Forward Thinking

Farming the Jewish Way

By Tanya Tolchin

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tanya tolchin

I recently joined more than 150 people at the Pearlstone Center near Baltimore for the 5th annual Beit Midrash to learn about the Jewish calendar and how it connects to sustainability and farming. The Beit Midrash has become an annual ritual for my family and we have watched it grow from an informal gathering of friends with potluck meals to a mature and multifaceted conference. The gathering now offers a rare glimpse of a Jewish community where people from so many varied backgrounds learn together. The eclectic group of participants included rabbis and rabbinical students, farmers and future farmers, babies and grandparents, Chabadniks, reconstructionists and post-denominational Jews of all kinds.

As a Jewish farmer living in a rural area of Maryland far from the nearest synagogue, this conference offers a respite from our day to day isolation from Jewish community. We return because it is one of the few places outside of Israel where our Jewish life and farming life join together so seamlessly. My husband and I run a small organic farm about 20 miles outside of Washington, D.C. where we grow vegetables, strawberries, herbs, and flowers that we sell through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project. We also run a small business called Israeli Harvest that sells products from organic farms in Israel to the Jewish community in the U.S.

Like most American Jews, we did not grow up farming and are part of a larger movement of new farmers working to build alternatives to conventional agriculture. At times, farming and Jewish life can feel like the perfect combination. At Passover, we gather our own parsley for the seder and our sukkah is always placed on the edge of our fields during harvest. But on the flip side, we miss being closer to Jewish community.

While it is easy to joke that being a Jewish farmer is an oxymoron, in fact Judaism is firmly rooted in agriculture. There is a strong history of Jewish farming in the U.S., Israel and around the world. The Pearlstone Center, which features an onsite farm complete with goats, chickens, vineyards and vegetable gardens, has become a national center for people interested in the intersection between farming and Jewish life. It is also part of a growing movement of organizations including Hazon, Adamah and the Jewish Farm School that are creating new Jewish farming programs.

This year’s conference, called “Sacred, Sustainable Rhythms of the Jewish Calendar” focused on questions like what does the Jewish calendar have to do with sustainability? What do Jewish teachings have to offer the movement to stop global climate change? How can we apply ancient Jewish agricultural laws to our lives today? The conference included a deep look at each month of the Jewish calendar including the agricultural activities. For example, the Jewish year comes into sharper focus when you consider that Pesach is the beginning of the grain harvest that continues through the counting of the omer until Shavuot. Each month is grounded in an agricultural context with historic events and religious practice adding additional dimensions.

Participants left the Beit Midrash inspired to bring all kinds of new ideas back to communities across the country. Jakir Manela, Executive Director of the Pearlstone Center said, “Our Beit Midrash is always a tremendous event filled with groundbreaking Jewish thought related to land, agriculture, and sustainability. And just as importantly, the event brings together a truly diverse set of participants who create a remarkable sense of Jewish unity throughout the weekend.”

Besides coming to next year’s event, there are many other ways to plug into the movement to reconnect Jewish life with agriculture. Right now, there is growing interest in understanding the practice of shmitta or abstaining from farming for one year out of every seven. The study of shmitta offers an amazing Jewish lens to study ecology, social justice, economics and farming. Several organizations are actively thinking and writing about the upcoming shmitta year which will begin on Rosh Hashana in 2014. You can get involved by joining Hazon’s Shmitta Network, or by coming to one of the upcoming events at Pearlstone.


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