Sam Epstein, 12, of Randolph bends down to observe the plants growing at Adath Shalom’s new mitzva garden. He checks the irrigation drip at the Parsippany synagogue, and tastes some mint while his father dusts off a leaf and his mother shows a visitor the bush beans starting to grow.
The garden, created ahead of Sam’s December 2014 bar mitzva, is a reality after months of planning and building and planting. It reflects Sam’s passion for farming and his formidable green thumb, as well as his communal spirit and entrepreneurial flair — not to mention plenty of encouragement from his assistants, Lisa and Sheldon Epstein, aka Mom and Dad, and his rabbi, Moshe Rudin.
In time, the garden will provide flowers for synagogue events and produce for the Dover Food Pantry. Eventually it will involve the whole community, from the religious school to the hesed committee and everyone in between. Volunteers are lining up to take care of the garden and will become its primary tenders in 2017 once Sam goes off to college.
In a pale yellow polo shirt and gold-rimmed glasses, Sam, a rising eighth-grader at Randolph Middle School, took a visitor on a tour of his garden, enclosed by a fence and located between the synagogue’s courtyard and playground. He rattles off organic gardening terms like “permaculture” and looks physically pained when someone calls the plantain leaves growing just beyond the garden’s fence “weeds.”
If “weed” implies useless growth, it certainly doesn’t apply to the plantain: “You can use the leaves to heal cuts, burns, mosquito bites, and scratches,” Sam explained.
Sam did not gain his gardening knowledge at home, but at Eden Village Camp in Putnam Valley, NY, which he attended last summer for the first time. At the Jewish farm camp, which was launched in 2010, kids learn the basics of organic farming and living, even picking their own food to nosh on, from berries to vegetables. As Sam put it, at the camp, “you’re never more than 20 feet from your next.”
Lisa acknowledged that “gardening at home consists of a couple of pots. Sam is totally changing us. He is introducing us to an organic lifestyle.”
The whole garden project started as a kind of entrepreneurial venture. Inspired by an herbology class at Eden Village, Sam launched a project to make and sell his own salves. He cooks up his healing plantain ointments in the family’s kitchen, packages it in small tins, and sells them for $10 each. He is already selling a second batch of 100 tins, and “we haven’t even really started to try to sell them,” he said.
Sam wanted to find a way to do something “meaningful” and “sustainable” with the money he is earning. According to Rudin, congregation leaders were almost immediately on board following Sam’s PowerPoint presentation on his plans for a mitzva garden.
“From the ground up, he created this idea,” said Rudin. “And frankly, most of us said, ‘How can we help?’”
Adath Shalom’s Green Team had already convinced the synagogue to adopt recycling, use energy-efficient lighting, and integrate energy topics into worship services and curricula. “The Green Team was wondering, What’s next?” said Rudin. “This is a whole quantum level more.”
The rocky landscape around the synagogue nearly scuttled the garden plans, until the idea emerged of planting in raised beds made of cedar wood.
From there, it was a short leap to the shape: seven boxes laid out to form a star of David, with the center box raised much higher than the others. Each box has its own set of plantings, based on the amount of sunlight it receives and, of course, on the principles of permaculture, which emphasizes maximizing relationships between people and plants and minimizing waste.
As Sam heads off to Eden Village Camp for eight weeks, his parents will oversee the garden, harvest its first fruits, and make the first donation to the Dover Food Pantry.