun. We were all working together.”
Last year, the Hametzes left for the States so Talia could do her medical residency at the University of Virginia and Isaac could earn a master’s in landscape architecture.
“We didn’t use backhoes or any other big machinery to break up the ground,” says Noga Zohar who, a year ago, succeeded Hametz as Earth’s Promise executive director.
“We did all the work ourselves, by hand. It was a big project – first we carted off the debris, then we started digging, turning the earth over, adding an awful lot of donated compost, working it in. We decided to start with reclaiming only about half the land area available, about a dunam and a half, just to get going. We marked it into 50 individual garden plots, each about seven square meters.”
The garden began to take shape. The organizational structure is for families to work their own plots, Zohar says. Each family plants whatever they want, and whatever they grow is theirs to use.
“They really control their own plots, caring for them as they see fit. We’re going into our third year now, but generally speaking, we plant twice a year, right around Pessah and again around Succot.
Genesis Seeds donates seed, so some of the gardeners choose those seeds while others trade or buy seeds for traditional Ethiopian vegetables from Ethiopian shops at the shuk.
“Because of our climate here, we can plant some vegetables several times over in a year, so each family harvests a considerable amount. We’re about to put a sign out in the garden to remind the gardeners about the seasonal differences between Israel and Ethiopia, which are exactly opposite. In Ethiopia, summer is the rainy season, so newcomers, especially, need to be reminded that what would grow in Ethiopia in June – or December – won’t necessarily do well in Israel during those months.”
It’s not just the seasons that are different.
“We’ve had some educational experiences,” Zohar laughs. “In Ethiopia, irrigation is done either by hose or by hauling buckets of water. But here, to conserve water, we wanted to use drip irrigation.
It helped when Netafim, the originator of drip irrigation on Kibbutz Hatzerim, gave us enough irrigation drip line for the whole garden.
“But when the Ethiopians saw the drip lines, they couldn’t believe it. ‘You expect us to water the plants with these hoses?’ they said. ‘But they’re full of holes! This won’t work at all. We’re not stupid, you know!’ “WE TRIED to explain how it worked, but the explanations didn’t do much good. Some would try to poke more holes in the drip lines so the water would come out faster – which threw the whole system off. Or they’d cut off the end, trying to use the drip line like a hose.
“Finally we arranged a whole tour of Netafim. We all went, they listened to the experts, watched a film about how drip irrigation works – and since then, everything’s been fine.”
Allowing the Ethiopians to learn for themselves also worked with the practice of mulching.
“We know that plants grow better, with less water, when the ground around them is mulched,” Zohar says. “So we got a bale of straw and mulched just a small area as an experiment, most of it around the children’s rows where the kids grow herbs and leaves for tea.
“It proved itself this last summer when we had water problems for about a week. They could see how all the bare plants were withering and wilting from lack of water, and how those that were mulched weren’t suffering at all. They saw the benefits of mulching for themselves.”
Not that the mulching project didn’t offer some excitement of its own.
“We have an area set aside as a garden-kitchen,” Zohar notes. “We built mud ovens and we’d been making pitot. Unfortunately, a spark from the oven landed on the bale of mulching straw and set it on fire. It was amazing – the fire department came roaring out, it was total chaos. The straw burned down to nothing but ash.
“So when someone asked, ‘Do you want another bale of straw?’ I laughed. ‘Just don’t put it anywhere near the kitchen,’ I told them.”
Then there’s the question of what to plant.
“One family planted melon seeds and the plants were doing just beautifully – the leaves were lush and green, big flowers blossoming all over. Then one morning I came out and was shocked to see that the melon-planter had pulled out all the melon plants and cleared his plot entirely.
“‘What happened?’ I said. ‘Those melon plants were beautiful! You would have had so many melons!’ ‘Melons?’ he said. ‘I don’t know about that.
But the vines were taking up too much room. They were taking over. I need to plant something else.’” “For a moment, I was almost offended. How could they pull out those gorgeous plants? But when I paused and thought about it, I was pleased.
This is what we wanted – for them to take the individual initiative to make the garden theirs. To grow what they want, and to rip out anything they didn’t want. This wasn’t defeat – this was success.”
As a cultural experiment, the whole project has been fascinating, the Seattle-born Zohar recalls.
“I earned my undergraduate degree at BGU, then went to the University of Haifa for my postgraduate degree. While in Haifa, I volunteered for many projects within the Ethiopian community.
Community gardens had always been my passion, so when this position with Earth’s Promise opened up, it seemed like it was made for me. I love the Negev and wanted to come back, and to be able to work with Ethiopians in creating a community garden was almost too good to be true.
“As a means to help Ethiopians adjust to life in Israel, a community garden is perfect,” she says.
“When the Ethiopians arrive, their whole lives are turned upside down.
“In Ethiopia, it’s the parents who know how to do things. They plant, grow food and teach their children. Then they come here, they move into eight-story buildings with no land for them at all.
