Farming the land, Torah in hand

By Sue Fishkoff
SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — Naf Hanau lives in the Bronx, an odd choice for someone who calls himself a Jewish farmer.
But Hanau, 23, is in the heart of New York City only for horticultural school, to learn skills he’ll put into practice when he and his girlfriend, 27-year-old Anna Stevenson, buy land near Rochester, N.Y., and start their farm.
“Five years from now I see myself farming with Anna,” Hanau says. “Growing food, growing vegetables, feeding people real food and making a living from that. Supporting a family without being a lawyer, a doctor, a teacher or an accountant.”
Stevenson is also preparing for their future, working as the farm manager at the Adamah Jewish environmental program at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn. She is in charge of a four-acre field where she and the Adamah fellows, young Jews on three-month internships, grow pesticide-free fruits and vegetables that they provide to the retreat center, make into pickles and sell through a community supported agriculture agreement.
Through the agreement, people buy weekly boxes of fresh produce directly from local farmers.
Stevenson, too, introduces herself as a Jewish farmer, even though she thinks the title is “kind of gimmicky.”
But it describes what she does quite accurately. She hoes, plants, weeds and harvests, but she also teaches, studies Jewish texts and rests on Shabbat.
“You work your butt off for six days and you really need Shabbat,” she says. “You appreciate Shabbat physically, as well as emotionally, as well as spiritually.”
Hanau and Stevenson are part of a small but growing number of young activists in the new Jewish food movement who are turning to the land as a way of expressing their Jewish values. They are not farmers who just happen to be Jews. They are Jewish farmers, working the land according to agricultural laws set down in the Talmud, teaching their peers and trying to promote the importance of growing one’s own food within the greater Jewish community.
They leave a corner of their field unharvested for the poor, in accordance with the Mishnaic Tractate Pe’ah, or corner. They don’t plant wheat and barley together, a teaching from Tractate Kilayim, or holding back. They slaughter goats and chickens they raise themselves, practicing tzar ba’alei hayim, the commandment to show kindness to domestic animals. They say a brachah, a blessing, before they eat. Some keep kosher, some do not, but all are committed to some kind of Jewish dietary practice.
Unlike the Labor Zionist youth of the 1960s and ‘70s, who learned farming so they could move to Israel and join kibbutzim, today’s young Jewish activists say they can farm any land Jewishly. It doesn’t have to be Israel.
Even their sources of inspiration are different. Their parents and grandparents looked to the 19th century, reading Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, and Labor Zionist thinker Dov Ber Borochov, while this new generation casts its gaze farther back to Torah, Talmud and the ancient Israelites.
“I very much identify as a biblical Jew,” says Aitan Mizrahi, 31, who raises goats for milk and meat at the Isabella Freedman center.
Mizrahi, who is not traditionally observant, lets his beard grow to symbolize his connection to Judaism.
“It reminds me of who my ancestors were,” he says, “and how they would walk the hills of Judea with their goats and sheep and really have a deep relationship to the land, an understanding of how that land connected them to HaShem, the holy spirit of God.”
For most North American Jews who made aliyah to kibbutzim 30 years ago, the draw was Israel, not farming.
“The people I knew in Habonim were hippies, but we were Jewish hippies,” says 51-year-old Dani Livney, who immigrated to Israel in 1980 and joined Kibbutz Gezer, where he still manages its olive grove. “No one ever said, ‘Let’s start a farm in America.’ Farming wasn’t the major focus. Israel, Zionism and kibbutz were the focus.”
Many of this new generation of Jewish farmers have connections to Israel, either through family or past trips.
But it doesn’t pull them the way it pulled their parents.
Tali Weinberg, 31, spent the last few years farming for a seed company on Salt Spring Island, just off the coast of British Columbia. Her parents met in the late 1960s on the Israeli kibbutz where her father grew up. Her grandparents were members of Labor Zionist youth groups in 1930s-era Poland.
