The yellow fruit dominates the landscape as far as the eye can see and a lemony aroma wafts across the fields. But what has become the norm for this time of year was nothing but barren desert just a few short years ago.
They are the etrog fields of Halutza and represent modern day pioneering at its best.
Born in the Sinai settlement of Yamit before her family was evacuated in 1982, Moriah Gottlieb grew up in the desert community of Gush Katif. By the time the community was evacuated from the Gaza Strip in 2005, she was living in Jerusalem with her husband. But when the evacuees established the new community of Halutza, she and her husband joined these modern-day pioneers, who have made the desert bloom as farmers of the etrog, a little citrus fruit with important religious significance. “To build Jerusalem,” she said, “you need to build the rest of the land; this is an extension of Jerusalem.
“With my husband’s love for farming, my childhood in Gush Katif, and my family’s evacuation from the Gaza strip, we felt that we had to join and show support,” Moriah said. “We came to this area in solidarity and to establish a plantation of etrogim in the sand.
“It was not clear what would happen after the disengagement,” said Moriah. “But here in Halutza there was a great vision. There were no sad and depressed people. Here people came to continue developing the country and to work in agriculture. That is what attracted us to join the community.”
Her husband’s family, the Gottliebs, had been growing etrogim in the Jordan valley for decades. The couple transported tiny cuttings to their new home hoping that they would grow, which seemed near impossible in such a barren land. But as her and her family nurtured these vulnerable plants something amazing began to happen: shoots began springing up, filling not just one orchard, but many, creating a swirling sea of green on a dirt yellow backdrop.
As the roots took hold, Moriah and her husband were reminded that they themselves were laying the roots for the future generations of Israel, fulfilling the Zionist dream of Torah and working the land. They themselves are the pioneers. Now, the Gottliebs produce roughly 25,000 etrogim a year. Due to the seven levels of etrog perfection, which determine whether an etrog is kosher, roughly 40% of these etrogim are thrown away. Out of the remainder, the majority is exported to the US and the best ones dedicated for community rabbis.
The Halutza community has started attracting families from all over Israel who are recognizing the area’s potential and its unique qualities.
As part of its Blueprint Negev campaign to sustainably develop the Negev Desert and increase its population, Jewish National Fund (JNF) is supporting the expansions of the new communities of the Halutza region. JNF has supported Halutza’s growth from the beginning by clearing land for housing and farming, purchasing temporary prefabricated homes, laying basic infrastructure, and paving roads. As the region expands, JNF is helping residents to re-establish their social and educational institutions, construct public buildings, and create green spaces. A new yeshiva, beit midrash (study hall), synagogue, kindergarten, park, and playground have been established with JNF’s support, and many more facilities are on the drawing board.
The Gottliebs lived in a caravan for five years with their seven children, waiting for a housing lot. They have been in their new house for two years. Perhaps the most poignant part of Moriah’s story is the location of her new home: at the end of the road. Two sides of her house are filled with windows that open onto the desert views and right in the middle of her view are her orchards.
“When I look out the window and see the etrogim,” she said, “I know why I’m here, I know my purpose.”