By Richard Shavei-Tzion

Immediately after the war began, two veteran South African Olim, Debbie Sandler and Herbie Jackson, sprang into action. Living on Kibbutz Ein Tsurim and knowing that just 15 minutes away a large-scale roadblock had been established at the entrance to Sderot, they delivered pots of soup to the policemen manning the station. Debbie reckoned that they needed real wholesome food, rather than chips and other junk food.

Debbie and Herbie are a remarkable giving duo. For many years they ran a busy catering and take out business in Ra’anana, where their specialties, chopped herring and chicken soup, were the talk of the town. But they did not just provide delicious home-style delicacies to their clients. Left overs were designated to those who were challenged with food-security in the area. One of their young employees was Lt. Yaron Chitiz, son of South African Olim who fell in Gaza on December 27th 2023.

After seventeen years of working together Debbie and Herbie decided to change their way of life and create a partnership of a different kind. They left the city, married and set up home at the kibbutz. Around the same time, Herbie was appointed chairman of the board of Beit Protea.

They both grew up in homes which imbued values of involvement in Jewish communal life. Herbie’s father Simon, headed Johannesburg’s Chevra Kaddisha for decades, spearheading its transformation from a single-purpose organisation into the wide-ranging chesed powerhouse it is today. Debbie’s mom, Roseve, was the longtime Head of Natal’s Aliyah Department.

From pots of soup for the policemen, their next project was much more ambitious.

A group of 120 soldiers from one of the IDF’s elite units were billeted at the dorms of the yeshiva on the kibbutz. For a month, kibbutz members pitched in to feed them. This is where Debbie’s organisational skills came to the fore. Initially chaos reigned, as individuals brought in random supplies. Then Debbie, Herbie and another lady, Osnat, took over the yeshiva kitchen where they cooked up a wholesome, heimishe dinner. Being a vegan herself, Debbie was thrilled to provide three vegan boys with specialised meals.

Herbie was impressed by these young men. “They were such good kids and showed their appreciation for whatever we did for them. They were like our children,” he recalls.

One evening, together with Debbie’s son Rafi, they organised an authentic South-African style braaivleis. Drawing inspiration from his mom, Rafi coordinates “Grills of Hope,” a group of young, mainly South African Ra’anana residents who get food donated and organise braais and other meals around the country.

The kibbutz had established a military operations room known to us all as a “Chamal,” which had to be manned 24/7. There were plenty who raised their hands for the daytime and evening stints but not many were prepared to do the “graveyard shifts”. Debbie and Herbie stepped into the breach, doing duty from 3 to 6 a.m. every Friday and Saturday morning. Herbie did the Friday afternoon shift knowing full well that there would be a delicious Shabbat meal prepared at home even if he wasn’t present in the kitchen and then again on Shabbat afternoons. He became known as “Melech Hachamal!”

Their sense of responsibility for the collective has rubbed off on their children. Both have kids serving in the army. One of Debbie’s boys was in combat in Gaza. Herbie has 3 mobilised kids, two unsurprisingly with sophisticated, wide-ranging logistic responsibilities.

Like most people who have volunteered, Herbie feels a sense of fulfillment. An additional joy has been meeting new people. Since his early Emmarentia Johannesburg Bnei Akiva days in the 1960’s Herbie has always been the gentle joker in the pack, a people’s person who is fun to be around and who is always on call in times in need. And this facet came to the fore in their next project.

When the army boys moved out the duo turned their attention to the surrounding agricultural fields. Prior to the war there had been 30,000 foreign and Palestinian laborers in the 15 square kilometer area. Now there were none. Defying the bombs, they have done pomegranates, onions, fennels and tangerines. But their favorite activity is picking avocadoes and they have developed a connection with a grower with an 800 dunam field belonging to Moshav Ge’alyah in the Northern Ashkelon area. The farmer was overwhelmed when he lost his entire workforce. Discovering Debbie’s skills, he has designated her as his work manager, with responsibilities for allocating work areas and instructing the volunteers. They have picked up (no pun intended) an impressive knowledge of picking techniques and horticultural knowhow, acquired along the way. And Herbie has renewed his tractor driving skills first acquired when he lived on Kibbutz Rosh Tzurim as a youngster.

They have met “phenomenal people, from Kiryat Shmoneh to Eilat, from England and other countries” Herbie says. A number of them have been South Africans, including employees of a company who devote one day a week to picking. A little while ago they were picking lemons in Kfar Maimon with rockets flying overhead, when they heard a language they had not encountered in a while. They had bumped into two Afrikaner ladies who now live in Jerusalem.

Herbie attests to the fact that Debbie is very diligent, knocking off the high avo’s with a custom made stick and bending down to harvest the lower ones. As for Herbie himself, he freely admits, “I am an eye-level picker!” But more importantly, their enthusiasm has rubbed off on many of their friends who join them for their picking sessions.

They view this project as a multiple win-win situation. The wonderful farmers are being helped, everyone feels a sense of purpose, produce is reaching the markets and new bonds of friendship are being forged. Here’s hoping that this new spirit of unity will carry through to the post-war period which we all hope will come soon.

Oh and I almost forgot. In addition to their myriad activities, just like so many other savtas and sabbas, in between their strenuous efforts in the orchards, Debbie and Herbie are running up and down the countryside, fulfilling babysitting duties with their grandchildren.