Picking Oranges in Israel
On New Year’s Eve, my final night in Israel, I walked down the cobble-stone streets of a small Tel Aviv neighborhood to a friend’s apartment. As I climbed the stairs to the roof, I could hear the music and laughter grow louder. There were 10 of us—former soccer teammates and friends, Jews, Arabs, Christians, Israelis, Americans. We toasted 2024, to life.
But as we counted down toward a year we hoped would bring peace, we heard sirens and an eruption of bangs. While the rest of the world turned to the sky for fireworks, our stars were pierced by a volley of rockets from Hamas. Though my Israeli friends assured me we were safe, I could not escape the stark realization: Where else in this region could such a group come together, only to be collectively attacked?
On October 7, I feared for the safety of my loved ones. My sister and her family in a bomb shelter. My old teammates in the army. My friends at the Nova festival. In the subsequent weeks, I thought of nothing else. My heart was shattered. My generational trauma triggered.
Living in Seattle as a graduate student, I struggled through interactions with people who seemed unaffected or oblivious to the war. If Israel was brought up, I internally cringed until I could assess if they would express support for my anguish or try to justify the terror. I felt like there was something wrong with me, with my inability to complete schoolwork or talk about anything else.
That changed the second I landed in Israel to volunteer on a farm. I had flown across the world to spend my winter break picking oranges. To do something to help. To stand in solidarity. Because when my professors offered Jewish Voice for Peace as a “warm resource for Jews” and “f**k Zionists—solidarity means attack” flyers were posted in my neighborhood, I left.
I flew to the one place that has guaranteed my safety as a Jew. Even though the country is at war, even though it is far from the life and community I have built, I traveled to Israel to do what I could to support this bleeding country.
Once there, I felt an eerie calm. Seeing the hostage posters in the airport, the ubiquitous dog tag necklaces—I felt more at home, in myself and in Israel, than I ever had. It was as if the pain and anguish in my heart was echoed across an entire nation and even projected in the street art.
In Philadelphia, my 3-year-old niece’s Jewish preschool reported a bomb threat. Calls to ‘globalize the intifada’ were graffitied across my University of Washington campus. Yet in Israel, people gathered en masse to demand the return of the hostages. Here, moral clarity reigned. Here, am Yisrael chai. The people of Israel live.
I walked around Tel Aviv’s colorful streets imagining: What if the global reaction on October 8 had this urgency, this empathy? To demand the immediate release of hostages and the complete surrender of Hamas. Where would we be today?
Maybe the world didn’t know. How could they react with indifference, with justification? What if they saw what I saw and heard what I did.
What if they knew that as I walked through Kibbutz Be’eri, I saw a single toddler-sized Blundstone shoe alone in a garden. I smelled the dried blood on the floor of the kindergarten. I heard the crackling of roofs beneath my feet.
Would they still stay silent if they stood where I stood? In the bomb shelter where a 13-year-old girl recorded WhatsApp notes to her family, asking for help as her father bled beside her? I whispered a prayer at the site where a mother was found lying on top of her three children in their front yard. The survivor walking us through his home said that while hiding in his bomb shelter, his fiancé cried, “if they capture me, you need to kill me.”
At Kfar Aza, I saw kites that families would fly that spelled سلام —peace in Arabic—so that when they flew high, Gazans could read these Israelis’ hopes and dreams for coexistence. The people of these kibbutzim were peaceful people. They drove sick Gazans to Israeli hospitals and advocated for the Palestinian cause. They woke up on a holiday morning and were brutalized.
I saw what Hamas did. I bore witness to the atrocity. To the modern-day Shoah. To the slaughtering of Jews. It was methodical. It was planned and executed with joy.
As I walked the dusty rows of the orange grove, I felt a deep connection with the other volunteers. They came from Canada, Mexico, France, the United Kingdom. With them, I did not need to explain my motivation. The profound strength in unspoken solidarity was an immediate replacement for the anxiety medication I had relied on since October 7.
Birthright had organized the two-week volunteer trip. We took buses to farms around Israel. One farmer told us he normally had 70 pairs of hands working his farm. Now he had 10. Most of us had never picked anything in our lives, but we did our best to fill in. We plucked tons of oranges, grapefruits and strawberries. We tied thousands of strings to help guide cherry tomatoes toward the sun. We’d lose our sense of time in the exhausting work. It was humbling. Refreshing.
