“The first time I tried to grow them for the greenhouse, the seedlings all died – I forgot to water them,” says Annie Shore, without sounding a bit guilty. Her second time around, she was more successful. “I never gardened much,” she continues, “but when I understood that the gardening here was about much more than just plants, I got interested.”
Annie, a participant in the Yahel Social Change Program, spends part of every week working with Ethiopian Israelis in the community gardens of Gedera. There are currently five gardens under different apartment buildings in the Shapira neighborhood. Friends by Nature – a non profit working in the field of community empowerment and education, and the Gedera Gar’in – a group of community activists, initiated the garden project together with the neighborhood residents. The goals of the gardens are many fold, and growing fresh food is just one of them. As Alex Chimadanov, the head of the community garden program puts it, “the idea is to get the residents involved in the changes that are happening in the neighborhood – so that they won’t be people that are just receiving help, but rather will be making the change by themselves – this way the change will last.”
The Ethiopian neighborhood in Gedera runs a few streets wide, and most residents came in the large waves of immigration in 1991 and afterwards. Prior to their arrival in Israel, many of the Ethiopians lived an agrarian lifestyle, working the land and growing their own food. When they were resettled in Israel, they were put in apartment buildings – cut off from that part of themselves. The community gardens help reestablish that bond. In this way, the gardens serve to strengthen the community – especially the elders, who tend to have the most trouble adapting to life in Israel.
There’s another benefit too, says Yuvi Tashome, a Gar’in member, “The gardens are an opportunity for all the residents of a building to come together for a joint purpose. It is often the first time that they really meet and see who they are living with. They go through a long process of deciding together what it is that they want to see happening under their building. Through this process they develop skills, cooperate, and become a group that is influencing their own environment”.
Community gardens are becoming increasingly popular in Israel. Gardens in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem neighborhoods are flourishing and new ones are springing up in many other cities around the country. The Yahel Social Change Program recently visited the “Earth’s Promise” community garden in Be’er Sheva – an amazingly lush garden adjacent to an immigrant absorption center. In this garden, each family receives a small plot of land on which they can grow food for their own consumption. The plots are full of Ethiopian vegetables and herbs which the recent immigrants are unable to find in local stores. In this way, the gardens serve as a bridge between past and present.
Friends By Nature has plans to build a greenhouse and develop a three dunam (roughly an acre) parcel that was recently donated to them by the city in Gedera. The plan is to offer plots to committed families who will grow fresh vegetables and herbs – similar to the “Earth’s Promise” garden. Future Yahel Social Change Program participants will have opportunities to work alongside community members in making that dream a reality.
Annie loves that working in the garden puts her in touch with community members that otherwise she wouldn’t meet. “Always, when I’m working in the gardens, I’ll chat with the older Ethiopian men that are nearby. Our conversations are pretty simple, since they don’t speak Hebrew so well, and I don’t either, but it’s fun to make those connections – they’re real.”
She’s also pleased with her newfound green thumb – “I’m Canadian,” Annie says smiling, “everyone’s all outdoorsy there, I just didn’t have much gardening experience. As a volunteer in the Yahel Social Change Program, I have had the opportunity to work along side inspiring individuals who have created programs to help empower the Ethiopian-Israeli community. It’s amazing.”