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Amid war, food rescue group switches from relying on farmers’ generosity to helping them survive

Yariv Hagbi, a farmer whose family has been growing produce in the area of southern Israel near Gaza for generations, spent part of Oct. 7 fighting terrorists who broke into his family home in the town of Yakhini.

That Saturday, his brother, Yizhar Hagbi, and several other relatives were killed. Since then, the entire community of Yakhini has been displaced, but Hagbi stayed behind because he’s determined to save the family farm — despite all the grief, shock and devastation.

“At a certain point, you have to get back to life,” Hagbi said. 

A range of produce grows at Hagbi’s farm in Nir Moshe, including broccoli, potatoes, cabbage, melon, tomatoes, corn and chickpeas. Until the war, the farm relied on Thai farmhands — part of an agricultural workforce of tens of thousands of foreign laborers in Israel. But most fled their places of work after Hamas’s brutal attack left dozens of foreign farmworkers dead or abducted and turned a large swath of southern Israel into a war zone. Without the 20 Thais who had worked at Hagbi’s farm, Hagbi’s produce was left unpicked and was starting to rot. 

Hundreds of other farms in southern Israel — the source of approximately 75% of the country’s vegetables — were in similarly dire circumstances.

Joseph Gitler, Founder and Chairman of the Israeli food rescue organization Leket Israel, quickly pivoted his organization’s focus to address the crisis. 

In normal times, Leket Israel collects surplus produce from farms around the country — and excess cooked meals from institutions such as hotels and army bases — and distributes the food to needy families via a network of nonprofit organizations. In 2022, Leket rescued 58 million pounds of agricultural produce, and the 20-year-old organization was on track to increase those numbers in 2023.

Then came Hamas’s attack and the war in Gaza.

“We immediately understood that the Oct. 7 attack would bring an upheaval to our work,” Gitler said. “We realized that our food sources were about to dry up.”

First, Leket shifted gears to aid Israeli farmers, who until the war had been Leket’s primary donors of surplus food. The organization began recruiting volunteers from Israel and around the world to help fill the gap left by the absence of farm workers, organizing 15,000 to 20,000 volunteers to farms amid a nationwide movement of volunteers helping pick, plant and protect produce from weeds.

Leket also began purchasing produce from farmers rather than just collecting surplus. The need is particularly high because Israeli farms have lost many export customers due to the challenges of harvesting and transporting the produce at a time when workers and overseas flights are both in short supply (most international carriers have canceled all their Israel flights).

Volunteers with a sign reading “United until victory” pause for a group photo amid work on a farm. (Courtesy of Leket Israel)

At the same time, Leket has been continuing to provide meals to needy Israelis even as some of the organizations it works with to distribute those meals have suspended operations during the war due to logistical difficulties — or, like the army, don’t have surplus food anymore. Today Leket provides about 15,000 meals per day — 50% more than before the war — all via purchased rather than donated food.

“The situations of people we help hasn’t gotten any better since October 7,” Gitler said. “In some cases, they have gotten worse.”

For farms in the vicinity of Gaza, the challenges are tremendous. Almost all farming families in the south are mourning loved ones or friends, have been evacuated from their homes, or have family members doing military reserve duty. The farms themselves have suffered significant damage, including incineration by Hamas terrorists, fields torn up by military vehicles, structures damaged by rocket or mortar fire, and locations commandeered by the army. Farms within four kilometers of the border must obtain special permission from the Israeli Defense Forces to continue operating amid the fighting. Then, of course, there’s the loss of the farmworkers themselves.

That problem is afflicting farmers all over Israel, not just those in the war zones.

Yuval Shargian, a farmer in Tzofit, north of Tel Aviv, whose 100-acre tract grows broccoli, zucchini and leeks, for years has donated his surplus to Leket. But when his entire workforce of Thai and Arab workers disappeared after Oct. 7, he became reliant upon volunteers. 

“It’s been amazing with the volunteers,” Shargian said. “They have a lot of good will and a desire to help. My farm will survive because of them.”

Debbi Hirsch Levran, a retired social worker and lawyer living in Jerusalem, is among those who have has been volunteering on farms during the war, and she frequently helps organize buses of volunteers through her synagogue, Kol Haneshama.

