When you think of Gen-Z teenagers, you immediately picture them with a smartphone in hand, recording themselves for yet another TikTok video.
What you don’t imagine is seeing these teens with their sleeves rolled up, helping farmers pick produce and working the land.
Well, that’s where HaShomer HaChadash (The New Guard) steps in.
Founded in 2007 to guard Israeli farmers from agricultural crimes like arson and theft, the volunteer organization also links Israelis and diaspora Jews more closely to the land of Israel and Zionist values through volunteering.
Teens of all ages, from all backgrounds, can volunteer for as little as a few hours a day to carry out a variety of agricultural tasks — each according to his or her ability — across the country, says Chen Shantal, director of the organization’s multi-day activity educational program.
“The biggest hardship today in the agriculture world is a shortage of working hands. The more modernized our society gets, the less people want to work hard physically — which is the basis of agriculture. Today, people want to make as much money as possible, while investing as little effort as possible,” Shantal tells ISRAEL21c.
The climate crisis and environmental changes exacerbate the problem. “If, for example, there are downpours in the middle of May or drought in the winter, or heat strokes, we get even more requests for assistance from farmers.”
Education always accompanies the physical tasks. “We explain [to the volunteers] why we are doing this instead of just importing all produce from overseas and why it’s important to maintain the connection with the land,” Shantal explains.
“The basis of the discourse here is the connection between man and land. In this case, it’s also impossible to ignore the climate crisis and the impact the human race has had on nature.”
Shantal says Jewish volunteers constitute the majority, but there are also Arab Israelis who sign up to help.
Diversity in HaShomer HaChadash is not limited to volunteers. “Any farmer who appeals to us for assistance — whether he is Jewish, Christian, Arab or Druze — we will do all we can to help him,” Shantal says.
“We do all kinds of activities as part of HaShomer HaChadash, and all of it is open to all populations. Unfortunately, the percentage [among non-Jews] is much lower. But our mission is to connect to the land of the State of Israel, which has citizens of all ethnicities.”
Shantal adds that recently a HaShomer HaChadash community farm was established in the Bedouin village of Zarzir in the Galilee.
In addition, the organization is working with the Druze community as part of a project of Keren Kayemeth L’Israel-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF).
HaShomer HaChadash recruits adult volunteers during the school year, while in summer it appeals to teens who don’t want to “waste their holidays in front of the TV.”
Each July, the organization runs summer camps up north in the Golan Heights for kids ages 13 to 18 to experience “the agricultural journey.” In August, the organization offers similar activities down south in the Negev.
Besides agricultural work, the three-day camps include hiking, educational sessions and campfire dinners. This is open to families and individuals from abroad, as well.
Reut, a past camper, says the experience changed her life. She is now part of HaShomer HaChadash’s leadership program, helping new immigrants from Ethiopia who want to volunteer at the farms.
“I heard about it from a friend, came to volunteer at a farm near the Egyptian border and fell in love with HaShomer HaChadash,” she says.
The 18-year-old says she had never been exposed to such a diverse social environment.
“My friends from HaShomer differ from my background so much — we grew up in different environments, hold opposing political views, but still manage to remain friends. It’s possible only at HaShomer.”
Reut says she had always been indifferent to agriculture before her summer experience.
“The land educates us,” she says. “As you work, you think to yourself, ‘It’s hot, I’m sweating, I want to be in the pool, but I won’t give up.’ At the end of the day, you look at all the harvest and think, ‘Wow, I did that!’”
What about the day when all agricultural work will be done by machines?
“I am very afraid of that day,” says Shantal. “When you don’t have a part of you invested in a particular thing, that thing loses meaning and then it disappears. It can be your home, your land or your culture,” she adds.
“Our connection to nature and land is like air. You cannot live without it.”
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