Whereas her parents and grandparents believed they were helping a struggling new country, Weinberg grew up with an Israel that seemed strong and independent.
“I feel a call to be connected to the land, like my grandparents, but I don’t feel it has to be in the land of Israel,” she says. “What’s more critical is that we connect, period. It’s less about where we’re going to do it and more that we have to do it because of the direction the food system is moving in.”
The few young North American Jews who are actually working full-time as farmers are part of a much larger group of environmental and food activists who come out of a growing number of new Jewish farm-education initiatives such as Adamah; the Philadelphia-based Jewish Farm School; Kayam Farm near Baltimore; the Teva Learning Center, a program of Surprise Lake Camp in Cold Spring, N.Y.; and Hazon, an advocacy organization that promotes sustainable environmental practices and sponsors an annual Jewish food conference.
At December’s conference, Kayam director Jakir Manela, 27, presented the Talmud’s teachings on agriculture to a roomful of young activists.
“One-sixth of the Talmud deals with agriculture,” he pointed out, adding that while most of those laws are specific to Israel, others can be applied anywhere.
The Mishnah contains diagrams of how to plant various species in the same field, which Kayam used to pattern its own Jewish Educational Garden. In late February, Kayam is sponsoring a weekend study of Seder Zera’im, the tractate devoted to agricultural law, as part of the group’s ongoing efforts to root its farm practice in Jewish values.
“It’s not just important as Jews that we eat local but that we recognize that we have a particular tradition about it,” he said.
The goal of the Jewish farm-based schools is not to churn out farmers but to make gardening and farming normative practice within the wider Jewish community. The leaders of these programs say they look forward to the day when every Jewish community center, synagogue and day school will have its own garden. These efforts will be spearheaded by what they hope will soon be 180 young Jews graduating each year from the Jewish farm school programs.
Through farming, these farm school alumni grew closer to their Judaism.
“Before I did the Adamah program, I would say I was a farmer first who happened to be a Jew,” Weinberg says. “Then I learned about the true nature of our people, of our roots, of our tribal identity in the land of Israel 2,000 years ago. I’ve not only become more of a Jewish farmer, I understand more of what it means to be a Jew.”
The Jewish philanthropic community is starting to take notice.
Since 2005, the Jewish Farm School has run workshops on urban sustainability in Philadelphia, led organic gardening programs at Surprise Lake Camp and planted rooftop gardens for synagogues in New York City. In June, with grants from the Foundation for Jewish Camping and the Jim Joseph Foundation, the school’s farming program will take up permanent residence in Putnam Valley, N.Y., sharing the site with a new eco-Jewish summer camp.
Across the board, Jewish environmental and farm-education initiatives are enjoying similar increased interest.
“Today we are being supported by the Jewish community,” says Simcha Schwartz, 30, who co-founded the Jewish Farm School with a $2,000 Hazon grant.
Schwartz in five or six years hopes to establish an agriculturally based Jewish high school at the new site.
“We don’t all need to be farmers,” he says. “To have farming be a little part of every Jewish person’s life, that’s our goal.”
New year’s resolution: kabbalistic activity for Tu B’Shevat seder from Hashinui
By Mica Esquenazi
The Torah teaches every man to regard nature and all living beings with deep respect. With the world’s rising consumerism and man’s seeming inability to preserve the natural world, observing the upcoming holiday of Tu B’Shevat (in 2009 falling on the evening of Sunday, Feb. 8, continuing through Monday, Feb. 9), the “New Year of Trees,” is highly necessary. This year, experience a Tu B’Shevat seder, a custom created in the city of Safed during the 16th century. The seder is an incredible opportunity for you to enjoy the great outdoors with your family, learn Kabbalah and enjoy great food.