“We have worked in cauliflower fields and strawberry fields. We picked sweet potatoes, oranges and tomatoes. We planted broccoli,” Levran said. “It has been therapeutic for us — not only to be in the fresh air and to be with friends, but also to assist people who we’ve never met before but who are part of our larger community of Israel.”

Dan Greenberg, 51, joined a Leket volunteer group on a recent visit to Israel from his home in Brooklyn, New York, picking tomatoes and pomegranates near Gaza. 

“The work was tough and exhausting. Every muscle hurt at the end of the day,” Greenberg said. “And it was the most fulfilling work I have ever done.”

Volunteers are helping keep Israeli farms afloat amid a dearth of farmhands and other problems resulting from the war in Israel. (Courtesy of Leket Israel)

Leket has set up a series of partnerships to create new avenues to support farmers and volunteers. A new partnership with Bank Leumi, the Israel Student Union and the Keshet media company will give 800 students who volunteer on a farm for 160 hours a yearlong academic scholarship. In a new partnership with Strauss foods, farmers can receive a debit card through which they get direct funding.

Supporting the farmers is vital not just to keep them in business but also to support Israel’s entire food system. If the farms in southern Israel were to collapse, Israel would have to embark on a major food import campaign with long-term repercussions for Israel’s economy and the national ethos of being self-sustaining. 

“That would start a difficult path to come back from,” Shargian said. “Had the volunteers not helped with the planting, Israel would be having a real food crisis now.” 

Levran and Hagbi both say planting is critical at this moment. 

“The most important thing is to keep planting; it is about preserving our way of life,” Hagbi said. “My family has been farming here for generations, and our enemies want to erase our entire way of life. We are fighting for our very existence. Planting is our way of ensuring our long-term survival here in a Jewish, democratic state. We are doing this for all of Israel.” 

Through Leket, tourists to Israel may volunteer for as little as several hours planting, packing or harvesting.

“We need all hands on deck right now,” Gitler said. “Leket is doing what we can. But we need more help. If you’re coming to Israel, be ready to roll up your sleeves. Everyone has to participate.”

The post Amid war, food rescue group switches from relying on farmers’ generosity to helping them survive appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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This Israeli designer is bringing her Oct. 7-inspired shawl to Manhattan’s Vogue Knitting Live conference

(New York Jewish Week) — Among the 6,000 knitters descending on Times Square this week for a major fiber arts convention is a first-time attendee from Israel who hopes a shawl she made can counteract anti-Israel sentiment in the knitting community.

A mother of seven and a grandmother of two, Liza Rodrig, 48, is something of a handicraft and fashion icon in her own country. She has been on Israeli television, boasts a significant social media following and has even had her work featured on a virtual runway during Tel Aviv’s Fashion Week.

But Rodrig has never before been to Vogue Knitting Live, an extravaganza of fiber arts that features fashion shows, demonstrations, exhibits and a marketplace of luxury yarns and craft tools. She decided to make the trip after Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked southern Israel and plunged Israel into despair.

Armed with knitting needles and a deep belief that the craft “heals and fills the soul,” the Tel Aviv native began developing a new design soon after the attack. “The October 7 Shawl” is made of a cashmere-merino wool blend and mohair, knit into an elongated, triangular form that resembles the State of Israel. The shawl features a Star of David motif — and a seven-color gradient moving from black to to salmon to pink to white.

“I found myself choosing dark colors that slowly lighten — then I realized that this is what I want: to convey the message of what happened in Israel,” Rodrig said. “Oct. 7 — we didn’t think we would be able to get up from it — and how, little by little, optimism returns and therefore the colors become brighter.”

Rodrig will be showing off her design at an open house about Jewish knitting during Vogue Knitting Live as well as in a series of Zoom sessions in which knitters can create their own Oct. 7 shawls together as part of a community. (The events are organized by “Beautifully Jewish,” a monthly podcast on Jewish material culture from Tablet Magazine that this reporter co-hosts.)

Her participation in the trade show is welcome for Jewish knitters who say they have felt isolated and hurt by the reaction to Oct. 7 in what is typically a warm community, one that engages widely on social issues, not just on matters of skeins and stitches.

