Meet the urban project promoting agriculture, carpentry, food rescue

These days, we generally live longer and are still able to live a full life and even to contribute well past official retirement age.

 A PARTICIPANT in Muslala's carpentry course. (photo credit: Muslala)
A PARTICIPANT in Muslala's carpentry course.
(photo credit: Muslala)

There is all this stuff, these days – largely with some marketing ulterior motive– about, say, 70 being “the new 60” and so on.

Whether that is oriented to milking older folk for their hard-earned cash to go off on some adventure, or shell out on some fancy gizmo, may be in the eye of the beholder.

Be that as it may, we do, generally these days, live longer and are still able to live a full life and even to contribute well past official retirement age.

That is central to the thinking behind the Hands of Gold program, thought up by the Jerusalem Municipality in collaboration with the Muslala Group.

The latter is an NPO established in 2009 by artists, residents and community activists that provides a platform for artists from various fields to work and create in Jerusalem. The Migdal insurance company also supports the project.

 THE HANDS of Gold urban farm. (credit: Muslala) THE HANDS of Gold urban farm. (credit: Muslala)

The program is set to kick off in earnest in early March, with the first phase due to continue over the following couple of months or so. On Sunday anyone looking to put their gifts, intellect and, possibly, brawn to good community-oriented use, naturally in the requisite age group, can trot along to the Muslala top-floor berth in the Clal Building at 11 a.m., for a three-hour open day agenda.

The rooftop “balcony” will host a bunch of professionals who will enlighten interested parties regarding the Hands of Gold modus operandi, which splits into three basic categories: gardening and urban agriculture, carpentry and creative construction, and food rescue and improvement of urban food systems.

The initiative’s titular epexegetical complement adds that the program is for “senior Jerusalem residents for the benefit of the environment and food security.”

The official municipal blurb notes: “The Municipality of Jerusalem is promoting a unique and breakthrough initiative, in the context of which teams of activist and entrepreneur senior citizens will be trained in the field of sustainability.”

This, we learn, incorporates the aforementioned broad sweep of derring-do avenues of universally beneficial undertakings, which also include practical carpentry and apiculture.

“This will offer people an opportunity to implement activities and areas of interest for which they were not previously able to find the time before,” the municipality’s release noted.

Over the years, I have heard from quite a few retirees how they suddenly feel surplus to societal requirements, and have become invisible to the general populace. They may have earned their right to a rest, after 40-odd years working in an office or industrial plant, but they are far from being ready to end up marginalized and sidestepped by the rest of us who are still going with the rat race flow.

“These are people who still have the strength and ability to do so much,” notes Matan Israeli, co-founder and director of Muslala, who intriguingly describes himself as an artist and urban healer. “These are people who, until recently, were responsible for the national economy and did so much for society. Then, one day, they are told they can’t do anything anymore. But they can offer all that valuable experience for the good of the community.”

To that end, those who sign up to the scheme will undergo eight weekly training slots, augmented by some fieldwork at Muslala’s activity venues, on Sundays between 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. The agricultural and gardening section will be undertaken at the Muslala balcony site, while the carpentry course will be moderated by Yair Cohen at Beita, a few hundred meters to the west on Jaffa Road. The nutrition side of the program will take place under the auspices of the Food Rescuers JLM team, headed by Daniella Seltzer, based at the wholesale fruit and vegetable market in Givat Shaul.

Hands of Gold also features study and enrichment sessions with lectures, workshops and alfresco forays on topics relating to sustainability and urban life, to be presented by “leaders in the field.” Course participants also get a vegetarian lunch, with vegan options.

So much for the first phase of the program. The second part is due to start in October, which is when the, by now, advanced trainees resume their work at the various Muslala sites and also get to spearhead new initiatives in the community.

This also involves some mentoring from members of the national Green Network organization, which engages in education for sustainable development. The organization’s credo states that it strives “for environmental and social change, and advocates Education for Sustainable Development in all the societies in Israel.”

Israeli believes we are missing out on a significant resource on an everyday level. “As a culture we need to find a place for the elders around us. That is something that is greatly valued in tribal cultures.” But not so much in Western society. “We shunt them off, out of the way, to senior citizens’ homes. But people in their sixties, seventies and eighties are fully active. They have so much experience to offer us.”

He says the accent is generally on the other end of the generational scale.

“There are so many programs for young people, but so few for older people. They send them off to do all sorts of petty things to distract them,” he says. “We want to integrate people with the experience and gifts in the activities at Muslala, and to train them.” He hopes that will establish a springboard for future endeavor. “After that they can initiate all sorts of things themselves.”

The proof of the pudding, he notes, is already there to be seen and enjoyed. “We have a few pensioners who are part of Muslala. For example, we have someone who learned wood turning with us, and now he is one the people who lead the activity at Beita.”

