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Activism Takes Tu B'Shevat to New Levels

February 5, 2009 By:
Aaron Passman, JE Feature
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Juliana Gildener-Leapman assisted the Jewish Farm School back in June. Photo courtesy of the Jewish Farm School
The Tu B'Shevat seder Elaine Cohen oversees at her synagogue is a tradition that goes back nearly 20 years. Between 15 and 30 people attend the annual event, and this year's meal, like others, will feature the traditional four cups of wine, as well as emphasize nuts and fruit -- products of the trees the meal celebrates.

Seders like these -- once small, unremarkable events -- have become an increasingly popular way of marking the holiday, and are now a fixture on many synagogue calendars. While they're modeled after the Passover seder, there is one distinct difference, noted Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia.

"It's the only sacred meal we have that doesn't require the death of any living creature," explained the rabbi. "Even the Pesach seder, because it requires the bitter herb, requires that you yank up a radish and kill it."

That reverence for the earth is at the core of the movement that's become known as eco-kashrut, a concept that Waskow helped pioneer in the 1970s, and is based on the idea of treating the earth, food and animals as living things deserving of utmost respect. That means being not only mindful of Jewish dietary standards, but making sure that foods are produced in a way that does the least harm to the soil and the animals from which they come.

"There's a sacred relationship between the earth and human beings," noted Waskow. "The reason for [eco-kashrut's] focus on food is because, for hundreds of years, the crucial relationship between the earth and human beings was food. But since the industrial revolution, that relationship includes not only food but coal, oil, what we use to make plastics, carbon dioxide and oxygen in the atmosphere."

Part of the rise in interest of Tu B' Shevat seders, according to Cohen, lies in the increased awareness of issues related to sustainability, global warming and the environment.

"We felt that in order to get the environmental sustainability messages across, you need things like music and seders and rituals," she noted.

Seders With Organic Roots

Cohen -- who also runs the Sustainable Action Society, a nonprofit group based in Upper Darby -- hosts the seder for Suburban Jewish Community Center-B'nai Aaron. That's just one of a number of local synagogues holding similar events, many of which feature locally produced, kosher, fair-trade and organic foodstuffs.

In addition to these seders, another way that the local Jewish world is connecting to eco-kashrut values is through community-supported agriculture -- or CSAs -- which make locally grown produce available to community members. This will be the third year that Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park has hosted Tuv Ha'Aretz, which makes fresh produce from Lancaster Farm Fresh available each week to members.

The program -- created by Hazon, a national Jewish nonprofit promoting sustainable environmental practices -- is entering its fourth season, with more than 30 cities participating in it. Kol Ami's 25-week season begins in mid-May, and brings eight to 10 different seasonal items of organic produce from Amish and Mennonite fields to Jewish kitchens in the area.

"This has been an educational process for many of us," replied Mark Kaplan, co-chair of Kol Ami's Tuv Ha'Aretz program.

"The initial motivation was to connect more directly with the source of our food and to support local, organic sustainable farming," he said. "But I think we're becoming more aware of issues in general about our industrial food system -- both the industrial meat issue and, of course, controversies about kosher-meat production."

Members of Kol Ami's program pay $26 per week up front to provide the farmers with a funding base from which to work, explained Kaplan.

He also pointed out that while this keeps the money in the local community, larger issues revolve around the notion of tikkun olam.

"We're becoming more interested and aware of food social-justice issues -- access and hunger in our society that needs to be addressed," said Kaplan of the congregation. "I think there's a movement to be more involved in advocacy and affect changes in what we see in the food system, and to affect the policy."

While Tuv Ha'Aretz will expand this year to include Adath Israel in Merion Station and Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, N.J., other synagogues have their own similar programs, including a fair-trade coffee co-op at Temple Brith Achim in King of Prussia.

But fair-trade kosher organic doesn't sound like the kind of thing that comes cheap.

And since co-ops and CSAs often require fees for membership, how does food choice play out in a recession?

"In the short-term, at the checkout line, it does cost a bit more," said Nati Passow, director and co-founder of Philadelphia's Jewish Farm School. "But in the bigger picture, it can actually be more viable. By supporting local farmers, you're also supporting a local economy, which in turn puts money into your local economy and strengthens it."

He added: "It's a question of priorities. It might mean cutting out going to the movies as often or going out to eat as much, but we can still afford it. We've found ways to pay for all sorts of expenses we never used to have -- the Internet, for example -- and I think we can do the same thing with our food choices."

Cheltenham Township will have more such choices when Creekside Co-op opens late this year in the building that once housed Ashbourne Market -- formerly a staple of the Elkins Park community. Similar to the popular Weaver's Way co-ops in the area, Creekside will offer members discounts on locally grown foods, as well as feature other standard grocery products, but from sustainable sources.

While the market itself isn't Jewish, per se, there will be kosher products available because Elkins Park is still a heavily Jewish community, said chairperson Scott Laughlin.

Making kosher products available was "high on our agenda," he said, adding that "we knew that was a requirement of the community."

Another group working to promote eco-justice is the Jewish Farm School, which was founded in 2005 through a grant from the national group Hazon.

The school runs urban-sustainability programs, and offers courses on organic agriculture and gardening. It also sponsors alternative semester-break trips for college students.

"We take college students to a farm for a week, work on the farm, get their hands really dirty, and spend evenings talking about the bigger picture of sustainable agriculture, eco-justice, kashrut, eco-kosher and what Judaism has to say about these important issues," said Passow.

For now, the Jewish Farm School has neither their own farm nor an actual school, but associate director Simcha Schwartz is planning to move this spring to Eden Village, a Jewish summer camp in New York focused on sustainability, eco-justice and spiritual development. Passow said that the farm school will feed the campers and have a presence there throughout the summer, as well as utilize the campgrounds throughout the rest of the year as an auxiliary site for projects.

Elaine Cohen noted that emphasizing food and earthy issues has made huge strides of late. "This is the kind of stuff that's just so different from the way things were 20-something years ago. I'm very encouraged that people who think about it are willing to spend more and shop better to have healthier food and tread lightly on the earth."

Ways to Go Green, Locally and Nationally

Among the eco-kashrut initiatives in Greater Philadelphia are:

· The Jewish Farm School, which connects sustainable farming practices to Jewish values: 215-609-4680 or log on to: www.jewishfarmschool.org

· Tuv Ha'Aretz, a community-supported agriculture program sponsored by Hazon, which brings locally grown produce to synagogues in the area: Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park (215-635-3110); Adath Israel in Merion Station (610-934-1919); Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, N.J. (856-751-6663)

· The Shalom Center, a group focused on sustainability, eco-justice and Judaism, led by eco-kashrut pioneer Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 215-844-8494

· Fair Trade Coffee Co-Op at Temple Brith Achim in King of Prussia, 610-337-2222

· The Sustainable Action Society Project, a local nonprofit that since 1990 has hosted area conferences on that topic: saspinc.org

· Major national Jewish environmental groups like Hazon (www.hazon.org), and the Coalition for the Environment and Jewish Life (www.coejl.org), also occasionally hold events in the area.

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