Tired Of Watching From Afar, Several Locals Volunteer In Israel

Israeli agriculture is a $6 billion industry, and in the aftermath of the Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7, as IDF reservists were called back to duty and foreign farm workers were among those who were kidnapped, the food was going to rot. Whether through non-profit groups or traveling on their own, several Twin Cities residents have been going to Israel to help fill the gaps.

St. Paul’s Michael Chauss saw a homemade flyer in one of the social media groups he’s in and jumped on the opportunity to help – particularly after the trip to Israel he was going to be on was canceled. 

“It’s an experience I wasn’t prepared for,” Chauss said. “People say things are life-changing and it sounds like a cliche, but this has been life-changing.”

Chauss came across the group Israel Food Rescue, which was created to help fill the shortage of human capital on farms across Israel. Chauss worked on a persimmon farm, where they helped package the fruit.

“We probably packaged over 100,000 persimmons just today,” said Steve Sanderson, who’s from Minneapolis but didn’t know Chauss until they met in Israel. He said that a lot of the boxes of fruit were going to stay in Israel, although often they are exported out of the country. “We’re fulfilling a gap, and this is going on everywhere in Israel.

Washington, D.C. Rabbi Randy Brown founded Israel Food Rescue and said he’s been in inundated with calls and requests for people to help.

“While every industry in Israel has been affected by the war, anyone willing to engage in a little physical activity and the opportunity to contribute in a direct and meaningful way to sustaining the Jewish state can volunteer on a farm and help support the farmers who are in desperate need right now,” he said.

The cohort that Chauss and Sanderson are with comes from the United States, Spain, Costa Rica, Brazil, Netherlands, Belgium, and Canada and ranges from 18 to 76 years old.

“We run the gamut of Jewish demographics,” Chauss said. “There are people who daven every morning and put on tefillin, there are people from conservative congregations and others who are more secular Zionists. But we magically all get along really well and have become like this tight family.”

Chauss and Sanderson are among several Twin Cities Jews who have been to Israel to volunteer since Oct. 7.

‘I need you to have an open mind’

Lindsay Litman had been to Israel twice, but not for more than 25 years, when a friend who leads trips to Israel through the group Momentum reached out to her last month.

“Debbie called said and ‘I have something to ask you and I need you to have an open mind,” Litman recalled. “‘I’m leading this trip to Israel; do you want to come.’”

“When?” Litman asked.

“Next week.”

Without much time to consider, Litman decided to go on the Mother to Mother Unity Mission. But she didn’t know what compelled her to go – and still isn’t totally sure.

“I’m not the kind of person who when I get off the plane in Israel it’s like ‘Welcome home,’” she said. “I don’t feel a big tie to Israel. I don’t have family there. But if felt like the right thing to do. The drive to help was stronger than my fear was.”

Litman, who lives in Golden Valley with her family, was the lone Minnesotan on the trip, which was comprised of Jewish moms from throughout North America. The group did a variety of work, from packing care packages for IDF soldiers, to picking sweet potatoes. 

The group of 40 also went to the city of Sderot, one of the areas first hit by Hamas as it’s close to the Gaza border.

They also prepared meals for groups of soldiers at a catering kitchen that had been closed since the Hamas attacks, but had been working to prepare meals to take to bases for soldiers. The group went and made homemade fettucini alfredo, butternut squash ravioli and a chocolate torte. Litman had been whisking a large bowl of 18 eggs, as someone was adding other ingredients to the mix.

“My arms got so tired,” she said. One of the other trip participants offered to jump in to give her a break. But “I could get through it if the soldiers were doing what they’re doing. You can’t stop because things are hard.”

A seasoned volunteer

While Litman was a first-time volunteer, Jodi Upin is the opposite. She’s been volunteering through Sar-El, a group that assists on IDF bases in a logistical support role, since 2009 and has made 11 trips to Israel to volunteer. She had been scheduled to to volunteer in October – her flight was Oct. 10. Once the organization sent an email looking for volunteers, Upin was able to schedule flights.

“A lot times when we go, the bases say they’ll take volunteers but aren’t prepared to have us,” said Upin. This wasn’t the case this time. She worked on a medical supply base that typically packs up supplies that is used by IsrAID, an international aid group that goes to places where natural disasters happen to help. 

“This time all going out to the field,” she said. “We were packing as much as could, as quick as could, in crates that are mobile medical centers.”

Leaving at 5 p.m. after a day of work, Upin said the group got a call that help was needed to pack up 2,000 ceramic body armor plates so that it could be picked up four hours later.

“It had to be done,” she said. “I was amazed at how fast it was going and how eager people were to get things done.”

As a seasoned veteran of this type of volunteer work, Upin said this trip stood out.

“It was the urgency. The work was more purposeful,” she said. “We had to get things done because they were going out quickly.”

This time, Upin said that there were a lot of older Israeli’s who are day-volunteers working with her this time.

“When you start talking to them, you learn they have grandchildren in the army,” she said. “They were just sitting at home.”

Upin said that even the occasionally brusque Israelis were nicer than they often are.

“When they heard I was a volunteer, they were shocked that I paid to come over here,” she said with a laugh.

Finding their own way

While Litman, Sanderson, Upin and Chauss all went to Israel with organized groups, Jerry and Louise Ribnick went on their own and found ways to help.

“I got tired of watching, reading news and it was easier to be there,” Jerry Ribnick said. “A number of friends in Israel that I talked to in advance of going said on some level, it was probably better” in Israel than in the U.S.

Louise Ribnick (left) and Jerry Ribnick volunteering at RB-Doors in Ashkelon, Israel (Photos courtesy).

Louise Ribnick (left) and Jerry Ribnick volunteering at RB-Doors in Ashkelon, Israel (Photos courtesy).

In the Ribnick’s 10 days in Israel, they did a range of things – but included some agriculture work as well, including pruning strawberry plants, cleaning green onions, and packing food for some of the newly homeless who have been displaced from around the country because of the war.

“People have been told to leave their homes, and they left with nothing. No clothes, no meds: they didn’t have anything,” he said. “All these Israelis now displaced needed things.”

Jerry Ribnick said he also worked in a window and door factory in Ashkelon, which is about 8 miles north of the Gaza Strip. The factory typically had Palestinian workers who were not able to come after Hamas attacked Israel and the border was closed.

“There is tremendous anguish and determination,” Ribnick said. “People are in this together.”

Ribnick gave the example of one of the text message groups he’s in. If someone asked if there was a spare stroller they could borrow, if you didn’t get there with yours right away, four other people would’ve shown up.

“It’s beyond anything I’ve seen in America,” he said. “The sense of helping each other and volunteerism is something else.”

The unity Ribnick talked about comes in stark contrast to the nearly 40 weeks of robust Saturday night protests across Israel in opposition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial reform plan.

“Politics tore the country apart,” Ribnick said. “It might come again after the war, but not now.”

Ribnick said that the Israelis he interacted with are not happy with what’s happening in Gaza, with weeks of bombing and a ground invasion that has led to calls for a ceasefire from many.

“No one we saw is happy about what is happening to Gaza. but we had a ceasefire on 10/6 that we didn’t violate,” he said. “And with glee, they did what they did. The overwhelming thing was how happy they were doing something that people should be repulsed by.

“We as a people will survive. We’ll make it,” Ribnick said. “We’ll do what we need and help each other.”