The kids go to school, but the parents are stranded.
Their lives here are totally different than they were in Ethiopia.
“Worse yet, the adults don’t understand the local culture, so the children take over, teaching the parents.
All this causes a huge disruption in family life and a breakdown in their society.
“What the community garden does is provide a place where, once again, the parents are the teachers.
They work the land – something they know how to do – and their children learn from them. It restores balance in the family.”
The Ethiopians have a completely different outlook on life, she says.
“I remember talking with one of the men. He was puzzled. ‘Why it is that in Israel, you go out and work for money, then spend the money to buy food? Why don’t you just grow the food?’ he wondered.
It made me think.”
All the garden plots are taken, Zohar says.
“They’re all spoken for and we have a waiting list.
What’s happening right now is that some families are moving out of the absorption center into their own apartments, so some plots are changing hands. The older immigrants move on and hand their garden plots over to newcomers who are just arriving. It’s almost like graduation.”
There don’t appear to be gender roles in Ethiopian culture regarding who works in the garden, Zohar says. “In some families, the women do the work, in others it’s the men. Many times, everyone works – even the children. Occasionally there’s a little tension with so many little kids running around – people complain when their plants are knocked down.
“We can help that a little; we’re now starting to reclaim the other half of the land area. We’ll have a place where the children can do more planting themselves, a place where people can plant areaintensive plants, like squash or melons. We’ll also have 30 additional garden plots, some of which will be available for people who live in the neighborhood, not in the absorption center.”
Integrating the neighborhood residents with the Ethiopian immigrants is another goal.
“It would be good for everyone if there could be more community involvement with the non- Ethiopian neighbors. Too often the absorption center becomes a closed society – the Ethiopians keep to themselves and don’t mix with the rest of the community.
“So we encourage neighborhood residents to join us for celebrations and to come see the garden.
There’s a language barrier, of course. Most of the Ethiopians speak [only] Amharic, some have a little English from school. But when they’re working with Hebrew-speakers in the garden, communication becomes much simpler. It’s easier to talk in the garden.”
As the initial founders of Earth’s Promise were going through the early stages of organization and garden-planning, they also started another project with a shorter turn-around time: community composting.
Today, the composting project has turned into a city-wide community compost network, with some 12 composting centers created for public use in various parts of Beersheba.
The Earth’s Promise composters got an extra boost from a source they couldn’t have expected: a foreign student from Finland, Heli Saukkola, who appeared at exactly the right moment.
“I came from a tiny village in the southern part of Finland,” Saukkola says. “In 2007, I’d come to Israel just to visit, and was shocked by what I saw.
People here, Israelis, throw all kinds of garbage into the same bin! I could hardly believe it – in Finland, we recycle everything separately, and all organic waste is turned into compost.
“I went back home, but I had the Negev in my heart. The big dream of my life was to come back to Israel, to the Negev, to teach people how to compost.
“I know it sounds crazy,” Saukkola laughs. “I was a language teacher in Finland, teaching French and Swedish. I have no expertise in biology. But I had this desire I hardly dared tell anyone about.
“Just in case I could find a way to come back to Israel, I started studying Hebrew, and I also started searching for learning opportunities that would bring me back. One day I came across BGU’s Overseas Program, where foreign students come to Ben-Gurion University to study for a year. That interested me.
Then I saw their one-year track in something called ‘Sustainable Development and Environmental Justice.’ One sentence just hit me: ‘We will examine the potential for recycling in the Negev.’ “That was it! All I could think was, ‘I’m going!’” One of Saukkola’s early projects was to take a survey.
“I interviewed about 400 students about their knowledge of and willingness to compost. I learned a lot of Hebrew in the process,” she smiles, “but more importantly, I discovered that most students were not aware of composting at all. More encouraging was that after they learned what it was, many, even those who live in apartments, would compost if they could.
“One easy way to get them started was to open what had been private compost piles to the public.
In other words, if someone had established a compost pile for themselves, if it was located in a place where the public could have access, it could be opened to others who could come to recycle their waste. That would allow many more people to compost.”
Saukkola finished her one-year program of study at BGU, and in August began a year-long internship with Earth’s Promise, focusing on promoting composting.
“So far, we’ve opened 12 previously private composting areas to the public,” she says. “There’s a map showing where they are. Most are in neighborhoods near the university, but there’s also one in Ramot and another at the Rambam Synagogue in the Heh neighborhood. Each has information on what can be composted and how to do it, as well as the contact information of someone in charge.”
The composting project at Rambam Synagogue actually had its origins during the last shmita (sabbatical) year, which began in September 2007.
“A wide range of Jewish laws apply to land use within the State of Israel during the every-seventhyear shmita,” notes Josh Stramer, one of the original Earth’s Promise volunteers and a member of Rambam Synagogue. “The original issue was how we could dispose of kitchen scraps during the shmita without violating Jewish law.
