Broccoli, carrots, celery, and zucchini are emerging from the earth in a small open space on the grounds of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, mostly within a garden box measuring four feet by eight feet. A team of volunteers recently harvested 38 heads of lettuce and donated them to the food pantry located at nearby Holy Trinity Church.
The garden — initiated after assistant Rabbi Erin Glazer delivered a sermon about hunger at a High Holy Day service — sits right in the middle of the synagogue, in a glassed-in courtyard.
“One of our core tenets at Temple Emanu-El is social justice, so it made sense that this effort start in the center of our building,” said John Delesio-Blumenreich, one of the co-captains of the initiative. “You cannot attend any type of service without passing a wall of glass looking at the garden…. So it really does promote a conversation about why we are doing this.”
Across the region, synagogues are taking unused or under-used space and creating simple gardens to grow fresh vegetables, with the harvest destined to help those in need.
Last year at Temple Shalom in Succasunna, for example, the synagogue transformed a little-used sandbox into a “mitzva garden.”
“We purchased organic soil and some plants, and they were in the ground before the end of June,” said synagogue’s social action committee chair, Barbara Burck. “We had a wonderful crop of tomatoes, cucumbers, and zucchini.”
The yield from the Temple Shalom garden is delivered twice a week in season to the Roxbury Food Pantry, which the synagogue had already been supporting for years in other ways. This year, due to a stretch of warmer than usual weather, they expect to start soon to deliver the fresh produce.
Most synagogues have been able to create the gardens for under a few hundred dollars, with the help of plenty of donated goods and services. Some are planted directly into the ground. Others, like the one at Emanu-El, are in stand-alone boxes and planters.
Cultivating the gardens brings different members of the community together to take part not only in the mitzva of beautifying synagogue grounds, but to perform acts of tzedaka, harvesting food for people in need.
On May 6, 65 Congregation Beth El members, from preschoolers through empty-nesters, came to the South Orange synagogue to plant a garden of both vegetables — to be donated to the Interfaith Food Pantry of the Oranges — and flowers — to make Shabbat arrangements and create bouquets for congregants who are sick or in need of cheering up.
Among those who got their hands dirty were preschooler Levi Hoffman and his father, Allan.
“Levi has been talking about the garden a lot — he really liked participating. And he’s been talking a lot about the idea of giving food to people who need it,” said Hoffman. “We’re planting a garden at our house too, and he often mentions how he wants to give the food to ‘people who don’t have much.’”
For Lag Ba’Omer, students at B’nai Shalom in West Orange planted their first garden with wheat, herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, and corn in a 20-foot-square gated area on the synagogue grounds. The vegetables will be donated to the Holy Trinity Food Pantry of West Orange, the herbs will be used to fill Havdala spice boxes, the parsley will be used for seder plates next spring, and the stalks from the corn will be used as roofing material for Sukkot booths.
The B’nai Shalom initiative grew out of another project, explained Lily Ann Nossen, nine, of Livingston. “Students were given $100 at the grocery store to purchase enough food for a family of four for one week. That meant they couldn’t get fresh meat and fresh fruits and vegetables. So they had the idea that maybe we could grow them this year, and give them to a food bank, so one day a week they could have fresh fruit,” she said.
Another benefit from the garden is that the planting was fun and easy. Max Kaufman, 10, of West Orange, who had never planted anything before, said, “We dug and then we took wheat seeds and threw them in. It was cool.”
For the food banks, the impact cannot be overstated. As the economy has worsened and the numbers of people in need have risen, the food bank stores have diminished, and fresh produce is all but nonexistent.
“We welcome any sort of assistance — especially in the area of fresh-grown fruits and vegetables — that any group or religious organization would like to offer,” said Alice Hoffman of the West Orange Food Pantry, located at Holy Trinity Church. “No other organizations are currently growing fresh fruit or vegetables for the pantry,” she said.
The local gardens have all begun in the last year or two, along with similar efforts around the country. They join a larger movement, led by groups like Hazon, Uri L’Tzedek, Mazon, and JCC Grows, to bring Jewish values and “food justice” to a new level.
A pioneer in the movement was the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut, which trained a generation of Jewish farmers and farming educators. It continues with offshoots like Urban Adama in California, Kayam in Maryland, and the Jewish Farm School at Camp Eden Village in New York.
Rena Casser, the education director at B’nai Shalom, said that gardening projects move students further up the “ladder” of tzedaka.
“Buying canned food to donate is one thing,” she said. “But doing something, creating something, and then giving that creation to someone you don’t know — everyone feels better!”