In Israel's Western Galilee: ‘Firgun’ at its best

In business, Israelis aren’t always known for looking out for others, but in the Western Galilee, a pastoral picture of cooperation and quality comes to light.

Vino and tapas at the Lotem Organic Winery (photo credit: LOTEM ORGANIC WINERY)
Vino and tapas at the Lotem Organic Winery
(photo credit: LOTEM ORGANIC WINERY)
‘I don’t feel good about saying this, but Israelis are not great at helping each other out when it comes to business,” veteran tour guide Amnon Gofer says during a tour of the Western Galilee, including its shops and small businesses. “We’re trying to change that here.”
And so far, they are succeeding. Western Galilee Now (WGN), launched in 2011 with the help of JNF-USA, is a chamber of commerce and consortium of dozens of small businesses that look out for each other.
“It works like this,” Gofer begins with enthusiasm.
“A couple visits a winery. The winemaker says, ‘You know, for some great cheese to go with the wine, you can go to this place.’ The couple then goes to that cheese maker, who then recommends a great tzimmer [bed-andbreakfast] to stay in. The tzimmer owners will recommend a place for lunch the following day, and so on and so forth.
We’re all looking out for each other. We want to change this Israeli mentality of ‘every man for himself,’” he says.
This is the epitome of what Israelis call firgun, giving others a leg up and letting them bask in the glory of success.
While not common here when it comes to business, its the driving force of WGN.
On June 8-10, WGN will showcase the best it has to offer with its fifth annual spring festival. There is something for everybody: Foodies can enjoy the variety of flavors on hand during a tour of Acre’s old city; wine-lovers can sip a variety of offerings at Johnny Stern’s winery, and families with young children can enjoy face-painting and jeep tours, and can even pet a goat (yes, really, at the Teva Ez goat pen).
On Friday, the main event, called The Taste of the Galilee, will be hosted by Kishor Winery, where live music will be played as attendees sample the wares from some 40 WGN-approved stands selling everything from wine and cheese to beauty products.
For a rather unassuming group of entrepreneurs, WGN has evolved into an elite club. The organization asks each member to contribute $100 a month, and members are carefully vetted to ensure that all businesses offer top-notch customer service.
“We’re a grassroots organization that hopes to drive up tourism in this region, which unfortunately is still relatively unknown,” explains Michal Shiloah, director of WGN.
The group is also tasked with promoting awareness and appreciation for the region’s boutique wines, food, cultural diversity, historic traditions and scenic routes.
To date, it has 42 members representing the ethnic mosaic that is the North, with Arabs, Jews, Christians and Druse all working in concert with each other.
The Kishor winery is an optimal place to hold such an event, with its vibrant greenery and peaceful setting.
Aside from creating award-winning vino, the eight-hectare winery is the epicenter of Kibbutz Kishorit and its people with special needs.
“Our members are always at the forefront of our work,” Yair Una, director of marketing and sales, says of the 175 special-needs workers who live and work on the kibbutz. “We believe in basic human rights and that someone who is productive can have high self-esteem.”
That said, the winery is still very much a for-profit business and sells up to 100,000 bottles a year. In 2014, its Savant Red won the Asian Wine Review Gold Medal for best red wine.
Kishor is not the only winery in town (or at the festival).
The Lotem Organic Winery is all about celebrating life and will be present as well. Both in the visitor center and where the wine is fermented, music is streamed constantly. There is a tranquil vineyard, with majestic views and locally sourced grapes.
“This is what I love,” Lotem wine maker and chef Yonatan Koren boasts, saying he’s excited to be part of WGN and its family of quality business owners.
One of those owners is Yonat Mazan, of the Alto Dairy Farm at Kibbutz Shomrat. Her tranquil, family-owned and -operated dairy farm is the ultimate destination for a quiet meal away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
Think you must make cheddar or Roquefort cheese with cow’s milk? Think again, because cheddar and Roquefort from goat’s milk are on offer at Alto. In fact, all of Mazan’s products are made exclusively from goat’s milk, which is known to be more gentle to one’s digestive tract, and each is more delicious than the next.
“We’re a bunch of kibbutzniks with a dream,” Mazan says with a smile. “We wanted a one-stop shop under one roof.”
For the Mazans, that dream has come true. The dairy farm has a quaint restaurant, and all 15 cheese varieties are made on site.
Even those who are sick and tired of the amount of cheese they consumed on Shavuot will not be able to resist visiting the Shirat Roim dairy farm stand.
What started as a hobby for former speech and language therapist Michal Mor Melamed became a passion as she learned the art of cheese-making while on vacation in the Swiss Alps.
“I’m doing what I was born to do, I guess,” she says of her rapid success in the cheese world – and her win in the Mondial du Fromage, a worldwide competition for cheese makers in France.
“I surprised myself,” she grins.
She uses European methods at her dairy farm, which offers 26 kinds of preservative-free cheeses. The restaurant, which is open only on weekends, has a creative menu, with offerings you won’t find anywhere else. Where, for example, can one find cheesecake with bits of pecorino inside? Or bread with molten cheddar baked inside? For those watching their waistline, not everything at the festival will be edible. Aya Natural, a cosmetic company providing holistic skincare and haircare products in the Druse village of Beit Jann, is one example.
Jamal Hamud is dedicated to providing nourishing products aimed at revitalizing the skin and body. His successful line, with ingredients that mix jojoba oil from the Negev and virgin olive oil from the Galilee, are making a splash in online sales.
“In Hebrew, Western Galilee Now really has two meanings,” WGN director Shiloah explains. “It, of course, emphasizes enjoyment of our region in the here and now, but it also connotes that we are operating at our own relaxed pace. The rest of the world is spinning, but for us, it’s simply Western Galilee time.”
For those looking for a reprieve from a hectic lifestyle, spending a few laid-back hours on Western Galilee time may be just the antidote they’re looking for.