“Isaac Hametz worked with a rabbi to find a halachic way to do the composting, then we took the idea to the Rambam congregation to see if they’d allow their members to put composting bins on the synagogue’s property, just for that year.”
“I remember that first meeting with the congregation,” Stramer recalls. “Isaac gave a talk, explained how it would work and what the benefits would be – but even so, the proposal wasn’t without opposition. A few members noted that this was, after all, a synagogue, and that we shouldn’t be bringing our trash to it.
“Ultimately, though, they agreed. A few of us worked to build the composting bins as the rabbi had instructed. Basically, the bins had to be suspended above the ground so they didn’t touch the earth at all.
“Isaac found some drums – big barrels, really – that had previously been used for soap at a car wash. We cleaned them out, mounted them on stands, then ran a pole through the middle so they could be rotated by just turning a handle.
“Once they were in place, we put plastic sheeting underneath, so even if something spilled, it still wouldn’t touch the ground. We put up a big sign with all the information: what could be composted, what couldn’t, plus basic instructions, like covering each new addition of food scraps with a few handfuls of yard and grass clippings we kept nearby.
My phone number was listed in case there were any problems.”
Stramer and his wife, Ophira, were new immigrants too.
“We met at WUJS (World Union of Jewish Students), returned home, New York for me and Massachusetts for Ophira. We each decided to make aliya and married here in 2004.
“The Rambam composting project came off without a hitch. One minor problem was that someone stole our locks – we’d put locks on the full drums so people wouldn’t keep adding to them. One morning I arrived and discovered that all the locks were gone. It wasn’t a big deal, and didn’t certainly didn’t hurt the program overall.”
Stramer spent hours of volunteer time tracking Beersheba’s municipal gardeners as they worked all over the city.
“It’s really important that you add some yard or grass clippings to the compost mix,” Stramer says.
“We needed to make sure grass clippings or dry leaves were always available. On the Beersheba municipal website there’s a list showing where the city groundskeepers will be working each day, in which neighborhoods. So I’d check the lists, then go pick up about a dozen big bags of leaves and bring them to the synagogue.
“The only other thing I did was to check the compost’s temperature each morning – I had a thermometer on a long stick, so I’d check to see that the natural process was producing enough heat to make it work. If I went in the morning before work, I’d open the drums and steam would pour out. It gets amazingly hot.
“I think we were all surprised by how successful the whole project was. People brought their scraps, depositing them in one or another of the drums. As each drum finished working – it takes about three months to turn organic waste into compost – we’d empty it into big bags that we stored until the end of the shmita.
“I can’t tell you exactly how many people participated, but when the shmita year ended, we hauled over a ton of compost – ‘black gold’ – back to the synagogue yard and used it to start a courtyard garden, something the congregation had been wanting to do for years.
“We had an official Planting Day and invited everyone.
“One of the congregants, Marcia Ruth, donated a large number of succulents and cacti from her own yard, told stories about where each had come from and what care it needed. Then we planted. The day was a total success.”
The shmita year was over, but the congregation decided to continue composting.
“One thing we learned was that the rotating drums became very heavy to turn when they were full, so now – since it’s not shmita – we’re composting in regular bins on the ground. Next shmita, we’ll figure something else out. Now Tu Bishvat is Earth’s Promise’s day at Rambam. Last year we had over 30 people who came to work and plant.”
Just before Succot, the gala second birthday party for the Kalisher Absorption Center Community Garden took place, starting just before sunset and going on long after dark. Both Ethiopians and neighborhood residents came to chat, to listen to Ethiopian music, to make succa decorations, eat fresh sliced melon from the garden’s own kitchen and watch films recalling previous Earth’s Promise events – and, of course, check their gardens and compare results.
Josh Stramer recalled the first meeting he and Isaac Hametz had with the Ethiopians, way back at the beginning of it all.
“I remember seeing the men as they considered Isaac’s idea for a community garden. At first they weren’t sure at all, but they began to warm to the idea as they realized they were being offered a chance to work the land, to grow their own vegetables. By the time the meeting was over, they were hugging him, excited by the possibility.
“The next day, they all turned up to do that first hard work, cleaning away the debris and then turning the soil. You can see it in the photos. Before the garden, the men stand slumped over, they look tired, they lacked purpose. Compare that to photos taken recently, where the men are standing tall, shoulders straight, proud of what they’ve accomplished.
Desale, one of the most enthusiastic gardeners, sums it up this way: “I was one of the first to start my plot, and I love it. The first important thing was that we were able to grow food here, something that’s so much a part of our tradition. But now we have outsiders and tourists who come to see the garden, which is really something.
“Especially when you’re a new immigrant, there’s nothing more rewarding than to see others admire your work!”
For more information: www.earthspromise.org, or call 054-833-9449.