It started out as a simple study session about Sukkot. It evolved into an emotional exchange of recollections and histories. And no one will forget it anytime soon.
Those gathered in the community room at Weinberg Village, a retirement complex northwest of here, had decades to draw upon when naming the ushpizin – or visitors – they might invite into a sukkah.
For one participant, it was a lost mother and sister. For another, a daughter. And one tearfully described a beloved surrogate mother from his boyhood.
Through the window, a small garden loomed large. Here, this group of dedicated seniors planted, tended and toiled beginning last spring, through the summer and into the fall.
They nurtured plants and vegetables, but what also grew was a community united and connected in uncommon and unpredictable ways.
“This garden provided a sacred space where they built trust and relationships,” said Jakir Manela, the founding director of nearby Kayam Farm. “It provided the foundation to collectively deepen relationships, build community, and explore Jewish lives and values.”
This year saw the flowering of Jewish educational gardens, and the attendant creation and solidification of community across the Baltimore metro area.
Kayam Farm, fueled by a grant from The Covenant Foundation, led six Jewish-based institutions – including a synagogue, a university Hillel, a congregational preschool, a day school, a JCC, and Weinberg Village – in the establishment of educational gardens.
The initiative is a first step in creating a Jewish gardening collective across the region and firmly establishing Jewish-based environmentalism in the community’s consciousness through visibility, participation, and education.
It dovetails with “Going Green,” a project of the Baltimore Jewish federation and the Baltimore Jewish Environmental Network. The project encourages and supports Jewish organizations, agencies, and families to embrace and practice sustainability within an educational framework.
“It will be interesting to see after a couple of years what the impact is on these participating institutions and what the culture shift is in this community,” said Manela.
“Agriculture and sustainability are important Jewish values offering a new medium and channel for impactful Jewish education. This is an innovative path to Jewish education and a unique tool to reach people’s minds and hearts.”
At Congregation Netivot Shalom in nearby Pikesville on the same day, volunteers from across generations gathered to harvest their inaugural garden – three plots measuring 32 square feet each. Bins filled quickly with gords, peppers, gherkins, peppers, beans, carrots and tomatoes, among other bounties.
Kayam’s Morris Panitz, Jewish Community Gardener, was on hand instructing on how to properly pull the vegetation from the ground and how to prepare it for winter. And he led the younger set in a scavenger hunt for the gords that would hang in the synagogue’s sukkah, and for the foods that would be proper for the weekly Kiddush.
“This is experiential, place-based, hands-on education,” he said. “We are not just talking about it. We’re doing it and getting our hands dirty.”
As she tied string around a newly picked gord, 13-year-old Adi Singerman said working the garden deepened her perspective on the earth, her Jewish blessings, and the imperative of social justice.
“This is helping me to understand how to be more Jewish. When I daven, I can thank ha-Shem for the food from this garden. I know now what it takes to get it on the table, and I think about those who don’t have any.”
Her mother, Shifra Singerman, nodded in agreement. “We are all getting a wonderful sense of community, a love for the outdoors, and a faith-based connection to the environment. So many of our Jewish holidays have a strong agricultural component, but this has been lost in the modern age. This garden is renewing and restoring and underscoring that historical link.”
Congregation officials said they were anxious to be part of the new collective for this reason for sure, and to create a living, organic project that exuded Jewish values and tradition and would be a focus for the synagogue community.
“Over tending to this garden, I met people who I never knew,” said Abbe Zuckerberg, a garden captain at Congregation Netivot Shalom. “It became a place for schmoozing and connecting. People who never lifted a hoe were enthralled by this project. And it was a very public statement that we were doing something positive for our Jewish community and for the earth.”
As a garden captain, Zuckerberg attends continuing education trainings at Kayam Farm, and meets with other participating organizations to share ideas and lessons. Educator trainings, shared curricula and an active community of practice are all part of the Kayam model for the collective.
It is expected to grow to 10 participating institutions in 2012, including an early childhood education program at a synagogue and a multi-cultural partnership.
And garden captains said they expect bigger gardens and increased participation next year. At Weinberg Village alone, the number of resident gardeners will grow fivefold – to 50 – and new gardening tables, which make access to the vegetation easier for seniors, are being installed on the grounds.
Back at Congregration Netivot Shalom, Ari Moskowitz was beaming as he held his newborn baby while surveying the fall harvest.
“It is amazing to me how much this new garden parallels growing a family and a community,” he said. “There is a connection between the earth and sustaining and nurturing God’s creation, and my wife and I starting and growing a family and being a part of Jewish community and continuity. That cycle is right here before us.”
Kayam Farm is a program of the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center, an agency of THE ASSOCIATED: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.