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Jewish food movement comes of age

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Jewish environmental educators teach children about food consciousness Dec. 26, 2008 at the Hazon Food Conference.  (Sabrina Malach)

Jewish environmental educators teach children about food consciousness Dec. 26, 2008 at the Hazon Food Conference. (Sabrina Malach)

PACIFIC GROVE, Calif. (JTA) — Oren Massey of Berkeley came to the Hazon Jewish food conference looking for comrades interested in building land-based Jewish communities.

David Kantor came from Pasadena to reinvigorate his “green” commitment. Mark Fishman, a longtime butcher in Kansas City, came to take part in a turkey shechita, or kosher slaughter. Falynn Schmidt of San Francisco is not a farmer or an activist; she’s never even been on a farm. She just came to see what the buzz was all about.

From Dec. 25-28, more than 550 Jewish food activists, farmers, educators, politicos, rabbis and just plain folk met in this sleepy central California beach town to learn about Torah and composting, and to take the Jewish food movement to the next level.

“This conference will help us galvanize the building of a new Jewish food movement,” promised conference co-chair Zelig Golden, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Center for Food Safety, as he outlined the movement’s proposed tripartite focus on advocacy, action and education.

There was a palpable sense among many at the conference that the Jewish food movement, spearheaded by the New York-based ecological nonprofit Hazon, is on the cusp of something big.

Food is big — bookstores are loaded with best-selling cookbooks, and food shows blanket the airwaves. Kosher food is big — for the past two years, the kosher food label was slapped on more food products than any other label, including organic, premium and all-natural. Food ethics are big and, in the wake of this year’s well-publicized scandal at the Agriprocessors kosher meat plant in Iowa, so are Jewish food ethics.

Hazon, founded in 2000 to promote the ecological benefits of bike riding, widened its focus four years ago to include food sustainability and Jewish agricultural education. Today it is well placed to harness this excitement into a movement that organizers hope will be a significant player in the mainstream Jewish community. It seems they have a cadre of young, enthusiastic Jewish farmers and food activists ready to make it happen.

“We hope that these four days will give you a taste of the more perfect world we hope to bring to fruition,” Hazon founder and executive director Nigel Savage said on the conference’s opening night.

Idealistic? Sure. But the new Jewish food movement is not only growing in numbers, it’s increasingly public, with front-page stories in mainstream publications from the New York Times to the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s also more organized, with major initiatives planned in food policy advocacy and Jewish agricultural education. And it now has a manifesto, de rigueur for any revolutionary organization.

That manifesto, unveiled at the conference as a draft document and posted on Hazon’s Web site for public discussion, is a seven-year plan for putting food and food policy at the center of the Jewish communal agenda. Some day, organizers predict, every Jewish school will teach the Jewish values of eating right, growing food right and feeding the poor.

The movement is growing. Take, for example, Jewish CSAs — community-supported agriculture coops run by Hazon’s Tuv Ha’aretz program, featuring groups of Jews that band together to buy weekly food boxes from local farms. In 2008 there were 18 CSAs based at synagogues and Jewish community centers. In the spring of 2009 that number is expected to grow to 30; by 2015, the manifesto says, the goal is to have 180, which means more than 10,000 Jewish families putting their purchasing power behind local sustainable agriculture.

Jewish agricultural education is another target. This year, there are a handful of Jewish farm-based education initiatives, from the three-month Adamah farm fellowships in Connecticut to the Teva Learning Center in Baltimore and the Philadelphia-based Jewish Farm School. These fledging efforts look to Jewish tradition, notably the Torah and Talmud, for agricultural norms and practices that can be applied in today’s world. By 2015, Hazon’s manifesto envisions Jewish agricultural education becoming an integral part of Jewish education taught by a new generation of Jewish farmers and teachers graduating these educational programs at the rate of 180 per year.

The idea, explains Simcha Schwartz, the 30-year-old co-director of the Jewish Farm School, is not that every Jew should become a farmer, but that Jewish organizations, schools and synagogues should have gardens and teach their people how to grow food and respect the land.

“Agricultural education is in huge demand right now, and in the next few seasons you are going to see Jewish agricultural education popping up all over,” said Jakir Manela, co-founder of the Kayam Farm in Baltimore, which will be sponsoring a Shabbat program in February to study Seder Zeraim, a book of the Mishnah dealing with agricultural laws. “It’s not just important that we eat local, but as Jews, that we recognize we have a particular tradition about it.”

“For hundreds of years the Jewish people never had the right to own land,” Schwartz added. “Now there’s a generation that not only has land in Israel and in America, it’s being encouraged by the Jewish community. And we’re looking in Torah and finding out these great instructions on how to plant,” including leaving the corner of one’s field for the poor, and letting the land lie fallow every seventh year, lessons these young Jewish farmers and food educators are putting into practice.

On the policy front, Hazon plans to get involved in food advocacy and is developing an organized response to the five-year, $307 billion farm bill enacted in June. Golden, who ran a conference session on the farm bill, says the group’s platform is not yet worked out, but will certainly include support for financial incentives for small farmers, as well as more money for food access in poor communities.

“As a Jewish community, we have before been at the forefront of political change,” he said. “As we grow as a Jewish food movement we should move into political action. The farm bill affects everything from food safety to which crops farmers choose to plant to who can receive food stamps. As a movement we should sound our collective voice to promote sustainable agriculture through federal food policy.”

Hazon is also at the forefront of the growing Jewish communal discussion over the ethics of kosher food production, a conversation given impetus by last May’s immigration raid at the Agriprocessors plant and the resulting indictments of company managers.

“This isn’t the first time the Jewish community has been talking about ethics and kashrut, but until recently the conversations were marginal, small and fairly limited to the Renewal community,” said Jacob Fine, Hillel rabbi at the University of Washington, as he introduced one of several conference panels on the ethics of kosher meat production. “We have now reached the tipping point. There is no part of the Jewish community, from Reform to Orthodox, where the conversation is not taking place.”

On the conference’s final day, participants talked about how they planned to take its message back to their home communities.

San Francisco land use policy analyst Sam Goldman said he’d bring Hazon’s work to local policymakers, and would “try to grow food that doesn’t die.”

Daniel Elefant, part of a group forming Seattle’s new Jewish CSA this spring, said he’d take Hazon’s manifesto home to his family so they’d realize this was a coherent movement with serious people behind it, “and not just my own leftist idea.”

And 17-year-old Tova Simenowitz of Baltimore, who came to the conference to meet like-minded people and spread her message of being a religious Jew and a farmer, said she now wants to bring agricultural-based education into the special-needs children’s program for which she volunteers.

“It seemed like a dream, but when I came here I saw kids my own age doing amazing things,” she said. “I saw that we can make a difference.”

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