THAT “ELDER” is youthful 65-year-old Yair Cohen, who took early retirement from the police force at the relatively tender age of 57.

Cohen is a classic example of the kind of person who may very well turn up at Muslala for the open day proceedings.

“When I stopped working with the police, I started looking for something to do,” he recalls. “I registered for a carpentry course, run by the Economy Ministry, at Tel Arza in Jerusalem.”

It was a pretty intensive affair, with all-day classes, five days a week for 10 months. It was there that he came across Aryeh Tempelhof who supervises the upholstery class at Beita. Cohen’s die was well and truly cast. “He told me about Muslala, and I went there straight after the ministry course.”

Cohen says the Hands of Gold trainees who find their way to Beita stand to reap all kinds of rewards, in addition to the plain, simple pleasure of working with wood and creating. “This is a win-win situation. You get also access to different tools and equipment.”

The latter will not be on the menu, it must be said, from the off when the program participants who opt for the carpentry section present themselves to the beginners’ course coach Aliza Ashkenazi.

She says she doesn’t know what awaits her next month, but confesses to a preference for greenhorns.

“I don’t know exactly what to expect, but I assume the people that join in Hands of Gold will be similar to the ones who take part in the basic carpentry courses I give,” she posits.

“Sometimes I prefer to get people who have absolutely no knowledge of the work, because I can then direct them in my own way,” she laughs. “They come with their passion and love and enthusiasm, and I channel all of that.”

Ashkenazi has been at it for quite a while. “I have been running carpentry courses at Beita for six years. We have courses 60-62 coming up.”

She says she can’t wait for the new bunch to start. “They will learn traditional carpentry. The idea is they will learn about the attributes of the wood, and the best way to learn that is simply to work with it.”

Ashkenazi says there are two schools of thought, and work methods – the corporeal and the technologically assisted. She generally goes for the former, particularly in terms of the educational benefits to be had. “It is one thing to drill. Using a hammer and chisel is a different story.”

The course, she says, is very much about getting down and dirty with wood and learning the ABC of the craft. “They also have to learn how to use the tools properly. They have to learn how to hold the measuring tape, and the try square. And they have to know the exact measurements. I always say, in my opening talk, that every millimeter is important. If I want to join two pieces of wood, and there is a deviation of one millimeter in one direction or another, they won’t fit.” Sounds simple enough.

Ashkenazi is also looking forward to watching her charges come up with an actual finished product, and seeing the pride they will no doubt take from that. The idea is also to get the trainees to invest their accrued knowledge and skills to create something that they can take home or, possibly, that can benefit the community at large. “During the course we engage in three works – a shelf, a bench and then a table. And they are all made by hand, with no machines. That’s the only way they can really connect with the material. It would be nice to see, for example, a bench they make out there in public use.”

SELTZER SAYS she is eager to meet more seniors and, hopefully, add them to her expanding Food Rescuers JLM team.

“We started with six people in 2019. Now we have over 100,” she proudly notes.

The workers sort through the vegetables and fruit that arrive at the wholesale market depot in Givat Shaul and extricate the perfectly edible items that would be rejected by the stall operators due to some blemish or other aesthetic shortfall. The rescued food – tons and tons of it – is then used to cook meals for, and given out to, people all over the city.

“I would say around half of our volunteers are 55 or over,” Seltzer explains. “Older people bring their valuable experience to this work. Here, they can carry on developing and growing, and help the younger ones to learn, too.”

She says the Hands of Gold inductees will certainly bring some added value to the enterprise. “This program is more structured and initiative-oriented. The participants will receive training and knowledge. I am sure they will make a substantial contribution to our work.”

Tamar Achiron will run the rule over the whole Hands of Gold shebang. As an environmental ecologist, she brings a wealth of education and know-how to the program table.

Like Israeli, she bemoans the wanton waste of accumulative life wisdom and hands-on experience.

She says she gained valuable knowledge at a conference she attended in Scotland a few years back, run under the aegis of the Wilderness Awareness School nonprofit, which promotes outdoor education. The organization’s varied fields of interest include looking at different cultures around the world and how they relate to nature and the different phases of human life.

“There was a lot of discussion, by younger and older people, about the role of the elder in modern society,” says Achiron. “Western society has lost its understanding of the place of the elder, and what they have to contribute.

Achiron feels we could do with digging back into our past and reminding ourselves of some yesteryear wisdom. “The modern person has lost... a deep connection with nature and the ability to relate to emotional health. At the conference they also talked about research into more traditional cultures, and more human qualities, of the individual and society.”

The hope is that Hands of Gold will help to fuel that return to more basic and wholesome values across the board, and to promote a more thoughtful, considerate and gentle world for one and all. Jerusalem certainly wouldn’t be a bad place to kick-start that.

For registration and more information: (02) 546-8734 and [email protected], (02) 546-8764 and [email protected], and