Jewish Groups Embrace Sustainable Agriculture

Jewish environmental organizations are bridging religious tradition with support for locally produced food, writes Lester Feder.

The van for ADAMAH, a Jewish environmental fellowship program, sits parked on Amsterdam Avenue in New York. The ADAMAH program integrates organic farming, 									sustainable living, Jewish learning, teaching, 									and contemplative spiritual practice. (Flickr/Eating in Translation)
The van for ADAMAH, a Jewish environmental fellowship program, sits parked on Amsterdam Avenue in New York. The ADAMAH program integrates organic farming, sustainable living, Jewish learning, teaching, and contemplative spiritual practice. (Flickr/Eating in Translation)

In addition to traditional potato latkes, participants in Hazon’s 2008 conference on Jews, Food and Contemporary Life will celebrate Chanukah with organic sweet potato latkes made from vegetables grown near their meeting place in Northern California. For the holiday cookbook distributed at the conference, organizers suggest attendees submit a recipe “for that obscure vegetable from your Tuv Ha’Aretz CSA this summer.” Tuv Ha’Aretz is the name Hazon coined for the Jewish Community-Supported Agriculture programs, or CSAs, it has helped organize nationwide to support sustainable agriculture.

Hazon is an eight-year-old Jewish environmental organization that began focusing on food sustainability in 2004. Community-supported agriculture groups had begun springing up nationwide, as a growing number of consumers sought to preserve local farms and cut down on the energy used to get food on their plates. CSAs are formed by groups of food shoppers who agree to each buy a share of a farmer’s harvest for an entire season. Hazon helped start the first Jewish CSA, which paired Anache Chesed Synagogue in Manhattan with Long Island’s Garden of Eve Farm. They have since helped to organize 19 Tuv Ha’Aretz, and expect to increase that number to 30 next year.

Hazon organized its first food conference three years ago to bring together the organizers of the 10 Tuv Ha’Aretz that were then operating, and they discovered a much broader interest. This year they expect some 500 participants, including farmers, environmentalists, and rabbis.

Hazon is bringing together Judaism’s 3,000 year-old discussion about how and what to eat with contemporary debates about energy consumption, genetically modified food, and ethics, explains Associate Director of Food Programs Judith Belasco. “While these two conversations could remain separate, it’s become incredibly powerful to put these conversations together,” Belasco says. Food rituals made the CSA model an appealing way to build environmental awareness in the Jewish community, she says, because “it wasn’t just connecting with a farm. It was also the opportunity to bring in that [local] food on Friday night [for Shabbat] and the opportunity to bring in teachers that speak to” sustainable eating.

Anna Stevenson, co-chair of Hazon’s 2007 food conference and now manager of farm programs for the Jewish environmental fellowship program ADAMAH, notes that the rituals Jews still practice are deeply rooted in their ancestors’ agricultural lifestyle. She explains that ancient Jews were “really devout people living with the natural cycles of harvest and planting…. That’s what a lot of the holidays in the Jewish calendar are all about.”

Stevenson grew up in the suburbs of Vancouver, British Columbia, and she earned degrees from Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She came to farming as a way of bringing together her faith and her commitment to the environment. She joined ADAMAH after working a few years for Hazon. “Being an environmentalist without a greater spiritual practice was a little bit empty,” she says, while “Judaism without connecting to important issues is also a little bit empty.”

Stevenson says that once she began farming, she came to understand traditions in a whole new way. The blessings before a meal, the practice of giving up the first harvest as part of the holiday Shavuot, and the Jewish food laws give a framework for connecting to the miracle of creation and to a wider human community linked through a web of mutual obligation. “I don’t think that the patriarchs were eat-local activists 2,000 years ago,” she says, “but I think some of the wisdom—eat a meal with your family, say a blessing before you eat, be aware of what your food is—those are all parts of the contemporary food movement.”

These Jewish food activists say that food is a natural way to bring the Jewish community into the environmental movement. As for so many ethnic groups, food—especially holiday food—occupies a central place in Jewish culture as a fundamental way of preserving identity. But the historic—and, for many (but not all) Jews, religious—importance of the kosher food laws makes questions of how and what to eat central to Judaism.

The word “kosher” means “fit,” and kosher foods are ones considered fit for eating. Historically, this has meant preparing food in accordance with religious law, including requirements that animals be slaughtered in a special way, meat and milk be kept separate, and food be prepared in kitchens under religious supervision. But proponents of what some call “eco-kosher” ask whether food that follows the letter of the law is actually “fit” to eat if it is grown in a way that is bad for the environment and prepared in a way that is bad for workers.

“There are some people who say ethical is ethical and kosher is kosher—they’re two different things,” Stevenson says. But “there are a lot of people who want to see the word kosher extended to the treatment of the workers in the plant, the treatment of the animals before they are killed.” This debate was accelerated after America’s largest kosher butcher, Agriprocessors, became the focus of scandals involving child labor violations, the hiring of illegal immigrants, and mistreatment of animals. Since a massive immigration raid last spring, the Conservative and Orthodox Jewish movements have both taken steps toward certifying that kosher products have also been produced ethically.

By applying tradition to environmentalism, these activists are finding new meanings in agricultural traditions that are relevant to today’s urbanized Jewish community. In a class that proceeded the founding of the first Tuv Ha’Aretz, participants were discussing how they could observe the practice of peah, the biblical commandment to farmers to leave a corner of their field unharvested for the poor to reap. A student named Phyllis Beiri pointed out that with a CSA, “there are always leftovers” when someone doesn’t show up to claim their share. That could be the peah, and donated to a food kitchen.

“That was very cool,” recalls Anna Stevenson, who was also in the class. “That was very Jewish and very contemporary.”

Lester Feder is a freelance journalist covering conservative politics and popular culture. He is currently working on a book about the evangelical environmental movement.

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