Synagogues bet the farm on community-grown organic gardens
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Over in the chicken coop the birds perch contentedly. 'It’s our minyan of chickens'

Synagogues bet the farm on community-grown organic gardens

Access to spare land and urban farming awareness has congregants pitching in to feed local needy

Rabbi Steven Kane of Congregation Sons of Israel, or CSI, and its Community Organic Farm in Briarcliff Manor, New York. (Courtesy)
Rabbi Steven Kane of Congregation Sons of Israel, or CSI, and its Community Organic Farm in Briarcliff Manor, New York. (Courtesy)

BRIARCLIFF MANOR, New York — The pumpkins are beginning to poke through the chocolate brown earth and in a few days the first ears of corn will be ready to harvest. Something is eating the broccoli, but the yellow tomatoes, the color of sunshine, look ripe.

Over in the chicken coop the birds — some black, some white, some mottled — perch contentedly.

“They are truly free range. It’s our minyan of chickens,” Rabbi Steven Kane said, closing the door so the chickens don’t escape into the parking lot.

It’s another morning on the farm here at Congregation Sons of Israel Community Organic Farm in Briarcliff Manor, New York.

When CSI decided establish a working farm it became part of the micro-farming movement, which transforms unproductive space into productive space as well as focuses on sustainability and food security. It also joined a handful of synagogues across the country that see farming as a way to live the Jewish value that its people are stewards of the earth. They are a visible symbol of the connection between people and nature, a connection that can be found anywhere — in cities or suburbs.

“The farm is another way to explore Judaism in a deeper way. It helps drive home our connectedness to earth and explore what that means,” Kane said.

The tradition of stewardship and caring for the earth can be found in Genesis, Kane said. The idea for the farm, however, goes back to one Sunday afternoon two years ago.

Members can rent beds on the Congregations Sons of Israel farm. (Courtesy)
Members can rent beds on the Congregations Sons of Israel farm. (Courtesy)

Frederick Schulman used to bring his two little dogs to the “Memorial Garden” located in the back of the synagogue. He’d throw the ball around and let them get some exercise. On that particular afternoon the ball rolled into the woods, which were overgrown with grapevine and wisteria. He wondered who owned the fields and after looking at an old synagogue survey, discovered it belonged to CSI. He realized that this space could be transformed.

“I started to think about ways to utilize our property to reinvigorate spiritual connections to CSI. Drawing on my childhood as a member of an immigrant Jewish family farm in Connecticut, and recognizing new movements in Jewish outdoor activities and organic food production and consumption, I came up with the idea for the CSI Community Organic Farm,” Schulman said.

So he went to the rabbi, who was delighted with the idea.

“He told me I’d be surprised to know how much produce can be grown on a quarter acre,” Kane recalled. “I was thrilled with the idea. Who doesn’t like farming? You plant a seed and see it grow. But from the start I said ‘we’re not calling this a garden. We’re calling it a farm.’”

‘He told me I’d be surprised to know how much produce can be grown on a quarter acre’

Approving the idea was one thing, executing it was another. A farm committee was tasked with developing a business plan, finding adequate capital to fulfill it, and capable and efficient people to carry it out.

The synagogue needed heavy equipment to clear the land. They also needed to find people who knew how to properly prepare the soil and help choose the right crops. Fences and a chicken coop needed to be built. The synagogue also needed to put in a well and a drip irrigation system.

Kane, who was raised in Chicago where his mother grew carrots and radishes in the garden, became something of a self-taught farmer. He visited the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut, and attended JOFFEE, the Jewish Outdoor, Food, Farming and Environmental Education Conference.

Grapes on the vine at Congregation Sons of Israel farm. One member says he plans to make kiddush wine. (Courtesy)
Grapes on the vine at Congregation Sons of Israel farm. One member says he plans to make kiddush wine. (Courtesy)

Of the farm’s two acres, one acre is dedicated to growing produce to sell. Members can rent beds on another one half-acre lot for $180 each. That money also goes to sustain the farm. Additionally, a half-acre was reserved as a meditation area for services and meetings. Profits from the farm and fundraising efforts will be reinvested into the farm. Once the farm is profitable, the money raised will help with the synagogue’s general operations.

On the working side of the farm rows of squash plants seem to wander and deep purple grapes cling to vines. One congregant plans to make wine for the synagogue to use for Kiddush. Blueberry bushes are growing behind a stand of pear and apple trees.

