Cooking Up Something Big: The Jewish Food Education Network

by H. Glenn Rosenkrantz

This is about so much more than chicken noodle soup.

Religious school students at Temple Beth Haverim in Agoura Hills in southern California prepared some of this Jewish cultural and culinary staple in class recently. It was the tried-and-true Metz family recipe and Lev Metz, by the way, is director of education at the synagogue.

“They washed all the produce, and cut all the vegetables, and I skinned the chicken,” he said. “And because chicken soup, especially this recipe, is a such an iconic Jewish panacea, it gave us an opportunity to discuss Jewish values, like the obligation to visit and comfort the sick and less fortunate.”

Metz is one of nearly 40 members of the Jewish Food Education Network (JFEN), a vibrant and growing group of teachers, school directors and others from across denominational and educational settings who see food as a platform for meaningful and innovative Jewish education.

The network is an initiative of Hazon, the Jewish environmental organization, whose food education programs receive support from The Covenant Foundation. JFEN members – including eight food educators whose participation was sponsored by The Covenant Foundation – met formally for the first time last month, in a specially designed track of sessions before Hazon’s annual Food Conference here, on the Monterey Peninsula.

Still in its infancy, JFEN is envisioned as a national network of Jewish educators actively sharing ideas, perspectives, and curricula, and pushing food education, steeped in the language of Jewish values, to the forefront of educational approaches and dialogue within their institutions and communities.

“We want to establish the notion of Jewish food education as a discipline,” said Nigel Savage, executive director and founder of Hazon, citing its place alongside the Jewish environmental, family education and social justice movements.

“Food is an incredibly powerful issue. It connects to health, nutrition, and the land we live on and how we care for it, and the animals we live with. And it connects in a direct Jewish way – to Kashrut, to family, to justice, to ethics, to Israel, to holidays, and the agricultural and seasonal cycles. This is a most powerful, yet still nascent discipline.”

The inaugural group of JFEN members includes religious school directors, day school teachers, educational programmers at synagogues and community centers, adult education teachers and others. But common to all is a commitment to wed food education to Jewish precepts, and to push it onto the communal table.

For educators like Metz, this means taking a less ad hoc approach, and incorporating his chicken soup activity into something larger and more encompassing.

“I can plan and develop a few fairly good programs on my own,” said Metz, between sessions at the educators’ track. “But I know I’m missing the whole, and so it is very valuable for me to meet with other educators doing similar things to what I’m doing, and to what I want to do, and have the opportunity to share experiences. But the most useful thing is identifying activities and approaches that can strengthen the connection between what we eat, where it came from, and Jewish text and values.”

For Rachel Wilson, a chef who teaches cooking classes to kindergarteners through sixth graders at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, CA, a strong Jewish context is essential, but often missing due to her own lack of expertise, resources and support. JFEN can help her overcome that, she said.

“Our synagogue is very socially active,” said Wilson. “We are green, we are solar, we have a recycle program and we are dedicated to social justice. But on the food side, I am the only one there that relates to or can give voice to that perspective. By being here, and being active in this new network of educators, I can learn the vocabulary, and the underpinnings of text, and relate it all in a more Jewishly meaningful way to students, and also hopefully move it to the family side.”

JFEN is the logical outcome of a gradual, yet deliberate effort by Hazon to move Jewish food education to a respected and critical place on the Jewish educational landscape.

In 2006, Hazon spearheaded development of Min Ha’Aretz, a groundbreaking interdisciplinary curriculum combining experiential learning with the study of Jewish texts and such topics as food justice, health, nutrition, the environment and recycling. The following year, the group published Food for Thought, a sourcebook examining Jews, food and contemporary life. The Covenant Foundation was a sponsor of both.

The JFEN track was led by Mick Fine, an educator involved in the development and implementation of the Min Ha’Aretz curriculum and a rabbinical student at Jewish Theological Seminary, and Oren Massey, Executive Director of the Center for Jewish Living and Learning at the Jewish Community Federation of the Greater East Bay.

The two-day JFEN event introduced educators to the Min Ha’Aretz curriculum, and a Jewish agricultural education curriculum created by Kayam Farm at the Pearlstone Center, near Baltimore. But mostly, participants said, JFEN’s inaugural conclave infused them with ideas, new professional relationships, a network, and a feeling of empowerment to push Jewish food education forward.

“It’s sometimes a struggle to make what we are teaching meaningful in life,” said Yael Bridge, who teaches grades 7 to 12 in the religious school at Congregation Neve Shalom in Portland, OR. “But not only is this within my comfort zone, but I’m going home feeling very connected and very excited about possibilities.”

To keep JFEN alive, growing and thriving, organizers asked participants to return to their communities, identify other advocates for Jewish food education, and to seek interest and funding for the emerging discipline.

“You are pioneers in your communities,” Savage told JFEN members. “We must grow and strengthen Jewish food education and convince others of its immense value.”

Vicky Kelman, former Director of the Jewish Family Education Project at the Bureau of Jewish Education in San Francisco, and a 2003 Covenant Award recipient for her pioneering efforts in Jewish family education, predicted that the movement would grow and flourish, much as the discipline of Jewish family education did.

“I feel really positive about the energy and engagement here,” said Kelman, who presented a session on the centrality of family mealtime in Jewish culture and consciousness. “There is tremendous commitment and passion around JFEN and Jewish food education.

“The discipline of Jewish family education started the same way, with a few people in different corners of the country and someone with the vision and access to funds to bring us together, and it revolutionized the face of what is considered a good Jewish education. And it became known as a ‘field.’ I see similarities here, but local funding by local institutions will be critical.”

Officials and participants are optimistic that Jewish food education, driven by JFEN, will flourish.

“In this age, it’s just right and appropriate to be exploring the nexus of environmental sustainability and food and social justice and Jewish tradition and education,” said Metz. “By focusing on food – the cultural aspects of it, the religious connection to it, and the environmental tie to it – we can use very hands on and enjoyable material to make Jewish education come alive.”

Savage agreed that the time is right for Jewish food education to take root and grow.

“This is the beginning of something serious,” Savage said. “It just makes sense. People are looking for ways to reinvigorate family education, to engage teens, to interest twenty-somethings, to fire up people already involved in Jewish institutions, and to bring new people in. Everyone relates to food, so Jewish food education potentially does all of these things, and arguably more.

“This is a big deal. And the fact that the Covenant Foundation is interested in this is a significant signal for the beginnings of this field.”

For more information about the Jewish Food Education Network, visit the Hazon Website.

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  1. As we work to advance education around food issues throughout the Jewish community, the Union for Reform Judaism has partnered with Hazon on a series of projects around sustainable, ethical eating, including a special Food for Thought curriculum designed for the North American Reform Movement. We hope everyone will find use for this (free!) curriculum and the other resources available at http://www.urj.org/food as part of our Green Table, Just Table initiative, and let us know if you have questions or ideas!

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