By Maris Harmon
Questions that plague activists everywhere: How do we fight apathy? Where do people find the energy to do the work that propels change?
The Jewish Farm School (JFS), a West Philly nonprofit dedicated to teaching about urban farming and food justice issues, decided to pull that energy from spirituality, building from the community and values that come with sharing a storied culture.
Urban farming is a grassroots movement catching fire across the U.S. Ever stumble across a plot of land in the city that looks like it should be a parking lot but hosts clusters of kale instead of cars? That’s more than a garden. It’s a radical statement.
Americans want to take back their food system from industrial corporations that create tasteless, pesticide-coated replicas of produce and turn their land into miles of mono-cropped fields. And they are doing it by making small, local farms accessible again.
The Jewish Farm School is not a farm, not quite a school, and is not exclusive to Jews. What JFS offers is a welcoming space where the organization can coordinate food-justice related programming for its Philadelphia community, provided within a Jewish framework.
Co-founder and Executive Director Nati Passow explained that the goals of The Jewish Farm School are threefold. First, to teach practical skills for living more sustainably in the city. Second, to present the larger context as to why those types of skills are important in relation to our planet and the progress of social issues. And third, to work alongside urban farmers in the city.
Some of their programs include urban farm-centered alternative spring break trips for college students, a rotating schedule of volunteering for different Philly urban farms, and “shtetl” skill-building workshops.
But what does place does Judaism have in the food justice movement?
Passow shared that about 10 years ago, after participating in programming at a Jewish retreat center, he was inspired by the vibrant form of Judaism he found there that “prioritized nature, reclaiming the agricultural components of Judaism while bringing them into a modern context.”
Through a common understanding of Jewish spirituality, he found the power of bringing together community by drawing strength from some explicitly profound lessons in Jewish tradition. He harnessed the great potential in organizing people around shared stories.
Take, for example, the first few chapters of The Book of Genesis, when the story breaks down a design process that explains how the world was created in a resilient and self-perpetuating way, with all components working together in harmony. The role of humans in that story is to be caretakers of that creation.
A central Jewish tradition reflecting the values of environmental and social sustainability, Passow noted, is Shabbat — the day of rest from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
Many traditions build off this seven-day cycle of rest; every seven years in the Jewish calendar cycle is the Shmita year, when land is left fallow, debts are forgiven, and privately own land becomes public for a year. The goal here is to equalize resource distribution among the hungry and provide a “Shabbat” of sorts for the land to recover. Shmita offers another guide, through ritual, on how to nourish the earth and its people.
Passow explains, “By creating a Jewish framework for grassroots sustainability organizing, we’re able to leverage the power of Jews coming together around those issues. And that can be a powerful way to help engage people who might not otherwise be engaged.”
Part of their philosophy is that there is a deeply rooted spirit component to sustainability work; it’s not only about learning new skills but also about tapping into an ancient history of caring for the earth, and thereby each other.
A pure, altruistic concern for our earth and its people garners a fair amount of support from humans. But we know we need deeper ties to harness the passion required to bypass convenience for the long-term health of the earth and its people. Why spend hours in the dirt when there’s a supermarket two blocks down? To find these ties, The Jewish Farm School grounds their work in spirituality.