Yoel Zilberman saw his father almost go bankrupt, trying to deal with thieves attacking the land he was farming, breaking his fences, and stealing his crops and his livestock.
In response, in 2007, Zilberman formed an organization of volunteers, HaShomer HaChadash — or the New Guardians — to act as protectors of Jewish farmers and ranchers in the Galilee, and down south in the Negev.
That corps has grown to include nearly 1,000 volunteers patrolling 25,000 acres of land. It also has around 3,000 agricultural volunteers — individuals, missions, youth groups, students, and others — who help farmers and ranchers, fixing fences and working with animals and in the fields.
Among HaShomer’s financial supporters is the Mack Ness Fund of the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ, a connection that goes back to the historic Jewish Federation of Central NJ region and its connection to the Negev through the Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership2Gether program.
On Sunday evening, Oct. 6, Zilberman will describe the work of his organization in a talk at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield. The event, hosted by the Israel Support Committee of Central NJ, is being cosponsored the Community Relations Committee of the Greater MetroWest federation.
Committee chair Conrad Nadell came across a video featuring Zilberman a few months ago. “I was incensed that such a thing was going on in the Jewish homeland and decided to contact Zilberman to see if he would come to our community,” he said.
The Israeli, whose wife is expecting a baby in late October, replied that he was already planning a fund-raising trip to the East Coast earlier in the month, and agreed to include Westfield in his itinerary.
Zilberman, 28, points out that he is dealing only with politically undisputed territory, but the farms and ranchland are state-owned and allocated to Jewish farmers. The attackers have been local Bedouin, some claiming tribal rights to the land, or Palestinians from the West Bank.
Answering e-mailed questions from NJ Jewish News earlier this week, he stressed that the HaShomer volunteers don’t carry arms and don’t engage in violent confrontations. Their purpose, he said, is to assist the police or security forces who are spread too thin to provide protection.
“We make sure that there is a presence in the field which thwarts raiders and arsonists from attempting to cut fences, steal herds, and destroy property,” he said. “We give the farmers and ranchers renewed courage and hope to continue to work.”
He said too that they have worked with the Bedouin. “In fact, they are having the same problem with raiders within their own community, and we have collaborated with some of the village leaders in the vicinity of our observation posts.” In areas where the guardians patrol, raids and arson have decreased, he said, but elsewhere the situation has been growing worse.
In addition to its security efforts, the organization now also has a number of educational programs, some of them only for men, or only for women. According to its literature, HaShomer HaChadash aims to continue the historic path of the Zionist movement to “strengthen the values of mutual responsibility, civic courage, and love of the land.”
Zilberman said, “We feel that through educating the next generation toward caring about and connecting to the land and the people, we will create a strong, values-oriented society.”