May All Who are Hungry Come and Eat:
Jewish Community Farming in the Face of Coronavirus

Photo courtesy Adamah

By the Jewish Community Farming Field Building Initiative & the Jewish Farmer Network

Last month, most Jews were forced to grapple with how to celebrate Passover in a time of quarantine and lockdown. Our seders became virtual and more intimate, but the seder itself remained unchanged, as it has for generations. And in each home, we raised our matzah and declared: “Let all who are hungry come and eat!

As we recount the ways this year was so unlike any other, in front of us lies another plain truth: More people were hungry this Passover than last year.

“Let all who are hungry come and eat” is just one of numerous examples in our tradition of calls to action around food insecurity and social justice. As we reflect on liberation at our seder tables, this line is a reminder of both how central food is to our collective Jewish identity and how hunger enslaves hundreds of millions of people around the world. It is an invitation to take direct action and weave those actions into our story of liberation and peoplehood. In a time of worldwide economic crisis, it is a siren.

Over the last decade, as so many of us have awoken to the dangers of a society increasingly disconnected from our food systems and land itself, a growing number of Jewish organizations have worked to reconnect us with the torah of agriculture. The budding field of Jewish Community Farming (JCF) uses farms and gardens as both outdoor experiential Jewish classrooms and vehicles to stimulate our community’s commitment to environmental stewardship and food justice. All of our farms integrate Jewish agricultural practices such as the mitzvah of pe’ah – leaving the corners of our fields for the poor and the stranger – by donating some or all of our produce to the food insecure in our community.

Like almost every other Jewish organization around the country, our facilities are now closed – no longer physical venues for community, education, and engagement. Like most, we face economic uncertainty and hardship. But our farms make our organizations dynamic and our communities resilient, allowing us to pivot our resources and staff time to meet the food needs of our communities in times of crisis. At Coastal Roots Farm, outside San Diego, their program delivering fresh produce to holocaust survivors has never been more critical. Urban Adamah in Berkeley has begun a similar delivery program. At Ekar Farm in Denver, Adamah in Connecticut and JCF farms across the country, the produce they funnel to their local food pantry partners has never been in more demand.

And our organizations are continuing to adapt and respond. Eden Village Camp, in New York state has increased production at their farm and pledged 100% of their production this season to local food pantries, despite the uncertainty of camp this summer. Abundance Farm in Massachusetts has created an initiative to help people grow food at home and share their harvests with others. And the Jewish Farmer Network’s community of Jewish production farmers are providing guidance and sharing equipment and resources to support beginning growers around North America.

Our organizations are just one part of an emerging response across the country. A Jewish seed farmer, Nathan Kleinman, put out the call in March to create “Cooperative Gardens.” In less than one week, over 1,500 people signed up to grow, share or give what they could. Multi-faith partnerships are mobilizing to transition more community land to community agriculture. Food pantries everywhere, many supported by our Jewish communities, are stretching to meet unprecedented need.

Much of our organizations’ food is being grown on land that had been taken for granted – the lawns and empty fields surrounding our legacy Jewish institutions. What’s more, these farms were not seeded by donors or master planning, but rather by Jewish social entrepreneurs who convinced Executive Directors and agency leaders to let them experiment. The result is hundreds of acres of regenerative and just food production across the country, at retreat centers, summer camps, synagogues, and day schools. In this time when those institutions are all now closed, farmers are still farming, food is being routed to our emergency response networks, and we continue to build community.

These side projects on unused lawns and soccer fields have blossomed into the vibrant field of Jewish Community Farming (JCF). JCF organizations – officially 15 of them – have engaged in a formal field building initiative over the past 4 years, and have become critical drivers of Jewish community building, engagement, and spirituality. According to a recently published report, for almost 40% of participants, a JCF organization is either the only Jewish thing or one of just a few Jewish things they do in their lives.

And those participants in particular report deeper connections to Jewish community and stronger Jewish identity because of their participation in JCF programs. Overall, 95% of participants in JCF programs are more inspired to be active in Jewish life.

For the leadership that took a risk, the benefits have been immense. In one study at Abundance Farm, a farm on a previously empty lot between a Jewish day school, synagogue, and food pantry, 69% of new day school families cited the farm as a major or deciding factor in choosing to enroll. At the synagogue, 52% of new member families said the farm influenced their decision to join. The study confirmed to the leadership what we already knew – our projects drive connection to Jewish life, teachings, and identity.

In this new moment in which our institutions are sitting vacant and we’re learning how to define community in new ways, it’s never been a better time to invite your local Jewish social entrepreneur to start a garden on your land. The benefits will be immediate and long lasting. Your organization will be stronger, more dynamic, and more resilient. And next year you can proclaim “Let all who are hungry come and eat”, with new meaning, and fresh produce.

Does your organization have land resources ready to be transformed? Can you contribute to building a more food secure world? In 2019, the JCF field published a “seed packet” to guide new Jewish community farming projects and initiatives. The seed packet and more resources for organizations and aspiring farmers are available on our website. We are here to help you get growing.

Andrew Ziv (Jewish Community Farming Field Building Initiative), Shani Mink (Jewish Farmer Network), Yoni Stadlin (Eden Village Camp), Becca Gan Levy (Milk and Honey Farm at the Boulder JCC), Risa Alyson Cooper (Shoresh), Shamu Sadeh (Adamah/Hazon), Casey Yurow (Eden Village West), Sarah Julia Seldin (Jewish Farmer Network), Trisha Margulies (Pushing the Envelope Farm), Yosef Gillers (GrowTorah), Sue Sallinger (Ekar Farm), Rabbi Bill Kaplan (Shalom Insitute’s Shemesh Farms), Nati Passow (Jewish Farm School), Javier Guerrero (Coastal Roots Farm), Rabbi Jacob Fine (Abundance Farm), Jakir Manela (Pearlstone Center), Adam Weisberg (Urban Adamah), Leora Mallach (Beantown Jewish Gardens), Brenden Jackson (Amir)