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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
I began to see how our needs meshed.
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
“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.”
lots of it, but today Hametz says he’s forgotten most of the
“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
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.”
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
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.”
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
It helped when Netafim, the originator of drip irrigation on
Kibbutz Hatzerim, gave us enough irrigation drip line for the whole
“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.”
the Ethiopians to learn for themselves also worked with the practice of
“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
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
“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.
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
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.”
cultural experiment, the whole project has been fascinating, the Seattle-born
“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
The kids go to school, but the parents are stranded.
lives here are totally different than they were in Ethiopia.
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.
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?’
It made me think.”
All the garden plots are taken,
“They’re all spoken for and we have a waiting
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.”
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
“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
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.
composting project has turned into a city-wide community compost network, with
some 12 composting centers created for public use in various parts of
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Saukkola finished her one-year program of study at BGU, and
in August began a year-long internship with Earth’s Promise, focusing on
“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
“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.
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
“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.”
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.
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.
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
“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.”
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.
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
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.
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.