By Nati Passow
In nature, “pioneer species” thrive in recently disturbed environments, like the dandelions that rapidly set up in disturbed vacant land in the city. They take root when others can’t, able to navigate the less-than-hospitable environment. The irony of pioneers species is that they often reshape the conditions in ways that allow for others to settle and outcompete them. One of their roles is to lay the groundwork and then step back when others move in.
This is an apt metaphor for the closing of the Jewish Farm School after more than a decade of work, and the now-flourishing field of Jewish Community Farming (JCF). In the spring of 2019, I made the difficult but ultimately right decision to step down as the Executive Director of Jewish Farm School. After 14 years of leadership and innovation, I was ready to put my professional energy into a different vessel.
The story of Jewish Farm School, our decision to close, and the process through which we decided to sunset contains invaluable lessons not just for the Jewish community farming field, but for many other areas of Jewish organizational life.
The story of the Jewish Community Farming field
When Jewish Farm School launched in 2005 through the vision and creativity of several alumni from the Adamah Fellowship and the Teva Learning Center, the idea of Jewish farm-based education was on the margins of the organized Jewish community. Today, that story has changed, as there are over 20 significant Jewish community farming organizations reaching tens of thousands of participants each year. There are hundreds of Jewish educational gardens at schools, camps, and synagogues around the country. Major foundations have invested significant resources into the field, and the excitement around these programs is shared at mainstream Jewish conferences and gatherings throughout the year.
Thriving ecosystems are dynamic and ever-evolving. Species play different roles yet are interconnected, co-creating vibrant life. Jewish Farm School was one of the pioneer species of the emerging JCF landscape, helping to build fertile ground so that other projects could take root.
- Our early curriculum was taught annually at the Teva Seminar, reaching hundreds of Jewish educators over the course of nine years.
- Our farm-based alternative break trips served as a powerful entry point into the Jewish environmental movement for hundreds of college students and dozens of group leaders.
- Our four years of partnership with Eden Village helped establish and strengthen the country’s first Jewish organic farm camp.
- Since 2013, we have focused on local urban sustainability and food justice programming in Philadelphia, and have developed a range of innovative programs and events that bridge the local Jewish and urban farming communities.
- Finally, through a nationally-funded field building initiative for 15 Jewish farming organizations, JFS has been leading crucial field-wide work.
Our efforts and leadership over the years have had a profound impact on both JFS participants and the broader movement.
Jewish Farm School’s Sunsetting
Once I had decided to step down, and also understood that we lacked the organizational capacity to hire a successor, I wanted to make sure we sunsetted in ways that could benefit other Jewish farm and garden projects. In nature, the nutrients in an ecosystem cycle through an infinite number of vessels, and the death of one organism can lead to the growth of another. I felt inspired to mimic these natural patterns, and find ways to seed our work and the wisdom we had accumulated in the wider field.
With this in mind, and with the gracious and encouraging support of several local and national funders, we spent our final six months compiling a large collection of curriculum and educational materials for participants of all ages and we’ve curated a “Seed Packet” of additional tools and resources for new and emerging Jewish farm and garden projects. I found it refreshing to hear from funder after funder how much they believed in the process we were articulating and ultimately executed.
Looking to nature as the mentor, we learned from the seed dispersal techniques of plants such as dandelions, that these resources should be shared and disseminated broadly. Therefore we have made all of these materials available at no cost utilizing the Creative Commons standards that allow for people to remix and adapt, and then share them with the same license.
Larger lessons for the field
Our experience over the years holds valuable lessons for both the leaders and the funders of the wider field of Jewish social entrepreneurship. Organizations close for many different reasons, and some remain open even when closing may be the right move.
For Jewish Farm School, there were two driving forces that led us to make this decision. The first was financial. We had been operating on a shoestring budget for several years, leaving us stretched thin and unable to build the infrastructure needed in order to propel growth. This story is not unique, and it is clear that the Jewish funding world has begun to put more resources into second stage organizations. Unfortunately, after decades of supporting the creation of new initiatives, the field may be oversaturated beyond capacity. Additional resources could be dedicated to exploring more efficient operating models among these new projects, perhaps ones in which innovation can be housed within more established organizations.
The second force was personal – I was ready to move on and we were lacking the financial security to bring on a replacement. It took a while for me to come to this decision, in large part because I knew that the state of the organization would make it difficult to continue operating after my departure. I don’t say that from a place of pride at my essential role within the organization. In fact, I see this as one of my failings as an Executive Director – my inability to build a robust enough organization that could thrive beyond the time of its founders. What helped me turn this corner was the ability to see our closing less as a failure and more as an opportunity to seed future growth. I believe this is one way that organizations in similar positions could shut down with grace, integrity, and in further service of their missions.
For some organizations, closing isn’t necessarily the best option. The dynamics of a founder-led organization can be tricky, and I think there is a real need to invest in succession planning much earlier on in the lifespan of an organization that is experiencing initial success and growth. This could include working with board members to take greater ownership of the long term viability of the organization, or sharing templates and examples of plans from more established projects. This would not only benefit organizations that have momentum but need to navigate a leadership transition; it would also serve the founders of the organizations themselves, as they may feel more liberated to move on when ready if they know their projects can continue without them.
Many nonprofits casually say that their mission is to put themselves out of business, as in they’ve solved the problems they seek to address. And yet, very few organizations operate in this manner. Ecosystems thrive when different elements play their unique roles, and gracefully transition out when the conditions force it. When the time comes for the structures to change, this does not necessarily indicate a problem, but rather a natural evolution.
As we observe the natural cycles of the forest, the desert, and the wilderness, we see that death feeds new life, and that the nutrients of one being become the nutrients of another. May we have the collective courage to integrate this wisdom into our organizations.
Nati Passow is the co-founder of Jewish Farm School. He lives in West Philadelphia with his partner Rachel and their two kids, Zamir and Niso.
This piece was written as part of an UpStart initiative, Speaking to Funders and the Field.