By Maayan Jaffe
According to Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13, when God created the first human, God led him around all the trees in the Garden of Eden. God said to man, “See My works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. Everything I have created has been created for your sake. Be mindful not to corrupt or destroy My world; for if you corrupt it, there will be no one to repair it after you.”
From the creation of the physical world in the first book of the Torah until today, the mitzvah of l’ovdah u’l’shomrah, protecting the environment has long been a tenet of Judaism. Jewish thinkers throughout the ages have offered us a framework for how we should interact with the world around us.
Today, l’ovdah u’l’shomrah is playing out in what might be a rather unlikely location: Overland Park, Kan.
Mitzvah Garden KC started more than a decade ago as a 600-square-feet plot of land adjacent to Village Shalom community retirement center. Now, a 19,000-square-foot fully sustainable community garden adjacent to one of the community’s largest synagogues – the Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah – it is bringing the community together and feeding the hungry.
“The old adage that how the world is moved is by a group of passionate people is the foundation of our garden,” says co-founder Andrew Kaplan. “People take that passion and translate it to hard work, energy, commitment, to sweating, turning a shovel, picking a tomato because they know where the harvest is going … to one of five or six local food pantries.”
“The whole space is creating something from nothing. It is a miracle,” says volunteer Gay Hendler.
Compost. Pollination. Water. Power.
The Mitzvah Garden produces 10,000 pounds of produce per year, all of which is delivered free of charge to Jewish Family Services and other area pantries, feeding upwards of 1,000 individuals per year.
The Mitzvah Garden captures its own water in large metal/mesh totes that sit on top of its barn. One inch of rain is equivalent to 1,000 gallons of captured water. It uses solar panels to generate electricity. Leaves donated by an area landscaper and elephant manure donated by the local zoo suppress the weeds and retain moisture. A team of 60,000 bees pollinate the garden.
“We have 60,000 full-time employees, working 24/6,” Kaplan quips, though the garden is actually entirely volunteer run.
Gardeners planted all seven holy species: wheat, barley, grapes, dates, figs and pomegranates. There are also etrogim. Co-founder Ken Sonnenschein explains that while Kansas weather is not conducive to all of these species, to help them survive, citrus and other more fragile trees are brought indoors and cared for by B’nai Jehudah preschool students during the winter.
Between 200 and 400 people give of their time each year. It is funded entirely by donations, including a majority of grant from J-LEAD (Jewish Leadership, Education, Action and Development), a program dedicated to encouraging young Jewish adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s to engage in meaningful philanthropy.
Daily harvests are delivered directly to those in need.
“This is crowd-funding in action,” Kaplan says.
“It is a coming together,” says Hendler. “It is that unique combination of physical work and sacred space” that is earth-shattering.
“How often do you see Orthodox, Conservative, Reform come together? Not often,” says Kaplan. Sonnenschein adds many unaffiliated individuals come to work the garden, too.
There are also volunteers of all ages, ranging from babies in their mother’s arms to seniors. Families with young children are hosting birthday parties there.
Britta Horowitz, 78, works the herb garden at Village Shalom and used to volunteer regularly at the larger Mitzvah Garden. She says she likes the “instant gratification” of weeding.
“It looks awful when you get there and beautiful when you leave,” she says.
Summer intern Rachel Beren, 19, says she prefers getting her hands dirty to a 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. role at another nonprofit.
“Once a week, I show up at Grandview Assisted Living and Independent Living with a trunk full of peppers and cucumbers and give it to them. It is so special,” she says.
The non-Jewish community has gotten involved, too. The Mitzvah Garden has been highlighted in a number of local publications and it received a sustainability grant from Kansas City Power & Light.
“We are literally a light unto the nations,” says Sonnenschein with a smile.
Kaplan says he thinks the Mitzvah Garden should serve as encouragement for other small Jewish communities looking to engage its members. He believes that the traditional Federation fundraising model of an intangible annual campaign is transitioning to more of a donor-advised model, where philanthropists can see where their money is going.
“They can see the bees,” says Kaplan. “The best calling card is a honey bear full of honey from our hives.”
“The garden is passion,” says co-founder Larry Lehman. “Once people visit the garden, they cannot help but have a passion for learning more, for volunteering with a group, for going along with the mission.”