Jewish Farm School to Close

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After nearly 14 years of operation, the Jewish Farm School, a nonprofit dedicated to teaching Jews and non-Jews alike about sustainability, farming skills and the importance of connection to land, all through a Jewish lens, will close this fall. The group announced the decision via its Facebook page.

Friends,We are writing to share an important announcement. After nearly 14 years of leadership and innovation, Jewish…

Posted by Jewish Farm School on Wednesday, June 26, 2019

“When Jewish Farm School launched in 2005, the idea of Jewish farm-based education was on the margins of the contemporary organized Jewish community,” read a statement posted on the organization’s website. “Today, that story has changed, as there are over 20 significant Jewish community farming organizations reaching tens of thousands of participants each year.”

Nati Passow, co-founder and executive director of JFS, first began to think about bringing it all to an end last winter. The work itself never went stale, he said, but after over a decade at the helm, he began to wonder what else he might want to do professionally. Additionally, the stress of running an “under-resourced organization,” he said, was “exhausting.” Given the intricacy of the programs, he and the board “didn’t feel like we really had the ability to make a successful hand-off.” Thus, this past spring, the decision was made to shutter JFS.

For the professional staff, led by Passow, the next few months of operation will still include some of the usual programming. There will be several more “Shtetl Skills” sessions, wherein participants learn some of the basics of baking, composting and more, along with opportunities to volunteer with Philly Farm Crew, a joint operation of JFS and Repair the World.

But mostly, said Passow, his time will be taken up by ensuring the continuation of JFS’ work, in different forms. It’ll come in a variety of ways; he and the staff plan to transfer several JFS programs to other Philadelphia-area organizations, for one. They also plan to share budget templates, evaluation forms and their various curricula with any organizations that hold similar aspirations. They’re calling the collected effort a “Seed Packet.”

Those aspirations — introducing concepts relating to food justice and urban agriculture to the Jewish community — were borne of Passow’s time at the Teva Learning Center many years ago. That was his entry point into Jewish environmental education, and the melding of Jewish spirituality with hands-in-the-dirt drew him in. Soon after, he started having conversations with other like-minded Jews about what packaging the energy of Teva and other similar programs would look like.

Jewish Farm School volunteers work at an urban farm.
Jewish Farm School volunteers work at an urban farm. (Photo courtesy of Jewish Farm School)

From about 2006 to 2013, the principles of JFS were poured into several different molds; there were panels for educators and those interested in food justice and urban agriculture, alternative spring break trips for college students focused on farming, a years-long partnership with a Jewish environmentalist summer camp in the Hudson Valley and more. In 2013, Passow, a graduate of the then-Akiba Hebrew Academy and the University of Pennsylvania, decided to focus more exclusively on Philadelphia as the base of JFS’ work.

That work — including the aforementioned Shtetl Skills and Philly Farm Crew programs, alongside educational seminars — was attractive to many, Passow said. Broadly speaking, JFS became a meeting place. Jews from traditionally Jewish spaces who were looking to branch out were mixed with a big population of Jews for whom JFS was their only connection to the organized Jewish world.

Marina Spitkovskaya, born in the former Soviet Union, didn’t grow up in a home with much religious practice, a consequence of legal and cultural hostility towards outward displays of Judaism in those days. In 2018, she attended a sourdough baking class in the Shtetl Skills series, and was “instantly hooked.”

“A lot of the Shtetl Skills were in line with the kind of skills that I wanted to learn about to reconnect with a more agrarian lifestyle,” she said.

After college, she had a tough time finding Jewish programming that resonated with her, not to mention a community that felt like her own. With JFS, she had it. Now, she’s not so sure.

Jewish Farm School participants make candles
Jewish Farm School participants make candles. (Photo courtesy of Jewish Farm School)

On the other end is Rob Auritt, a lawyer and past president of Kol Tzedek synagogue who serves as the president of the board of JFS. He loved the “substantive, meaty Jewish education focused on food justice and ecology,” he said, and has been on the board since 2015. His daughter even worked with JFS for her Bat Mitzvah project, and remains involved.

Carly Zimmerman, the CEO of Challah for Hunger, serves on the board as well. To her, JFS’ ability to stretch beyond its size — “this tiny little organization with this small little budget,” as she called it — was part of what made it special. And that the organization was so clearly the work of dedicated Jewish educators and professionals, she said, only added to the feeling that their work was done “really authentically, and in an explicitly Jewish way.”

“I think we’re losing a really unique opportunity to bring people together,” she said.

Passow isn’t sure what he’s going to do after JFS officially ceases operations on Sept. 29. For one thing, he’s looking forward to not leading an organization for a little while. He’s been encouraged by the response he’s gotten to the decision from the various funders of JFS, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.

“I feel very blessed that I’ve been able to pour my professional energy into this organization,” he said.

But when he really squints to see the future, there’s another vision he sees, one that often intersected with the work he did with JFS: climate change education and activism, within a Jewish framework.

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