In its first year, the community garden on Westfield Avenue in Elizabeth yielded around 800 pounds of fruits and vegetables; this summer its gardeners expect to harvest twice as much.
Planted last year outside the Elizabeth headquarters of Jewish Family Service of Central NJ, the garden provides fresh produce for its Kosher Food Pantry and Meals-on-Wheels clients, and gives young volunteers a taste of sustainable living.
Now support for the garden is growing as well, with a $2,000 grant from youngsters participating in the Iris Teen Tzedakah project. Run by the Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life, the project trains young people as philanthropists, using their own money and matching donations administered by the Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest.
Rabbi Shmuel Greene, director of teen initiatives for the Partnership, said that the Iris teens chose the community garden from among a large number of grant requests.
JFS Central and the Partnership are both agencies of the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
This month marks the one-year anniversary of the mulch-enriched mini-farm, planted last year by students from the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, also an agency of the federation, with help from JFS Central staffers, adult volunteers, and Jonathan Phillips, the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Groundworks Elizabeth.
A few weeks ago, a group of boys dug up the lawns in the front of the Halpern Building and helped assemble a whole new phalanx of raised beds.
On May 14 they came back, joined by girls from the JEC’s Bruriah High School for Girls, after school closed early for the Shavuot break, to plant an array of seeds and seedlings. The process was steered by Phillips and gardening associate Christine Guryev, who tested the soil and chose the best-suited plants, including strawberries, tomatoes, beans, radishes, cucumbers, and lettuce.
Guiding the student gardeners was Eli Bodner, JFS Central case manager and program coordinator and youth director of the JEC. “I had no idea how many would show up — especially as this was the beginning of a break — but quite a lot of people signed up,” he said, adding that doing work in the garden counts toward the hesed, or community service, hours that the students are expected to do.
Yoni Kolb, 18, a recent JEC graduate, helped assemble the raised-bed boxes and was back to assist with the planting. “I just like doing it, and it’s a chance to do hesed,” he said. Bentzi Engel, a 16-year-old fellow planter, agreed. “I was happy to come do it,” he said.
JFS marketing and development director Heidi Pekarsky said the effort was aptly timed, as Shavuot is associated with agriculture and making provision for the poor. She, Bodner, and the other organizers hope the youngsters and other volunteers will stay involved all summer, maintaining the garden and harvesting the produce as it ripens.
JFS supporters Eric Harvitt and Michael Gottlieb of Landmark Homes donated refrigerators and arranged for a new freezer to be donated to the agency by Dan Schwartz, the owner of Karl’s Appliances.
The new appliances mean JFS can offer extra-fresh items for people seeking emergency food assistance.
Pekarsky said, “We’ll also be giving out fresh eggs and possibly bread from the Hillside Community Food Bank.”