By Steven Scheer
RISHON LEZION, Israel (Reuters) - On Sunday, Audrey Panitch Levin was at home in Philadelphia.
On Wednesday, she was picking sweet potatoes in central Israel, part of an army of volunteers who have rushed to the nation's farms that are struggling with an acute labour shortage following Hamas' Oct. 7 cross-border attack.
Israel's farms, most of which are in the centre and south of the country, traditionally rely on thousands of Thai and Palestinian workers to till the land and bring in the crops.
But many Thais fled Israel after the Hamas assault, while the Palestinians have largely been banned from the workforce, forcing farms to send out an SOS during the autumn harvest.
Around 80 members of the U.S.-based Jewish mothers' group Momentum, including Levin, answered the call.
"We want to show our support for Israel," said Levin, who is a real estate agent. "I wanted to show that I wasn't afraid."
Agriculture was Israel's initial economic driver following the creation of the state in 1948. In the past few decades it has been overtaken by the high-tech sector, but farming remains crucial to the country, and its food independence is cherished.
Now, the drastic labour shortage has left fruit and vegetables rotting on their branches before they can be picked.
"Israel's agriculture is in its biggest crisis since the establishment of Israel," Yuval Lipkin, deputy director general of Israel's Agriculture Ministry, told Reuters.
According to latest parliamentary data from 2021, 73,500 people worked in the agriculture sector - 44% Israeli, 33% foreigners, mostly Thai, and 23% Palestinian.
At least 32 Thai workers were killed in the Oct. 7 assault and 23 others were kidnapped and taken to Gaza. Since then, Lipkin said 10,000 Thai workers had left Israel, leaving an estimated 20,000 still in the country.
Before the war, some 128,000 Palestinians worked in Israel, mainly in construction and, to a lesser extent, agriculture. Most are now refused entry from Palestinian territories, with just 6,800 still allowed in, according to the economy ministry.
Compounding the crisis, an unknown number of Israeli farm workers have been called up to the battlefield as reservists.
In all, Lipkin said the sector needed 30,000 workers, with farms looking to make up the shortfall with volunteers or by hiring Israelis.
"A lot of people have come to volunteer and that has helped a little, but it's not enough because they are not professionals," said Tal Ben Shalom, who owns a large farm in Rishon Lezion, where the Momentum group were helping out.
"I need Thai workers (otherwise) there will be less growth and less supply."
Lipkin said that while thousands of Israelis had signed up to work on farms for 3,000 shekels ($800) a month, Israel was trying to bring in workers from Sri Lanka and Vietnam to help in the longer term.
In the meantime, volunteers of all sorts are doing what they can, including school children and even Germany's ambassador to Israel, Steffen Seibert.
"The farmers in Otef Aza (near Gaza) need help, so I spent the day with colleagues and friends picking tomatoes and clementines in Moshav Yesha. Great to see so many volunteers from all over Israel," he wrote on 'X' on Nov. 12.
Food rescue organisation Leket Israel, which has sent 5,500 volunteers to farms including Ben Shalom's fields, said it was also buying produce from the farmers and distributing it to families evacuated from homes near Gaza.
"A lot of farmers are from down south and their families got hit so they could not go work and take care of the fields," said Michelle Mayer, Leket's volunteer coordinator.
The agriculture ministry said the land surrounding the Gaza Strip was "Israel's vegetable patch". The Israeli media says 75% of vegetables grown in Israel come from this area, as well as 20% of the fruit and 6.5% of the milk.
Many farmers and farmhands were killed or kidnapped on Oct. 7, leaving their communities reeling.
Gilad Lurid, a physicist from near Tel Aviv, has gone to help at Kibbutz Be'eri, where more than 100 people died on Oct. 7 - one in 10 of the residents.
He said volunteering had allowed him to bond with the survivors and "to feel that I am doing something and not just staying home and watching the terrible news".
The kibbutz used to employ workers from Gaza, which is just 5 km (3 miles) distant.
"There were a lot of people coming from Gaza every day ... we all thought that this was going to bring us together. But I was wrong," said farmer Yarden Zemach, who lives in Be'eri and whose brother Shachar was killed in the attack.
($1 = 3.7776 shekels)
(Reporting by Steven Scheer; Additional reporting by Kuba Stężycki; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Toby Chopra)