To set up, you will need olives, dates, grapes, figs, pomegranates, wheat/barley (cake, bread, crackers), fruits with inedible peels, nuts with shells, fruits with inedible pits, a fruit you have not yet eaten this season, red wine and white wine. Be sure to buy everything organic and, when choosing a location, try to embrace the beauty of nature. As the Torah commands man not to waste resources, make an effort to purchase biodegradable utensils if you choose to use disposable products, and maybe even pick out a nice organic flower arrangement.
At the start, ensure that all present give a donation of food to your local food bank to commemorate the time of the Temple when Jews were able to praise G-d with fruit sacrifices.
Before you begin, keep in mind the importance of making blessings over every food item. Without a blessing, the natural gifts given from G-d to man are taken in vain and without gratitude.
The ritual hand washing should accompany the eating of bread and various fruits. These fruits, each a species of the land of Israel, highlight various concepts from biblical texts which add great meaning to your seder.
Olives and a lesson of light: Shir HaShirim Rabbah 1:2, “Just as olive oil brings light into the world, so do the people of Israel being light into the world.”
Dates and a lesson of significance: Bamidbar Rabbah 3:1, “No part of the palm tree is wasted. The dates are for eating; the lulav branches are for waving in praise on Sukkot; the dried thatch is for roofing; the fibers are for ropes; the leaves are for sieves; and the trunk is for house beams. So too, every one of the Jewish people is needed.”
Grapes and a lesson of humility: Vayikra Rabbah 36:2, “Just as a vine has large and small clusters and the large ones hang lower, so too the Jewish people: Whoever labors in Torah and is greater in Torah, seems lower than his fellow [due to his humility].”
Figs and a lesson of wisdom: Eruvin 64a by Rabbi Yochanan, “Why is the Torah compared to a fruit tree? Figs on a tree do not ripen all at once, but a little each day. The more one studies, the more knowledge and wisdom one finds.”
Pomegranates and a lesson of mitzvot: Sanhedrin 37a says that the 613 seeds in a pomegranate, divine in their number, reflect the count of mitzvot all Jews should strive to keep.
For the wine portion of the seder, four cups of wine are used, each with a different type of fruit. In each transition, there is a representation of a different spiritual realm.
The first cup of wine is purely white and joined by fruit with an inedible peel or shelled nuts. Presented in this section is a vain connection to the physical world, as the shell hides the valuable inner contents of the food. The spiritual realm connected to this portion is asiah, materialism.
The second cup of wine is white with a drop of red, joined by fruit with inedible pits. With the inedible part of the fruit now inside, inner impurities enter into your evaluation. The separation of one’s life from materialism and into a state of striving toward holiness is one often met by personal adversities and sin. The spiritual realm connected to this portion is yetzirah, mental development and formation of character.
The third cup of wine is white with a spill of red, joined by completely edible fruit. A much more heightened spirituality is seen with a fruit that contains no inedible pieces. At this point, man is void of materialism and deep sin, enabling him to focus on intellectuality and a connection to G-d. The spiritual realm connected to this portion is briah, creation.
The fourth cup of wine is red, joined by an aromatic fruit. G-d is said to have given the breath of life to all of man through the nose. For this reason, and many others, the sense of smell is regarded highly by the Torah and, with an aromatic fruit, man’s true potential for a heightened bond to Torah is reached. The spiritual realm connected to this portion is atzilut, holiness and purity.
As your seder ends, be sure to make a final blessing over your meal, and to hope for the next Tu B’Shevat seder to be held in Jerusalem. Hashinui would love for your family to share its experiences with us by sending photos and letters to Have a beautiful Tu B’Shevat.
Mica Esquenazi, class of 2009, is president of Hashinui, a nonprofit environmental organization associated with Yavneh Academy of Dallas. To learn more about the Jewish connection to the environment, ways to become eco-kosher and Hashinui projects, visit
Trash the trash, save the planet
By Dave Chameides
LOS ANGELES (JTA) — My parents are dining at a Jewish federation event with some folks from their community. As happens on occasion when Jewish parents get together, the subject turns to the accomplishments of their children (shocking, right?).