Liza Rodrig, left, and a model showcase some of Rodrig’s unique designs. (Courtesy)

“I was stunned by the initial lack of support by the knitting community, which historically has been quick to jump on social issues,” said Sue Blumberg of Larchmont, New York. She said some community members posted online “anti-Israel rhetoric without ever acknowledging the atrocities of Oct. 7. … and I was so angry at the growing visibility of antisemitism in what had always been my safe haven, the knitting community.”

Instagram, the visual social network where much knitting conversation takes place, has been rife with fighting and disinformation over the Israel-Hamas war. Hateful comments piled up on posts that ordinarily would have drawn feedback about new patterns and projects. Some Jewish knitters decided to skip major events such as the NY Sheep & Wool Festival in Rhinebeck, New York, out of fear that they would face emotional, verbal or even physical conflict. The dynamic has left lasting scars for some longtime knitters. 

“Knitting had been a place I went to to buoy my spirits, lift up my heart. Right now, knitting feels equally fraught, equally painful, and that has been a hard place to find myself,” said Simone Heymann of Portland, Oregon. “It has been hard to feel so unwanted, so hated, amongst people I thought were ‘my people.’”

The division was not an online-only phenomenon. In Brooklyn, Lauren Gottlieb was part of a local knitting group for years and was stunned when members of her unit, all aware she was Jewish, didn’t text or call after Oct. 7. 

“We just all watched a pogrom on TV! In 2023! I am not religious at all, don’t believe in God, but I am culturally Jewish — these women were at my son’s very small bar mitzvah but yet nobody thought to ask if I was OK,” she said. 

Gottlieb will attend her sixth Vogue Knitting Live this year — this time wearing an indelible mark of Jewish pride. “I will be sure I wear something off-the-shoulder to show off my new ‘We Will Dance Again’ tattoo,” she said, referring to a motto adopted by survivors of the Oct. 7 Nova music festival massacre in Israel. “It’s, to me, the way others wear a Jewish star necklace.”

Now, Rodrig’s scarf could become a shared symbol for the Jewish knitting community. Having struggled as a student with dyslexia, she discovered that her intelligence and creativity knew no bounds in the world of sticks and strings after her mother-in-law taught her to knit 20 years ago. She soon started designing her own knitting patterns and eventually launched Liza Wool, a home-based knitting, sewing, weaving studio and school. 

Liza Wool is a partnership between Liza and her husband, entrepreneur Kfir Rodrig. The pair met two years after Liza’s first husband died in a tragic accident, leaving the young widow alone with their daughter. When Liza met Kfir’s mother, the gentle tapping sounds of her knitting needles drew Liza to learn to knit — and from there, her relationship with Kfir, and knitting, took flight. Within a year the two were married and by 2022, Liza’s knitting-lesson business outgrew their living room and into a boho craft oasis in their backyard.

The upgraded space is made up of a series of connected wood-paneled rooms – one for weaving, one for sewing –  leading to a homey chalet lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with a wide array of colorful textured yarns. Rodrig’s colorful designs adorn dress forms around the room. 

“Everyone who comes to our school feels that they are cut off and are in a kind of village, even though it is in the center of Ramat HaSharon,” Rodrig said, referring to the central Israeli city where the family lives. 

She believes her family — the six kids still at home and yellow Labrador Retriever Lucas — who float in and out of the craft spaces contributes to the warm, welcoming vibe because “everyone feels the good atmosphere and all my students are a part of it,” she said. 

That space turned into a respite after Oct. 7. With many Israelis turning to crafting to take a break from worry and bad news, Rodrig has had to add another table to accommodate all those who want to knit together.

Now, Rodrig is making her first trip to the Big Apple in 21 years, this time with a singular focus on the craft that saved her after the traumatic loss of her first husband. Her big dreams for the convention: meet knitwear design guru Shirley Paden-Bernstein, source new yarns for her shop in Ramat HaSharon and share her shawl with American Jews in need of support.

Though Rodrig’s new design is named The October 7 Shawl, she was thinking about the future when she designed it. Her journey to New York is meant to strengthen the American Jewish knitting community and give its members a way to wrap themselves in comfort.

”I asked for divine guidance on expressing the depth of my feelings,” she said, adding that the resulting design “mirrors the resilience of the Jewish community [and] encapsulates the journey from darkness to light.”