Underneath a grapefruit tree, two volunteers shared about their mutual friend, who is a hostage in Gaza. One recalled writing letters with him to Gilad Shalit, a former Israeli soldier who was abducted and held by Hamas for five years until he was released in a prisoner exchange deal in 2011.
It felt like each day someone in my group decided to extend their trip, some flirting with the idea of making aliyah. As our farm work came to a close, some shared the lies they had spun so their bosses would not know they were in Israel out of fear of retribution. Of being seen as a Zionist, as a Jew.
We shared our collective fears of return to “normalcy.” How could I leave Israel? Final hugs with friends in the army. Kissing my nieces, now back in Israel, goodbye. But it was more than that. How could I return to a society that vilified or even justified my pain? A British volunteer lamented that he probably had 10 to 15 more years before London became unlivable for Jews.
I met for lunch with my closest friend from when I played professional soccer in Tel Aviv in 2021. She loves music festivals, and I was panicked when I did not hear from her for a few days after the October 7 attacks. In those early days, she was not on her phone because she was running from volunteer site to site, doing as much as she could to support survivors. Now, she gives all of herself to her army service. She told me she was working so hard she forgot to eat and sleep.
Her twin sister serves as a medic in Gaza, and my friend felt she had a duty to work around the clock to support those efforts. Her twin immediately treats the wounded in Gaza before they are medevacked to Tel Aviv hospitals. Her twin checks the nightly reports to see if her patients needed amputation–or if they survived at all. My friend shares that her twin’s dream was always to work in medicine, to help others. But now, she reflects, everything has changed. Dreams of the future seem like a past life. She is 20.
On a trip to Jerusalem, I visited the cemetery where my grandfather is buried. I traced the etchings on his stone: “Joseph Gringlas, Survivor.” Under his name, his parents and siblings are listed. All murdered by the Nazis. The only headstone that bears their names is 3,000 miles from the location of their last breaths. Their names, remembered, in the Jewish state. Fighter jets roared overhead as I lit a candle and laid an Israeli flag on the grave.
In the Old City of Jerusalem, I met a hero. On October 7, Nimrod, an off-duty soldier, saw the footage and drove south. He left his kids a video saying goodbye, telling them he was proud of them. He told me he tried to smile a lot in the video, because that’s how he wanted them to remember him.
He fought terrorists in front of Kibbutz Alumim. The only reason that name does not stand alongside massacred Be’eri and Kfar Aza is because Nimrod prevented Hamas from entering. He, alongside other off-duty soldiers, fought 30 terrorists outside the gates. “We were fighting to save life. They were fighting to take life,” he said.
His testimony is chilling. Unbelievable. And still, I listened. Grateful for his actions and commitment to share his story. It felt like listening to my grandparents’ stories of survival in the Holocaust. But this wasn’t a unit in my history textbook. This was two months ago. This was now.
And then he told me about Be’eri. How he drove there. Too late. He described the bodies he saw. The smell. What they did to women.
I have spent many hours wandering through the labyrinth of Jerusalem’s Old City. I have toured the major Jewish archeology sites. My whole life I have learned about the persecution, enslavement and forced displacement of Jews. Every year at our Passover seder my family reads: “In every generation they rise against us to destroy us,” and we recount the times when the Romans, the Nazis and others sought our eradication.
But this time, in Jerusalem, as I walked on the ancient stones that have borne witness to the endurance of a people, those once abstract notions of “persecution” and “exile” suddenly had vivid images attached. The reality of what Jews have endured, time and time again, is brutal. And it is terrifying.
October 7 happened. And it cast yet another sobering shadow over the history of a people, of my people.
With all of our world’s progress, with all the inclusion and anti-racism efforts, this can still happen. It’s still happening. Hostages remain in captivity. Where are they? Where is the world? They promised us never again.
My sister left instructions on how to get my nieces to the bomb shelter safely if the sirens sounded while I babysat. This is the reality of the safest country in the world to be Jewish. This is the reality in Israel.
Ellie Greenberg, originally from Philadelphia, is a graduate student at the University of Washington studying social work and education.