Mr. Cohen offers up that his son is curing cancer. Mrs. Schwartz mentions that her daughter is working with Obama. Then my mom proudly declares, “My son didn’t throw anything away last year, instead keeping all of his garbage and recycling in his basement. And worms eat all of his food scraps!”
The table falls quiet as forks clink on gefilte fish plates and looks are traded. Someone coughs. A few moments pass and one mother leans in to another.
“They always seemed like such normal people,” she says. “Didn’t David go to yeshiva?”
And then I wake up.
Yes, I did in fact attend a yeshiva in my formative years. Yes, I did save all my trash and recycling in my basement last year, feeding food scraps and paper to my 10,000 worms. And yes, my mother is quite proud of my accomplishments, as is my dad.
It all began in October 2007 as I was talking with a friend about the idea of throwing things “away.” It occurred to us that we had no idea where “away” was and that every time our trash magically disappeared, it didn’t seem entirely responsible. We assumed that we were doing the right thing — environmentally, socially and ethically — but also understood what happens when you assume. You know, you make an a— … well, never mind.
I realized that the only way to really evaluate my waste footprint was to stop. Stop throwing things “away” and start looking at what I was actually leaving behind. I figured recycling, while better than trashing something, still uses resources and energy and creates waste, so I decided to stop recycling as well. Essentially I took a pledge to keep all of my trash and recycling for one solid year and see what happened.
And that’s just what I did.
Now before you judge, hear me out. I’m not insane — not in the dictionary sense of the word anyway — and actually believe that despite what many may see as extreme, what I did made more sense than just going with the flow. My traditional upbringing, Jewish day school education and parental tutelage taught me to question things that didn’t make sense and fix the things that I could — tikkun olam and all that. Little did Rabbi Liff know when he was teaching me Bava Kama that he was actually preparing my mind to hoard stuff in my basement.
Our people should be the most ardent stewards of Spaceship Earth. Why? I could give you a thousand reasons, but need go no further than the concept of shmitta. Every seven years we are told to let the land rest and rejuvenate itself. Hands off, as it were. Is there a better indication that we are mere sojourners here and not owner-operators? As any renter knows, you mess up your place and you’re in trouble with the landlord. Well, it seems to me that we’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do right about now and better start cleaning up pretty darn quick.
Take the United States, for instance. The average American disposes of roughly 4.6 pounds of trash every day — more on Shabbat if you’re frum. That’s roughly 480 billion pounds for the entire country, give or take a billion. It’s insane, and I quickly recognized that I didn’t want to be part of the problem anymore. But before you can fix something, you need to understand it, so down in the basement everything went.
And what happened? My trash output dwindled to a mere half-pound per month — 31.5 pounds in total. I learned to make simple choices and ended up not changing my lifestyle as much as my buying habits. My children learned that hand towels and paper go to the worms and that farmers are the people who make and sell your produce and eggs. My wife learned that she gets a new blender when I use hers to blend food scraps for the worms. And the more than quarter-million people who read my story became aware of a larger problem, many offering their own solutions as well as their advice.
So how about helping me turn the Chosen People back into the environmental stewards that we were intended to be? Stop drinking bottled water, get yourself a reusable coffee mug, drive less, think before you buy. There are a hundred different simple things we can all do on a daily basis to help ourselves, help the planet and, who knows, maybe even save a little time and money while we’re at it.
And for those of you who are having trouble with kicking your plastic bag habit, I’d ask you to consider this perspective: Circumcising your newborn son is tough; remembering to bring a shopping bag to Kosher Mart is not.
