Farming the land, Torah in hand


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 bracha, 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 and led organic gardening programs at Surprise Lake Camp. In June, 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. Its partner, Eden Village Camp, received a grant from the Foundation for Jewish Camping and the Jim Joseph Foundation. 

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.”


Recommended from JTA