“They only yielded about a handful of blueberries this year,” said congregant Ryna Lustig, a landscape design consultant who helped plan the farm’s layout.

Lustig, who studied landscape design at Penn State, is learning as she goes.

“It’s so much fun growing food, but I had never done it before. I literally didn’t know what I was doing. I phone a friend, I get advice from Hilltop Hanover [an environmental center] and I look things up online,” she said.

Rabbi Steven Kane of Congregation Sons of Israel and congregant/landscape design consultant Ryna Lustig. (Courtesy)
Rabbi Steven Kane of Congregation Sons of Israel and congregant/landscape design consultant Ryna Lustig. (Courtesy)

The synagogue sells its produce to Aesop’s Table, a restaurant in Chappaqua as well as Holbrooke Cottage, a local gourmet market. Come fall CSI will also operate its own farmers market. Aside from produce, free-range eggs will also be available.

The synagogue will also donate 10 percent of its produce to those in need. One potential recipient will be the Westchester Food Bank, Kane said. Additionally the synagogue plans to hold a cooking class this fall for the public.

A synagogue farm can also foster a stronger sense of community beyond synagogue walls, said Rabbi Frederick Reeves of Chicago’s KAM Isaiah Israel.

The 'minyan' of chickens at Congregation Sons of Israel farm. (Courtesy)
The ‘minyan’ of chickens at Congregation Sons of Israel farm. (Courtesy)

“Another surprising part of it is that it is a strong draw for people who otherwise have no connection to or knowledge of Judaism. They come for the farm; they aren’t Jewish, and initially know nothing of Judaism,” Reeves said. “The values that are presented through the way that we run our farm, however, communicates Judaism and Jewish values so strongly that, while we haven’t gotten (nor are we looking to get) any converts out of it, the farm serves as an outreach tool to the larger community.”

Now in its ninth year, KAM’s farm operates on a slightly larger scale than CSI. Aside from the synagogue, it also uses lawns around the neighborhood to grow a bevy of crops including kale, tomatoes, mustard, eggplant, cucumbers, berries and wild onions.

Tomatoes ripening on the vine at Congregation Sons of Israel farm. (Courtesy)
Tomatoes ripening on the vine at Congregation Sons of Israel farm. (Courtesy)

Its farm aims to provide 5,000 pounds of produce through micro-farms and food forests. With partners it wants to plant between 30 and 40 fruit and nut trees through Chicago. KAM donates most of what it grows to one of five hot meal programs located within a mile-and-a-half radius.

‘We read in the Bible that all the Earth is God’s and that we are dependent on God for the bounty of the Earth’

“We read in the Bible that all the Earth is God’s and that we are dependent on God for the bounty of the Earth, and we live that directly in the synagogue each year. Even those who only come on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur have this experience because a harvest from the farm decorates the bima on both days,” said Reeves.

Reeves said since the farm started a number of synagogues across the country called asking for advice, especially after the synagogue received the 2011 Irving J. Fain Social Action Award presented by the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism.

In West Hartford, Connecticut, Beth El Temple grows lettuce, tomatoes, peppers and other produce to donate to food banks in the Greater Hartford area. Aside from synagogues, several JCCs and Jewish day schools have also started farms.

Back in Briarcliff Manor, Kane plucked a basil leaf from the herb garden and gently crushed it between his fingers.

“It smells like pesto,” he said.

Herbs grown at the Congregation Sons of Israel farm are utilized at synagogue meals and events. (Courtesy)
Herbs grown at the Congregation Sons of Israel farm are utilized at synagogue meals and events. (Courtesy)

Nearby emerald green jalapenos ripened next to forest green kale. Bees hummed over the Russian sage and bright red geraniums looked ready to grace the bimah on Shabbat.

It’s a peaceful place that CSI hopes will further bind congregants to the synagogue and Judaism, said Schulman, who takes care of the chickens and supervises the sale of produce.

“I see the farm through the eyes of an only son of Holocaust survivors who found themselves as accidental farmers in a new land. My father came from a family of Stoliner Hassidim and taught me Judaism as we worked together on our small family farm. The growth of every plant was a miracle, and tending to God’s creatures was a mitzvah,” said Schulman.

“For the members of CSI, I have seen those who have worked the land, seen their excitement as crops have grown, and their growing sense of community and connection,” he said.

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