The post This Israeli designer is bringing her Oct. 7-inspired shawl to Manhattan’s Vogue Knitting Live conference appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Mighty But Moral

Moses Breaking the Tables of the Law (1659), by Rembrandt. Photo: Wikimedia Commons. – The Children of Israel were caught, quite literally, “between the devil and the deep blue sea.” Pharaoh and his chariots were in hot pursuit of the newly freed Israelites and caught up to them as they reached the sea. With nowhere to turn, panic and pandemonium broke out.

But Moses told the people to calm down: “Have no fear! Stand fast and see God’s salvation that He will perform for you today! You may be seeing the Egyptians today, but you will never see them again! God will do battle for you and you shall remain silent.”

As Moses raised his staff over the water, the sea split, and in arguably the greatest of all Biblical miracles, the Jewish people crossed the sea on dry land. Then the waters came crashing down on the pursuing Egyptians and they drowned.

A few verses earlier we read: “And the Children of Israel marched out of Egypt triumphantly.” Literally, the words are b’yad ramah: “With hands held high.” Rashi interprets this to mean “with exalted power” or “triumphantly.” Not only with “hands held high,” but with heads held high.

So, our first message from this week’s parsha, Beshalach, is that Jews should always be strong and proud and not feel that we owe anyone any apologies—not the Palestinians, not the United Nations, not even the United States and certainly not The New York Times. Our cause is just; our response to the Oct. 7 massacres and atrocities is legitimate and necessary; and those who don’t understand what genocide means should consult the dictionary before they run to the Hague.

But there is an additional message in our parsha. After their mortal enemies are drowned in the sea, Moses and the Israelites sing “Az Yashir,” the famous Song of the Sea, in thanksgiving and praise to God for His miraculous deliverance. According to the Talmud, when the Jews sang, the angels above joined them in song. But the Almighty Himself intervened and stopped them from singing.

Why? Because “the work of My hands are drowning at sea, and you are singing?”

In other words: It’s one thing for the Jews to sing over the supernatural salvation from their pursuers and captors; but you angels, what do you have to sing about? Rather, show some sensitivity to the fact that the human beings I created are dying.

From this we learn the profundity of the Jewish moral ethos. Even though the Egyptians had tortured their Jewish slaves mercilessly for many decades, when they die there is nothing to celebrate and we may not sing with gay abandon.

We can rejoice over our own deliverance from danger. We may sing about our salvation and tout our triumphs. But Jews do not take delight in the death of even our most vile enemies.

This is, in fact, one of the reasons why we recite only the abridged Hallel on the last days of Passover, which commemorate the Splitting of the Sea. We sing God’s praises, but our praise is somewhat muted because of the deaths of the Egyptians, evil as they might have been.

The origins of our moral compass long precede the Splitting of the Sea. Our patriarch Jacob expressed these values centuries earlier. His twin brother Esau was coming to exact revenge for what he perceived as the injustice of Jacob’s purchase of Esau’s birthright from him, which led to their father Isaac blessing Jacob and not Esau. As they prepared to meet, Esau approached with 400 armed desperadoes. There was no doubt that he had murder on his mind.

“And Jacob was very frightened and pained” over the impending confrontation with Esau. Jacob was afraid with good reason. But he was also “pained” because, as Rashi says, “he may be compelled to kill others in self-defense.”

This holds true today. Despite all the criticism of Israel’s so-called “disproportionate” war in Gaza, the IDF is still the most moral army in the history of the world. Jews may be tough and tenacious in battle, but we remain moral, ethical, sensitive and compassionate human beings. All of human life is sacred to us, including Palestinian lives and, believe it or not, even the lives of those who butchered our children. Yes, it is a challenge to be tough and moral. Most armies fail miserably. The IDF deserves the praise of the world, not treacherous and hypocritical condemnations.

I remember well the screaming headlines in 2002 condemning Israel for the so-called “Jenin Massacre” that never happened. Israel correctly denied it outright as a blood libel. Yet the late then-Secretary General of the UN Kofi Annan asked, “Can it be that the whole world is wrong, and Israel is right?” The answer, as so many times in history, was yes. The whole world was wrong and Israel was right. The Palestinians had made up the “massacre” out of whole cloth. It was just another Big Lie in the Middle East’s tapestry of falsehood. It took a few months, but eventually the UN itself issued an official report that admitted that there was no massacre whatsoever. Annan never apologized.

