Synagogue garden helps feed the hungry

Synagogue garden helps feed the hungry

Michael Shernicoff and religious school students Ryan Thaw and Milo Shenn
Michael Shernicoff and religious school students Ryan Thaw and Milo Shenn

If all the pre-bar and bat mitzva students at Congregation Kol Am, Freehold, could engage in community service projects — a synagogue requirement — then, Michael Shernicoff reasoned, the Reform temple itself could also benefit from a similar commitment.

Inspired by Rabbi Brooks Susman’s approach with the students, Shernicoff, a board member, suggested that Kol Am develop a community garden to grow vegetables that would be donated to local soup kitchens or food pantries.

Shernicoff, who chairs the membership committee at Kol Am, said he envisioned the program, dubbed the Garden of Feedin’, as a form of tikun olam, repairing the world through social action. 

“Last November, I asked Mark and Penny Estomin, the owners of Calgo Gardens on Adelphia Road in Howell Township, if they would help us. They were already honorary members of our temple, having hosted ‘Shabbat Under the Stars’ services during the summer months. They agreed to let us work on 1,300 square feet of their seven-acre complex, but they also pointed out that November is not a good time to start a garden. On their advice, we waited until this spring, and broke ground just after Memorial Day,” said Shernicoff.

The garden was funded entirely by donations. Volunteers planted tomatoes, cucumbers, hot and sweet peppers, and eggplant.

“There is a core group of about five people who come in frequently,” Shernicoff told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview. “All told, in the first five weeks, we’ve had at least 18 volunteers. And now that school’s over, I’m trying to encourage whole families to come in to do some weeding or watering.”

The Kol Am project also received a major boost from Perry Foster, 26, a non-Jewish woman who operates a sustainable, organic farm on a somewhat larger patch adjacent to the temple’s garden.

Describing Foster, 26, Shernicoff said, “She was very helpful to us, giving us free plants and suggestions, and even tilling our ground with her own powered tiller.”

Although the Kol Am garden is not as strictly organic as Foster’s Soul Purpose Farm, Shernicoff said the temple members are trying to be as respectful as they can of her standards. “We do our best to minimize the use of chemicals and try to use natural methods to control weeds and insects,” he said.

He added, “She appreciates our interest in providing for the needy. I told her of the passage in Leviticus that commands harvesters to leave the grain along the edges of their fields for the poor. It seemed to impress her.”

“I believe the world needs more people who are willing to help each other,” Foster told NJJN.

The Estomins’ Calgo Gardens has long been associated with community service efforts. Founded in Toms River 65 years ago, it was purchased by Mark Estomin in 1978. In 2008, he and his wife moved the business to Howell. “We went from being the oldest nursery in Ocean County to become the newest nursery in Monmouth County,” he wrote in an e-mail.

“We opened our doors to community organizations starting with the chamber of commerce, which holds weekly breakfast meetings on our site along with workshops that promote community awareness,” added Estomin. “We also have a wellness fair every year and two outdoor art shows where we feature local artists.”

Calgo’s relationship with Congregation Kol Am goes back several years, when they met Susman. “He explained that the synagogue had no permanent home. So we opened our doors.” Since then, Kol Am has leased space at the Freehold Jewish Center, but that didn’t end the couple’s willingness to help.

“We’ve met many wonderful people through Kol Am, so when we were approached by Michael Shernicoff to host the community garden we were thrilled,” Estomin said.

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