These disabled people are cultivating for you in a Kibbutz in Israel

Moringa and turmeric are not well-known cultures in Israel. But when they are grown on Kibbutz Shluchot in the north of the country and then sold on the market, you can be assured that they have grown in the most favourable and caring atmosphere. Do you want to know why?

For the past nine months, they have been nurtured by adults with special needs through their work in an NGO called Shai Asher, which provides them with an enriching work experience that is a stepping stone to a more independent and integrated life.

In Israel, people with special needs attend school until the age of 21, after which they can begin work. The problem is that many graduates do not find jobs or struggle in inappropriate jobs.

“In Israel, 75 per cent of people with special needs are unemployed, and then you have to look for work for the remaining 25 per cent,” explains Menachem Stolpner, founder and director of Shai Asher.

Born in the United States, social worker Stolpner immigrated to Israel with his family in 1996, settling in Shluchot, a member of the religious kibbutz movement.

“My motto is to try to find meaningful work experience for people with special needs,” he says. “I decided to create a therapeutic work environment. It’s a job and they get paid. They come every day in a therapeutic setting that is a balance between teaching and their autonomy, but knowing that there is a safety net,” he explains.

There are currently eight people gardening at Shai Asher, some of whom are mentally ill, some with autism and some classified as developmentally disabled. The NGO has brought together about 60 former students, some of whom have managed to find employment elsewhere.

“The aim is for them to be able to say to me, ‘Menachem, I’m ready and I want a job outside,’” says Stolpner. “I try to help them become workers who, when they go to look for a job, the employer will say, ‘Hey, this is a guy who can work.

All the little things

Stolpner works with programme participants on group interaction, following instructions, positive relationships, arriving on time and making sure they get enough sleep the night before work.

“All those little things that you take for granted, they need to be learned, shown, and integrated,” he says.

The NGO was founded eight years ago in memory of Stolpner’s friend Milton (Asher) Marks III. It all started with a therapeutic children’s zoo in the kibbutz before moving on to gardening.

Turmeric and moringa are new additions.

“We have a nursery and a building that we created.”

So we work indoors, and we also have a vegetable garden,” explains Stolpner. “Over the past year we have started to focus on specific plants to grow in the hope that these products will be marketable.

Turmeric and moringa, he says, were chosen for several reasons.

“There were things we could learn about their growth because it takes a long time to make them grow.
On top of that, they are very healthy products. And they are not commonly known here in Israel; people don’t know the uses and benefits,” he notes.

Turmeric, the better known of the two, is a plant whose root stalk can be used fresh or boiled in water, dried and ground into a yellow powder. In addition to being the basis of curries, turmeric is also used in traditional medicine for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Moringa is a plant whose leaves and pods are used in traditional medicine for their anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and antifungal properties. It is also consumed in powder form.

With the exception of the first lockdown last spring, Stolpner and his fellow gardeners have been working hard throughout the coronavirus crisis. This is possible because the work is done outdoors, in accordance with regulations.

Stolpner looks to the future. He was joined this year by a full-time volunteer, a local pensioner, but remains the only employee of the NGO.

“Oh, we have a lot of projects,” he says. “There are a number of things we need to do to work more efficiently and better. We’re building a terrace as a first step and installing a pergola.”

As for Shai Asher’s new exotic cultures, this is only the beginning.

“We’re just getting started; the turmeric won’t be ready for harvest for another month,” says Stolpner. “In the meantime, we’re growing, harvesting and processing, and God willing, we’ll be able to market it.”

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