Finding Service in the Gardenby Sam Plotkin | February 23, 2011 | 3 comments
In Jewish tradition, a Bar Mitzvah is typically considered to be a celebration of religious achievements, and an affirmation of one’s membership in the Jewish community. For me, on the other hand, becoming a Bar Mitzvah meant a celebration of the end of my religious school obligations. By the time I turned 13, Judaism had come to connote confusion and duty in my life. I was plagued by the intangibility of spirituality and faith, and bothered by the sense that there was a certain way to “be a Jew” in my community. I had never been encouraged to pursue my faith beyond the boundaries of attending synagogue on the High Holy Days or sitting obediently in services. I saw no appealing options to find Judaism outside of the “cookie-cutter” model of suburban Judaism I’d always experienced. Following my Bar Mitzvah, I felt minimal desire to continue my pursuit of religion.
Then in December 2008, while I was a sophomore at Michigan State University, I decided to join an alternative spring break program in California hosted by Hillel and facilitated by The Jewish Farm School. Maybe it was the weather that attracted me – golden California sunshine certainly seemed like the prefect antidote to Michigan’s ice and snow. Or perhaps it was the opportunity to spend spring break at Oz Farm (an organic farm about three hours north of San Francisco), planting the fields, cooking, eating and singing with the other participants. I did not feel a particular draw to advance my Jewish studies, but as a kid from suburban Detroit, farming was foreign and the thought of spending a week on a farm was an intriguing concept. So with the help of the Hillel staff I signed up and, luckily, was accepted to attend.
During my time at Oz, I learned about the principles of sustainable agriculture, composting, and natural building. I dug my hands in the soil, enjoyed the fruits of my labor, and discovered the intricate physical and spiritual connections between Judaism and the natural world. As we sang, cooked, and planted our way through the week, our group ruminated on the implications of tzedakah and tikkun olam, and discussed how we can work to repair our world through sustainable agriculture, and by demanding social justice in the prevailing corporate-industrial food system. I left Oz enlightened, and with a new perception of what it meant to “be a Jew.” I came to feel more secure in my Jewish faith, and found that I felt strongest in my convictions when I approach Judaism in the context of sustainability, agriculture, and food. Judaism promotes love as well as respect for our earth, and helps me to understand the world and its interconnected elements – both my human and non-human biotic communities. It was an invigorating experience for me, and one I was eager to share on campus.
Since my time at Oz, I have volunteered at MSU’s Student Organic Farm, and at the GardenHouse – a greenhouse – operated by Lansing’s Allen Neighborhood Center (ANC), a non-profit that works with Lansing’s Eastside community. I have worked with ANC’s farmers market, organizing a food education initiative called “Food Chatter,” as well as an exercise-nutrition program called “Market Walk,” and have worked with the market manager on general organizational tasks involved in operating the main market and the mini, satellite, market held at Sparrow Hospital in Lansing. I also facilitated a community-cooking program called “Community Soup.”
Additionally, I currently author a weekly article for MSU’s Hillel Jewish Student Center, focusing on the relationship between Judaism and the natural world, with a central emphasis on sustainability. This spring, in collaboration with the Jewish Student Union, I am organizing a workshop series titled “Judaism and the Garden,” with the goal of educating MSU’s Jewish student community on assorted elements of agricultural sustainability, ranging from seed sowing basics and soil maintenance to garden box and rain barrel construction.
As I continue on my life path and food journey, my experience at Oz shapes my relationship with Jewish life, agriculture, and the natural world. On a daily basis I consider the Jewish imperatives of tzedakah and tikkun olam, and believe I can best help to repair our world, improve the lives of others, show and teach respect for our earth into the future by working with community-based organizations to address issues of social justice and sustainability in food systems. I also aspire to educate others on sustainable agriculture with a foundation in Jewish traditions. Teaching in the realm of Judaism and agriculture have had such a profound impact on my life, and I am hopeful that I can inspire others on these grounds as those in my life have inspired me.