Elana Shap
January 1

A very active WhatsApp group in Israel these days lists farms desperate for volunteers to help pick, prune or plant anything from persimmons to avocados and flowers. Messages are also added by volunteer groups looking for extra hands.   

Pinoy Barkada (the Filipino Gang) is one such group. 

“Filipinos love helping our farmers! Come volunteer on Saturday, the free day of caregivers,” wrote Ramela Noel, a housekeeper from Tel Aviv, who is behind the initiative. 

In an interview with ISRAEL21c she shrugs off my comment that it’s not a given that foreign workers after a long and tiring week would give up their precious day of rest to help in the war effort. 

Her view is that after living in Israel with her husband for 20 years and raising their two children here (now 14 and 15 years old), this is her country too and “as people who live here we have to be the first ones to help.”

Brian and Ramela Noel. Photo courtesy of the Noels
Brian and Ramela Noel. Photo courtesy of the Noels

Noel’s “deep love for Israel” stems not from a Christian connection to the Holy Land, she explains, but because of how integrated they feel. 

“We have always felt acceptance. My kids have never been made to feel like outsiders at school and we have made many Israeli friends.” 

Back to the farm

Noel first volunteered in agriculture with a Filipina mothers group she belongs to. It soon became clear, she says, that a lot more volunteers were needed. 

“I could see how in need the farmers were and also I realized it’s going to be a problem for everybody if the crops are left to rot and there will be no food on the table.” 

Filipino workers volunteering on an Israeli farm during the war. Photo by Brian Noel
Filipino workers volunteering on an Israeli farm during the war. Photo by Brian Noel

The main obstacle was finding a way to reach the farms on a Saturday, when public transportation stops for the Sabbath. The plan Noel came up with was that her friends would ask all their employees for a donation to hire a bus. 

To their surprise, the sum raised was way in excess of what was needed and the group was able to go back the following week as well. 

Then, one of Noel’s housekeeping employees (“a well-known actress who doesn’t want to be named”) offered to sponsor the transport herself.   

Around 50 Filipinos participated in Pinoy Barkada on a recent weekend. Their task was to prune and lay trellises for a whole greenhouse of cucumbers on Moshav Achituv, a 45-minute drive north of Tel Aviv. 

A Filipina domestic worker picking cucumbers on Moshav Achituv. Photo by Brian Noel
A Filipina domestic worker picking cucumbers on Moshav Achituv. Photo by Brian Noel

“Rami the farmer was so surprised that we had managed to get through the half hectare so quickly that he said we could pick as many cucumbers for ourselves as we want. So we took them to give to all our employees who had donated,” she relates with pride.

Farming is not an unusual activity for Filipinos, Noel points out. She grew up in the province of Mindanao, which is known for its tropical fruit trade and natural forests. 

“Most families have a plot of land on which they grow vegetables and fruit for their own needs,” she says.  

Foreign worker losses

Thai and Filipino foreign workers also suffered tragedies at the hands of Hamas in the October 7 rampage. Around 32 Thai agriculture workers were abducted and 39 murdered during the attacks. Three Filipino caregivers were murdered. 

The fate of one of these has remained particularly vivid in the Israeli consciousness. Grace Cabrera, who looked after 95-year-old Kibbutz Be’eri resident Aviva Sela, steadfastly held onto the handle of the safe room door for hours to try and stop the terrorists from entering. Eventually they overtook her, abducted her and shot her. Cabrera’s body was found a few days later. Sela miraculously survived. 

As opposed to the evacuation of Thai farm workers within a week, on the orders of their king, only a small percentage of Filipinos have left on government-sponsored flights home. 

While Noel says she understands the Thai workers’ fear, she feels differently. 

“I have lived through wars here and am not panicked. The Filipino character is strong. We don’t give up that easily!” 

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