“You know tomatoes are ready when they easily pop right off at the stem,” announces Marybeth Lybrand, the Master Gardener at the Peninsula Jewish Community Center’s Gan Tzedek, or Justice Garden. “If you have to really tug to on the tomato, leave it on the vine because it needs more time to grow”, she says to a group of young children and their parents on a Sunday afternoon Garden Service Day.
Having never before seen a purple tomato and uttering “It’s so purple!” more than once, I was urged to try one. I pulled lightly at the stem of one with dark purple, almost black skin. Deep in color all the way through, it had an intensely sweet, smoky flavor.
The freshly harvested purple, red, and “green zebra” tomatoes, baby eggplants, strawberries, and cilantro were among this week’s yield to be donated to the Innvision Shelter Network, a nearby non-profit helping homeless families return to permanent housing and self-sufficiency. “We aren’t donating leftover or surplus food to Innvision, but rather growing fresh produce with love and intention,” says Stephanie Levin, Director of Programs at the PJCC.
The Grow Justice: Fight Hunger program at the PJCC is far more than 6 raised beds and a hot house. The Justice Garden represents Jewish values of tzedek, or righteousness, and tikkun olam, commonly translated as “repairing the world”, brought to life in an interactive, “literally hands on way” as Scott, a parent of two teenage girls and long-time member of the PJCC remarked. “Our kids aren’t really interested in the academic side of Judaism. Participating in the garden is an easy, accessible way to connect Jewishly. Plus, our kids find it fun, which is all we needed to hear!”
Other parents I spoke to mirrored Scott’s enthusiasm. Becca said, “We came today because the program is fabulous and we wanted to get our hands dirty. We’re an interfaith family and we feel welcome here.” Her son added, “I feel good when I help people,” as he reached into the thick leaves of a raised bed and emerged with a small baby eggplant, no bigger than his hand.
The garden is located in the very center of the PJCC property in the Hamlin Garden Courtyard. With generous funding from the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund and in partnership with Kevah, what used to be an underutilized space is now a living, edible landscape that engages intergenerational community members - preschool children to seniors - in social action, learning activities, educational workshops, and gardening instruction.
Patrina and Warren brought their four-year old son Micah to the garden. “We were looking for something we could all do as a family that gives back to the community. This was the perfect combination,” said Patrina. Micah delicately placed tiny seeds of cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli into separate compostable pots and watered them with care. In a quiet voice he shared why he came to help: “To grow good food for people who don’t have money to buy it.”
The High Holy Days in particular are a time where Jewish people rally in the fight against hunger. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, synagogues across the world collect canned goods and funds for local food banks. Through our fast we shock ourselves out of normal routines in effort to experience suffering. When we get hungry, light-headed, tired – we try to imagine how challenging life is for the one-in-five Bay Area residents who feel the deep ache of hunger all the time. Our eyes blink open and the thought is fleeting. We have our break-fast, and millions don’t.
In the Yom Kippur haftarah, Isaiah promises that those who reach out to help others will themselves be sustained and filled. The Justice Garden represents a commitment to do more than a High Holy Day Food Drive, or bagging lunches. As Stephanie Levin puts it: “We’re building community around food justice. We’re building awareness about hunger. We’re contributing fresh food to families in San Mateo. We’ve made a long term commitment and it will only continue to grow.”
The next Garden Service Day at the PJCC is Sunday September 29th. Looking for ways to get involved in food justice in the Bay Area? Download Hazon’s Food Justice Brochure.
Alli is Hazon’s Bay Area Food Justice Program Associate.