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Urban Agriculture and Ethiopian Jews

It’s a simmering late afternoon on a midsummer’s day in the Gimmel neighborhood of Beer Sheba, the capital of Israel’s Negev desert. The sun beats down from the West over the high rooftops of myriad apartment buildings. As the sun continues to sink, the edifices cast lengthy shadows across a green expanse. These shadows offer shelter from the scorching desert sun, and people from the nearest building begin to trickle into this verdant gated space. This idyllic environment starkly contrasts with the surrounding city – a picturesque agro-pastoral scene in the midst of an urban jungle. Within the vine engulfed fence, various forms of vegetation surround a quaint mud hut (called a gojo in Amharic). People take to shovels, hoes, and wheelbarrows, and begin working the land. Vegetables and fruit are harvested, weeds are uprooted, and seeds are planted. As the gardeners labor in this urban Garden of Eden, a breeze whistles through the alleyways, bringing with it the overwhelming aroma of fresh bread, meat and an array of spices. The allure of dinner encourages the gardeners to finish their work, and bring the fresh harvest back home.

This scene encapsulates a typical gardening session at the Kalisher Community Garden located near one of Beer Sheba’s absorption centers designated for families of immigrants from Ethiopia. This summer, I have had the opportunity to work in urban agriculture spaces located near several centers of Israel’s recent immigrant communities, many from Ethiopia. During this time, I have seen how these urban gardens encourage intermingling between community members; yield produce which offers families with an additional source of income; and affords residents with supplemental food options. But the gardens do much more than alleviate financial stress and conduce social interaction amongst neighbors. Urban agriculture especially benefits underprivileged communities that have limited access to nutritious food. Verily, these urban gardens assuage many strains and pressures immigrants experience during their transition to life in Israel.

The large variety of plants grown within the garden enhance the landscape and allow new immigrants to prepare many of the incredible dishes unique to Ethiopia. Many of the plants in Kalisher are central to Ethiopian are crucial ingredients in many classic Ethiopian dishes. The most distinctive feature of the garden are towering cornstalks, of a special variety found in Ethiopia. This staple of the Ethiopian diet exhibits distinct qualities from other corn, containing white tough kernels. Growing below the cornstalks are several other plants native to Ethiopia. Spicy peppers, which are used to flavor wat, the traditional Ethiopian stew, grow in abundance. Gomen , a collard green and spice used in various dishes, can be found in many plots. A particularly potent form of basil, also native to Ethiopia is harvested and used to flavor various dishes. Cabbage, potatoes, and onions, all essential ingredients to stews, grow in abundance during the winter months. While the semi-arid climate and the limited space within the urban garden, makes producing teff, the special grain used in the baking of injera bread an impossibility, this miniature agricultural paradise in the middle of the desert metropolis brings great joy and fulfillment to the community.

The Kalisher garden enables the Ethiopian community to dig deep, to vitalize and enrich the landscape, to stay connected with their past culture, and to look forward to a bright future in their new homeland. Through working the land, the residents of the absorption center can maintain a sense of ownership over productive agricultural pieces of land while taking part in every stage of the production of traditional delicacies. The gardening project empowers the community to stay in touch with the land and encourages the cultivation of a flourishing oasis of pastoral life near their home. Just as the Ethiopian community encourages plants to take root and in the hopes of them yielding a bountiful harvest, so too does the garden assist the community as a whole to take root in Israeli society. Through gardening, the members of the absorption center can hold on to and share their unique culture with the larger community while they settle and integrate into the larger Israeli community.

For more information on urban agricultural projects in Israel, please visit:

Doni Kaye spent six weeks living and volunteering in Be’er Sheva this summer with Yahel – Israel Service Learning this summer. ( Doni is a participant on the Repair the World Onward Israel Service-learning Initiative, a special program for student leaders from Hillels across the United States.

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