Harvesting Mitzvot


Picking lettuce and okra, shelling beans and separating seeds became a family bonding experience for the Lippmans of Melville.

On a recent Sunday, Karen and Eric Lippman, along with their sons Ben, 11, and Jack, 9, and the boys’ grandfather Gene, gathered at the Henry Kaufman Campgrounds in Wheatley Heights to participate in a community harvest. Members of 14 families from the South Huntington Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation, picked vegetables, shelled beans and separated seeds for planting in next year’s garden. While these intergenerational participants, ranging in age from 3 to 83, all shared the hands-on experience of organic gardening, they also learned about Jewish tradition, law and ethics, including the responsibility of giving a percentage of every harvest to feed those who are less fortunate.

“It was a great way to spend the day and give back to the community,” said Karen Lippman. “The kids loved the hands-on experience, and we all felt good that we were doing something productive and that the food was going to people who don’t have as much as we do.”

Lynn Epstein, who also participated in the harvest with her nine year old son Noah, added, “It was like being transformed to a kibbutz in Israel. At the end, we formed a circle and basked proudly in the harvesting that we had achieved.”

Following the harvest, 45 high school students from local religious schools helped to separate the vegetables into family-size portions, which were later delivered to the Gerald Ryan Outreach Center, in nearby Wyandanch.

A third day was devoted to sustainable land use, and included planting of garlic and cover crops, preparing the garden for winter and learning about the importance of letting the land rest for winter.

The recent program in Jewish environmental education was one of many projects undertaken throughout the New York area as part of Jewish Social Action Month (JSAM). JSAM is an annual global initiative that takes place during the month of Cheshvan — this year, from Oct. 9 to Nov. 7. The goal of JSAM, now in its fifth year, is to transform Cheshvan from a month without Jewish holidays into a time to celebrate volunteerism, to build community and encourage tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

In New York, UJA-Federation recently awarded $87,000 in grants for 28 projects, including seven on Long Island.

David Mallach, managing director of UJA-Federation’s Commission on The Jewish People, said that there were three criteria for the projects: they had to have a Jewish learning component, an element of hands-on volunteering and to involve a partnership that would help to build community.

“Jewish tradition has powerful lessons and a way of linking interest in social action with Jewish tradition and values,” he said.

The organic harvest on Long Island, which received a grant of $4,000 from UJA-Federation, was a quintessential example of a partnership between the Teva Learning Center in Manhattan and the Henry Kaufman Camp Grounds on Long Island, in which the focus was volunteerism and building community.

Jonathan Dubinsky, the special programs coordinator of the Teva Learning Center, said that the three-day project exemplified strong connections between Jewish spirituality and ecology.

“One of the principle commandments in Jewish law is to work and protect our land,” he said. “We are not meant to waste anything, and part of Jewish agricultural law tells us that we have to give a certain amount of the harvest every year to the poor or the hungry.”

Aside from the organic harvest, other exciting Long Island projects in honor of JSAM were also recipients of UJA-Federation grants.

“Teens Go Green,” a project created by the Sid Jacobson Jewish Community Center, in Roslyn, was created to encourage teens to learn about the Jewish tradition of community service, and at the same time to get involved in their community and to give back, according to Stu Botwinick, the JCC’s assistant executive director.

Teens from several synagogues will come together for a day of service and to learn about the amount of waste produced by their communities, how they can reduce their own consumption and waste, and how to encourage others to do so as well. The experience will include on-site visits to a recycling center, participation in a park cleanup and a lesson on cooking with solar power.

“Mitzvah Makers on the Go” is a social action and community awareness project of the Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation, designed to bring together Conservative and Reconstructionist synagogue members to tackle the growing concern of hunger and poverty on Long Island by collecting items including blankets, boots, coats, frozen turkeys and nonperishable food.

Other Long Island recipients of the JSAM grants were Central Suffolk Jewish Alliance, FEGS Health & Human Services, Temple Adas Israel and The Friendship Circle of Suffolk County.

In all of these projects, the enthusiasm has been contagious.

Phyllis Pellman, Jewish Family Educator at South Huntington Jewish Center, said, “The families who participated in the organic harvest have been thrilled. Many have already asked, ‘Can we do it again next year?’”