Helping Negev growers reach American tables

Helping Negev growers reach American tables

An eco-entrepreneur seeks a U.S. market for Israeli organics

Jeffrey Yoskowitz cultivates grapes grown by a former researcher at the Ramat Negev Desert AgroResearch Center.
Jeffrey Yoskowitz cultivates grapes grown by a former researcher at the Ramat Negev Desert AgroResearch Center.

Jewish activists like to talk about “ferment,” an all-purpose term meant to connote Jewish energies bubbling up in the arts, culture, and education.

Jeffrey Yoskowitz is one of the rare activists who can talk about “ferment” in all its senses. A student of organic agriculture, Yoskowitz has worked as a fermenter and pickler at the Adamah farm and retreat in the Berkshires. He’s even taught the skill to those who share his interest in combining sustainable, ecologically sound farming and eating with a distinctly Jewish environmental philosophy.

That’s the mission behind his latest venture, an effort to support small-scale farmers in Israel’s arid Negev region by selling their products directly to consumers in the United States.

A graduate of Solomon Schechter Day School of Essex and Union in West Orange and Brown University — and a former intern at New Jersey Jewish News — Yoskowitz, 25, is director of operations and marketing for Negev Nectars. The firm sells “shares” in small-scale Israeli operations producing organic olive oil, jams, and honey; in return, “shareholders” receive holiday shipments at pickup points in the metropolitan area or have them shipped directly to their homes (see sidebar).

“We’re very much a part of the ethos behind the so-called ‘new Jewish food movement’ and hoping to reach many folks who love to eat well and want to support organic agriculture,” said Yoskowitz, in an e-mail exchange. “However, we see our project as more…. We see it is an opportunity for deli eaters and kombucha drinkers alike to support small farms and businesses in Israel, and to eat delicious foods, some of which, like olive oil and honey, are staples of most homes.

“Many people use olive oil, and we think it should be organic and from Israel,” he said.

For the uninitiated, kombucha is a fermented tea, and the “new Jewish food movement” is a loosely organized effort — led by groups like Adamah, Hazon, and Magen Tzedek — to expand ideas of “Jewish” eating beyond traditional kashrut, matza balls, and gefilte fish.

‘Spirit and commitment’

As a student at Brown, Yoskowitz worked with the local JCC in Providence, RI, to create healthier and more “locally sourced menus.” He helped launch the Sacred Foods Initiative, and led an effort to import Israeli juice for Shabbat meals on campus.

Yoskowitz lived in Israel from 2007 to 2008 on a research fellowship funded by Brown, studying the political dimensions of the pork industry in the Jewish state.

“I lived and worked on a kibbutz in the Negev that was raising pigs and growing vegetables in the least sustainable of ways, wasting tons of water and using harmful chemicals and hormones for the animals, in the shadows of the largest man-made forest in Israel,” Yoskowitz said. “In the most basic of ways, my pork research showed me the dominant side of Israeli agriculture that was harmful to the land and the people working it. Ever since, when I’ve worked on organic farms, I’ve felt as if I’m still repenting from my two months in the industrial agriculture system.”

Negev Nectars works with a number of small-scale Israeli farmers, including a couple who grow desert herbs, a beekeeper who uses a traditional Ukrainian method that requires no chemicals or sprays, and an olive oil-maker whose well is said to have watered the 12 spies on their way to biblical Canaan.

Yoskowitz said he considers Israeli imports a “companion” to community supported agriculture or CSAs — co-ops that allow consumers to buy food directly from nearby farmers and producers.

“The CSA model is really about consumers supporting farmers by paying for food in advance and sharing the risk of the growing, helping the farmers make it through the year comfortably,” he said.

As for the carbon footprint of products shipped from Israel, Yoskowitz said most of his products can’t be grown or produced in the Northeast, his main market.

“Our partner farms are small-scale and very ecologically focused — we thus see our work as a lessening of the overall carbon footprint,” he said. “The ultimate goal to come out of this venture is to provide yet one more market for organic agriculture in Israel and a test ground for sustainable growing practices in the desert.”

Negev Nectars has signed up synagogues in the metropolitan area as pick-up points for the three-times-a-year shipments. The first NJ synagogue to sign on is Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair. Yoskowitz, who lives in Brooklyn, was born in Summit and grew up in Basking Ridge, where his parents still live.

“My connection to Israeli agriculture goes back to my family on Kibbutz Revivim in the Negev,” he recalled. “I remember visiting the kibbutz as a child and being fascinated with the differences in lifestyles between my family in New Jersey and my cousins in Israel.

“I was enchanted, I guess, by their spirit and commitment to working the land.”

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