Dave Chameides is an environmental educator, Emmy Award-winning director/cameraman, and the director of sustainability at the Shalhevet School in Los Angeles. More tips on sustainable living can be found at
‘Ecopreneurs’ see green in green
By Starre Vartan
NEW YORK (JTA) — It’s easy being green when there’s plenty of cash floating around. Environmental causes tend to be minimally controversial, and all kinds of businesses feel good about supporting tree-planting, community gardens, children’s environmental education and the like. But what happens when the economy tanks? Usually funding for green programs dries up until the next bull market. But 2009 is different. The scope of our environmental problems is huge, and some of the solutions can come only from the business world. Being planet friendly is no longer just about doing good for the birds and the bunnies, it’s about saving humanity’s future — and making some cash, too, as these four Jewish ecopreneurs can attest.
Adam Baruchowitz, Wearable Collections
Adam Baruchowitz, founder and CEO of Wearable Collections, takes something that most of us give away — our old clothes — and not only keeps them useful by finding a new home for them, but simultaneously helps needy organizations raise funds.
“Our main focus is the New York City area, where we place bins inside of residential buildings to make it as easy to recycle clothing and textiles as it is to recycle cans, paper and bottles,” Adam says.
On top of keeping more than 800,000 pounds of clothes from landfills, when those who participate in the program know where their old clothes are going — for resale in South America, to be recycled into other textiles and to create rags — they become more invested and knowledgeable about reuse.
Wearable Collections is not a nonprofit but works with nonprofits as a partner.
“The idea of tzedakah and charity has always held a special place in my heart,” Adam says, “and I am very proud that we have come up with a business model that enables us to raise funds for many charitable organizations.”
Adam is also the business director for Heeb magazine, so Wearable Collections is a labor of love as well as his business. Why is he so driven?
“One of the main reasons I got involved in this is that one of my partners was hit by a car in 2000 and left paralyzed from his chest down. From that moment I have been involved in raising money for spinal cord research,” says Adam, who adds that the company is doing well so far, despite the economy.
Old clothes are not the first place many would think to look for profit.
Adam explains: “My grandfather spent most his life in New York City’s garment industry, and I grew up selling some of his products with my mom at various flea markets. Sometimes I am surprised myself to find that I am knee deep in the shmata industry; what could be more Jewish than that!”
Ron Gonen,
One of the major arguments against recycling has been that it’s too costly, despite the environmental benefits. Some even say it is fiscally irresponsible to recycle, notably New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who suspended recycling in the city in a decision that was later reversed.
Ron Gonen, co-founder and CEO of Recyclebank, is proving that concept wrong not only in terms of planetary health, but economically, too. Ron’s company subcontracts with existing haulers and collects recycling in special bins that record what’s inside. There’s no sorting of recyclables into different bags or bins — it’s single-stream — and each household gets its own online account to keep track of how much and what’s been recycled. And here’s the great part: Credits are earned for recycling that can be redeemed at national and local retailers.
So how can municipalities afford this program, especially in tough economic times when the prices for many recyclables are at an all-time low?
“These days, it’s expensive for a city to send garbage to a landfill, so haulers see our program as a value-add,” Ron says. “The value here is not in the revenue you generate, but not having to pay to dispose of it. That’s what’s been missed by most people when they think about recycling.”
From just five cities, Recyclebank will have expanded into18 states by the end of the first quarter of 2009.
“We’ve had a great response,” Ron says. “We service cities, wealthy suburbs and some of the poorest communities in America, and there [are] positive responses from all of them. All people appreciate value.”
Recyclebank members can also see how many trees and how much global warming-spewing energy they’re saving through recycling, so the direct impact of household waste can be easily seen.
Ron has created a company that combines his interests in social policy, environmental responsibility and business, but he got his chops in the business world first. He cites his Israeli side as giving him an “entrepreneurial, ‘anything is possible’ spirit.” But it was his mother — and his Judaism — that pushed him toward making money while doing good.
“I was raised by a single mom in Philly; she really stressed the importance of giving back in life,” Ron says.
“And my Judaism has given me an appreciation for giving and the importance of community.”
