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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

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Revitalizing the (olive) oil business in Israel

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Nili Abrahams and Rabbi Shmuel Veffer show off local olives and trees in the Yavne’el area. [Shemen LaMeor photo]

Two Torontonians are taking charge to revitalize one of Israel’s oldest agricultural areas.

Combining tzedakah and environmentalism, Nili Abrahams and Rabbi Shmuel Veffer, through their new organization, Shemen LaMeor, are harvesting olives that would otherwise be wasted, creating pure oil to raise money for yeshivas, schools and food programs for needy families in their community, Yavne’el, and throughout the Lower Galilee.

Abrahams said the phrase shemen lameor, from the Torah, means “oil that illuminates. The whole purpose is to use the oil to spread light… and light is Torah.”

To highlight the importance of trees, the pair, along with local rabbis and other community members, unveiled the organization this past Tu b’Shvat. The organization will use the area’s surplus olives and boutique kosher olive oil to build relationships within and beyond Israel.

They are also raising awareness about the increasingly dire situation in the region.  The Lower Galilee, two hours from Jerusalem, had strong agricultural origins, which still attract many olim.

“People love the idea of connection with the land,” says Abrahams, “of a safe haven for the children… a very simple lifestyle.” Yet that agricultural way of life is threatened by many forces.

Twenty minutes from Tiberias, Yavne’el, home to 3,000 residents, “had an incredible heyday of agriculture: tobacco, date palms, olives, citrus,” Abrahams says.

But the older generation of farmers can’t maintain their fields. And, she says, “if farmers can’t afford to keep up their farms… there is a significant number of Arabs waiting to buy up the land.”

According to the latest Israeli Census Bureau statistics, for 2011, the Arab population in northern Israel (not including Haifa) is just over 53 per cent, while Jews make up just under 44 per cent.

The Israeli government and organizations such as Nefesh b’Nefesh have been battling to rebuild the Jewish presence in the region since the 1980s. 

In December 2013, the World Zionist Organization’s settlement division announced its intention to build two new towns for 100,000 Jewish residents. At the time, MK Hanna Swaid criticized the move as part of a “demographic war” that is meaningless without “infrastructure improvements and a reduction in the… employment gaps.”

Idyllic in some ways, life in the Lower Galilee can be devastating for families.  “Most of the men aren’t home for the week, just for Shabbat. Some travel to Jerusalem, some travel to Bnei Brak… to work, and then come home for Shabbat,” says Abrahams, who has run a bed and breakfast with her husband, Arnie, since making aliyah to the area 2 1/2 years ago.

Shemen LaMeor will create jobs and reinvigorate the region’s agriculture while preserving its unique character. “Kids here know how to plant, herd sheep, ride horses,” Abrahams says. “They really have a very good feel for the land; they know how to lead a simple life.”

Rabbi Veffer, a graduate of the University of Waterloo and creator of the KosherLamp, which has changed late-night Shabbat reading for religious families around the world, was associate rabbi of The Village Shul Aish HaTorah Learning Centre in Toronto before returning to Israel nearly four years ago.

Abrahams says they both wanted to help out by tapping into local resources that would otherwise be wasted. “A lot of the olive trees are actually abandoned, not picked, nothing’s done with them.

“The area is blessed with abundance. Everyone’s got citrus and passion fruit and olives… We’re reclaiming the land, reclaiming the olives.”

Rich in Jewish history, the area around Yavne’el is where, according to the Book of Judges, the warrior Deborah led her battle against Canaanite general Sisera.  It’s also the site of the Golani tree, the oak tree symbolizing the legendary IDF brigade.  Nearby Tiberias is considered the fourth-holiest city in Judaism, where the Jerusalem Talmud was written and the great teacher Maimonides is buried.

Shemen LaMeor has built relationships with farmers to secure 1,500 dunam (1.5 square kilometres) of land to prepare for its first picking season this fall.  They will compensate some farmers with a tax receipt, others with a percentage of the oil for personal use or resale.

Abrahams says the organization welcomes volunteers, seminary and yeshiva students, and other willing groups, who will donate their labour for a morning or afternoon and learn how olives are picked and processed into one of Israel’s purest, most ancient bounties. 

“We’ll press the oil for them on the spot… it’ll be a great part of their visit to the north.”

Together, they hope to extend the Jewish world’s appreciation for Israel in its entirety.  “I see this as a way of going beyond Jerusalem,” says Abrahams.  “Every single part of Israel is vital… to our existence.

“The abundance here is God-given.  We don’t want to waste that… so we’re using the abundance for ohr, to spread the light of Torah around the world.”  

For more information about Shemen LaMeor, visit shemenlameor.org.

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