Arab blood is worth infinitely more to Jews than Jewish blood is to Arabs. I’ll go further: Arab blood is more sacred to a Jew than it is to an Arab. As Golda Meir once famously stated, “Peace will come to the Middle East when the Arabs will love their own children more than they hate ours.”

We are witnessing a stunning example of this in Gaza today. The IDF does its best to protect the children of Gaza while Hamas keeps putting its own children in the line of fire.

The twin teachings of our weekly parsha are: Be proud and walk tall. Hold your hands and heads high with no apologies. But at the same time, remain moral, ethical and sensitive to the losses of our enemies. This is the Jewish way.

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The IDF’s Systematic Approach to Dismantling Hamas

Israeli soldiers drape their country’s flag over an IDF tank near the border with Gaza. Photo: Reuters/Ronen Zvulun – On the eve of the war, Hamas possessed an estimated 30,000 armed terrorists, divided into five territorial brigades and 24 battalions across the Gaza Strip. It had a sprawling weapons production industry, much of it underground, and distributed the weapons through hundreds of miles of tunnels. It had an estimated rocket arsenal of some 15,000 projectiles, and death squads on the border preparing to conduct the worst mass murder of Jews since the Second World War.

More than 100 days into the fighting, the Hamas war machine has sustained severe damage and is being further degraded by the day. Its ability to function as an organized military force in northern and central Gaza has been eliminated, though Hamas prepared cells with the ability to function independently. These lone cells continue to attack Israeli forces as the opportunity arises, with whatever means they have to hand.

While the latest Israel Defense Forces assessment is that Hamas has thus far lost more than 9,000 fighters—a third of its fighting force—this is far from a complete picture of the true scope of damage it has sustained, not least because that figure pertains to fatalities, not overall battle casualties, which are likely far higher.

Furthermore, according to an IDF source, the Israeli military has been engaged in a gradual, ordered process of dismantling Hamas’s capabilities from the top down, starting with its command structure.

According to the source, the IDF and its divisions within Gaza focus their firepower and maneuvers first on eliminating enemy commanders, as well as their command and control capabilities—meaning the places from which they command field cells.

In the next stage, the terror group’s infrastructure is targeted, such as bases and military posts. Weapons production and storage sites comprised the next layer of targets.

It is only after these target banks are exhausted that the IDF prioritizes targeting Hamas fighters.

Furthermore, the estimate of Hamas fatalities is constantly rising; the IDF estimates that over 100 terrorists were killed in western Khan Yunis on Tuesday alone.

Of higher priority for the IDF is Hamas’s tunnel networks, which are being systematically mapped and destroyed.

Hamas’s ability to switch from organized command structures to decentralized guerilla warfare means that the IDF must be prepared for a prolonged fight against a determined asymmetric jihadist force—but one that is losing operatives, commanders and capabilities by the day.

The IDF has completed the encirclement of Hamas’s final major stronghold of Khan Yunis in southern Gaza, with intense fighting being reported particularly in the city’s southern and western areas.

IDF special forces and intelligence units have been operating in the tunnels under the city for weeks, building a detailed intelligence picture and stepping up the pressure on Hamas’s leadership, which, together with the hostages, is likely located in this area.

In addition, the IDF is preparing a buffer zone in eastern Gaza, in which it is removing areas used by Hamas to launch its murderous attack on Oct. 7. The 21 reservists who died on Tuesday were conducting a controlled demolition as part of this effort when their location was hit by an RPG.

“Our forces continue a broad operation in western Khan Yunis, one of Hamas’s significant centers of gravity,” IDF Spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari stated on Tuesday during a press conference.

“It is very complex terrain, densely populated with many Hamas terrorists concealed in the area, including in sensitive facilities, trying to surprise our forces. The forces are fighting courageously using a variety of methods, skillfully and with close support of aerial fire and intelligence. Our forces are striking military posts and terror infrastructure, and in recent days destroyed a tunnel network spanning a kilometer and a half as well as a rocket production facility,” he said.

“We continue to fight throughout the Gaza Strip, in the north, center, and the south. We are deepening our achievements and are continuing to operate around the clock to create conditions for the return of the hostages.”

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