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From Varied Pasts, Group Plans Collective Kosher Organic Farm

November 29, 2001
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When she was in her early 20s, Devorah Lifchitz’s search for spirituality led her to a North Carolina commune and the Rainbow Gathering, an annual festival of meditation, music and camping that takes place in national parks.

Lifchitz, who was born Jewish but “grew up completely nothing,” was a passionate environmentalist and dreamed of living on an organic farm with a group of friends.

Now 26, Lifchitz is married, a new mother and an Orthodox Jew active in her local Chabad-Lubavitch house.

Yet neither she, her husband — nor any of their newly observant friends — have lost their passion for farming.

“Just because we’re observant doesn’t mean we have to stop being who we are,” Lifchitz says.

Together with Rabbi Chaim Adelman, the head of the Chabad House at the University of Massachusetts, the Lifchitzes and seven other Jewish families are coming together to create an organic farm and Torah-observant co- housing community.

The farm is called “Eretz ha’Chaim,” Hebrew for “the living land.”

Call it back to the sources meets back to the land.

Eretz ha’Chaim will be one of a handful of kosher, organic farms in the United States, but is believed to be the only Orthodox co-housing community outside of Israel.

It is similar in conception to the Israeli moshav movement, though those settlements in recent years have lost much of their collective and agricultural identity.

While many details remain to be worked out, the Amherst, Mass., group hopes to create an agricultural community that will produce organic produce, dairy products, eggs and poultry.

It also will run an educational center that focuses on Judaism, farming and ecology.

“Our goal is to grow food of the highest kashrus” — or kosher level — “which also comes right out of the earth and is raised in a way that keeps the earth it’s grown on healthy too, to grow food sustainably,” says Ali Crolius, who will live on the farm with her 9-year-old son, Ezra.

The group needs to get a mortgage and overcome a potential zoning conflict before it can begin building and plowing.

However, it has a $620,000 purchase agreement on 70 acres of land and has raised approximately $40,000 so far, enough for the down payment.

Members are seeking start-up funds from philanthropists, hoping to entice them with naming opportunities for everything from the community’s mikvah and synagogue to the barn and farm animals.

Participants agree that everyone who lives in the community will have to adhere to Orthodox standards of dress, kashrut and Shabbat.

They are still trying to decide how communal the living situation will be. Some members want to share most meals and major appliances, while others want more privacy.

In fusing kosher with organic — produce grown in an ecologically sustainable manner without chemicals or pesticides — the group is tapping into a larger trend. This year there were 21 organic displays at KosherFest, an annual national trade fair for kosher products, compared with 8 last year.

In Amherst, a liberal college town with a small but growing Chabad community, there has long been support for organic and locally produced foods, as well as larger environmental concerns.

The Chabad community, which has many newly observant Jews, has been influenced by this enthusiasm.

“I used to feel like I was the only one agonizing about throwing out food without composting it or throwing out plasticware after Shabbat meals,” says Crolius, 40, who years ago converted to Judaism from Christianity. “Now, composting and recycling are par for the course at Chabad House.”

Adelman has run the Amherst Chabad House for 13 years, and his answering machine reminds callers that “every good thing you think or good think you say or good thing you do can bring Moshiach immediately.”

For him, the farm serves the dual purpose of ensuring higher standards of kashrut and bringing Jews closer to the messianic age.

Many foods in North America are certified as kosher, but Adelman worries that they are not supervised closely enough.

“For example, when you’re milking a cow or a goat, you have to have a Jew watching to make sure no foreign milk gets mixed in,” he says.

“If you don’t grow your own food, you’re relying on someone else,” he adds. “I’ve always wanted to get a space where I could grow my own food, do my own processing and rely on somebody I could trust.”

Through tours and programs for visiting school groups, the farm will “teach the laws of Torah as they are practiced on the land,” Adelman says.

The founding group — which hopes to attract 16 more families to share in the labor and community — is a spirited mix. Many are new to Orthodoxy, others are new to farming and environmentalism, and some are new to both.

They include Jessica Zambias, a soft-spoken senior at nearby Hampshire College. Zambias, who usually goes by her Hebrew name, Chana, is especially interested in growing medicinal herbs and teaching people to be more aware of the ways in which their food is produced.

Zambias has been observant for two years, and was drawn to Chabad because of its “sense of family and community.”

Shmuel Simenowitz quit his lucrative job as a New York lawyer several years ago and moved with his wife, daughter and son to New England, where he runs what he calls Vermont’s only “shomer Shabbos, organic, horse- powered maple farm.” Simenowitz will manage the Amherst farm.

Simenowitz sports a bushy copper-and-gray beard, and during a recent meeting wore tan denim overalls, leather hiking boots and a black hat. His past is varied: He has done stand-up comedy gigs, played guitar with Orthodox legend Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, volunteered on Kibbutz Ein Tzurim in Israel and spent a few months in college working with a ritual slaughterer in Denmark.

He likes to greet visitors by taking them on horse-drawn wagon rides around his Vermont property.

It’s a rustic spot where chickens, ducks, guinea fowl, cats and dogs wander freely. Simenowitz and his family sell maple syrup and fresh eggs, raise poultry and grow a variety of vegetables.

However, his Vermont farm is far from Jewish day schools and other observant Jews. Simenowitz says that he will continue some of his maple operations, but will move his family to western Massachusetts when the new farm is up and running.

Simenowitz is interested in showing how Judaism, agriculture and environmentalism intersect.

“The whole bible, all of the Talmud is an agricultural text,” he says. “Then Jews ended up as city folk and lost touch with a whole lot of it, especially the last two to three generations.”

The Torah offers many instructions for farmers, including injunctions to maintain diversity of species, treat farm animals well and leave a corner of a field unplowed so the poor can eat, Simenowitz says.

Sustainability, a watchword of the environmental and organic farming world, is central to Judaism, Simenowitz says. Judaism stipulates that as “stewards of the earth,” humans have the responsibility to take care for the land and ensure its future, he says.

“This isn’t importing New Age values,” he says. “This is just straight Torah.”

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