Kate Goldwater, AuH2O
Kate Goldwater credits the success of her 2-1/2-year-old boutique, where she sells her own creations, to “connections, connections, connections.” Fashion design and boutiquery are notoriously cutthroat industries, and Kate says she has survived and flourished by getting a little help from her friends.
“I asked friends who were in business school for assistance with my business plan, law student friends for legal advice, I got journalism student friends to write about my store and handy friends to help me build and drill,” she says. “My designer friends knew where to get cheap mannequins, and a friend that worked in retail sold me a secondhand cash register. People are pretty excited to help someone fulfill their dreams.”
AuH2O — chemistry-class shorthand for Kate’s last name — is a small space on the Lower East Side of Manhattan packed with upcycled clothing made by Kate on-site (so no worries about sweatshop labor). She uses existing material, usually old clothes, to create new designs, including dresses, skirts and tops for women and girls, and shirts and ties (some made from recycled credit cards) for men.
But why not follow the traditional fashion designer route? A combination of creativity and passion for social justice led her to forge her own path.
“By about middle school I decided that I wanted to express my creativity with my appearance,” Kate says. “I pierced my thumbnails, drew magic marker tattoos all over my body and wrapped my hair in yarn and rubber bands. When I got a bit older I was a part of my school’s ‘global action’ and ‘students against social apathy’ clubs. I wrote a piece for our high school paper about how we should avoid buying new clothes altogether and only shop at thrift stores to take a stand against sweatshop labor. Making recycled clothing was my passion at a pretty young age.”
While she was actively involved in a number of causes in college, including NARAL Pro-Choice New York and the Jewish Women’s Archive in Boston, Kate says she found working at a desk job “capital B Boring” as much as she supported the causes.
“I needed to be doing something creative,” Kate says.
Most recently she combined her political zeal with her creative and business sides during the Obama campaign, raising hundreds of dollars with a series of one-off T-shirts and dresses emblazoned with Obama designs and three fashion shows.
“I design clothes for others like me: people who are unique, want to express their creativity, have strong political convictions and want to wear clothing that gives that first impression,” Kate says.
Adam Neiman, No Sweat Apparel
Adam Neiman, CEO and co-founder of No Sweat Apparel, believes there is an intrinsic, natural connection between businesses that treat their workers well and solving environmental problems, which are rampant in the clothing industry. Water pollution from chemical dyes, energy-sucking production facilities and textile waste are issues that are only starting to be addressed by the industry, but Adam is working to keep his factories green and worker-friendly.
“There’s an intimate connection between the exploitation of humans and the exploitation of nature,” Adam says. “It’s simple: If humans are being exploited, are starving, they’re not going to worry about the spotted owl or global warming.”
Adam says he’s always been a political person, especially interested in labor issues, and that directly translates into the way he does business. No Sweat Apparel sells children’s, men’s and women’s casual clothing and outerwear that are all union-made, many from organic fabrics.
So why is his clothing company keeping its head above water while other retailers are collapsing in the current economy? “I realized an entire generation that’s coming up now has been learning about sweatshop labor because teachers realize that they can teach the kids about geography, history, ethics and business in the context of what kids were already thinking about — namely their own clothes,” Adam says. “The new generation is going to want to see changes to the traditional ways of doing business.”
The interest in rightly made clothing is growing and will continue to do so, he says.
No Sweat Apparel’s newest product is the “Organic Bethlehem World of Love” T-shirt, which is made from organic cotton and is produced at a sweatshop-free Palestinian-owned factory in the West Bank. It has received attention from the New York Times, the Boston Globe, NPR and a host of other media outlets.
Adam’s viewpoint on good stewardship of the planet and fair treatment of people is hardly a new idea.
“Loving your neighbor as yourself is one of the cornerstones of the Torah, and that absolutely extends to how you would treat your workers and also how you treat the environment,” Adam says. “The first labor laws recorded in history are in the Torah.”
Starre Vartan is the Web editor for Greenopia and author of “The Eco Chick Guide to Life.”

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