As snow blanketed the ground outside, 10 environmentalists meeting in West Philadelphia were already thinking of springtime — and the farming they would do.
They had traveled here from all around the country just a few weeks before Tu B’Shevat to participate in a four-day training on how to lead alternative spring break trips that mix Jewish ideas with farming and food justice.
The nonprofit Jewish Farm School has been sponsoring these trips for the past six years, but this was the first time the leadership training was hosted here. Over the past year, the organization has shifted its emphasis from Eden Village Camp, a farm and environment-focused Jewish summer program in upstate New York, to urban farming in West Philadelphia.
Nati Passow, co-founder of the farm school, has spent much of that time teaching classes and reaching out to local organizations with the goal of building community-wide support behind the Jewish environmental movement. Next up, the school is planning a “sustainable seder” on the eve of Tu B’Shevat, Jan. 15, at The Cedar Works in West Philadelphia.
While the holiday focuses on trees, it’s also “an opportunity for us to stop, assess where we’re at in our relationship to the planet and kind of set an intention and a direction for the year,” Passow said. “Just like environmentalists will say, ‘Earth Day is every day,’ Jewish environmentalists will say the same thing about Tu B’Shevat. It doesn’t have to be this one day of the year that we focus on environmental issues.”
Passow is helping that mentality spread through Philadelphia’s Jewish community. He recently started managing local programs for Hazon, a Jewish environmental organization that hosted a food festival in October at Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Center City. And while he currently works out of a home office, he dreams of opening a separate space for the farm school where he could teach classes and provide housing for a residential internship program centered on urban agriculture.
He’s basing his investment in Philadelphia on his belief that the city’s Jewish community has great potential for environmental activism. He credits the Reconstructionist movement, which is based at its rabbinical college in Wyncote, and Rabbi Arthur Waskow, an early environmentalist and founder of the Shalom Center, with playing important roles. Still, he said, there’s a long way to go in building Jewish interest in environmentalism.
“Philadelphia is a city that, from a secular perspective, has a lot going on. There’s a great bike community, a great food community. There’s a lot of urban farms and gardens,” Passow said. But “the young Jewish population in the city is maybe less drawn to the environmental movement” than it is in other cities such as New York and San Francisco that are more likely to attract Jewish college graduates interested in the field, he said.
Leaders of the farm school’s spring break trip traveled from as far as California and Louisiana for the recent training at the Ahimsa House, a Buddhist center across the street from Passow’s home office in West Philadelphia. From the potential benefits of genetically engineered crops to Jewish ideas on food justice, they covered a wide range of topics related to sustainable farming.
Ari Witkin, a returning trip leader from Baltimore, said he gets as much out of leading the trips as the college student participants. But he said the trips — to the Pearlstone Center, a Jewish farm and retreat center near Baltimore, and to New Orleans and Philadelphia — also benefit the wider community. Over the week, participants visit urban and rural farms; learn planting, harvesting and other farming skills; and engage in discussions over topics such as Jewish agricultural laws.
“I don’t know if in one week we can assume that we’re going to create fully educated scholars, but hopefully we can help move people along their journey towards self-actualization around food consumption and food production,” said Witkin.
After going over the curriculum for the trips, the educators moved on to plan their Shabbat dinner, which they opened to the community in West Philadelphia. As they talked, Sara Glassman of Vine Dining, a company that offers plant-based catering and cooking classes, stood in the background, chopping vegetables for a vegan cholent.
Ellie Brown, who grew up in West Chester and will lead students from Brandeis Collegiate Institute and University of Massachusetts, Amherst through volunteer projects in Philly, said a 2009 farm school trip is where her interest in the Jewish environmental movement started.
“All of a sudden I was around cool, funky, hippie-type Jews and it made my secular interests intersect with my Jewish interests,” said Brown, who now attends graduate school in Baltimore and works for a Jewish young professionals social program.
“I had always felt really insecure about being excited about Judaism. It just wasn’t as cool as some of the other things I was involved in growing up, so participating in programs like this, I really saw a marriage between all my interests.”