Rabbi Mordechai Liebling was leading a guided visualization for a roomful of about 100 people. He first asked them to picture a scene of diverse vegetation and then to imagine it being overcome by one crop: a genetically modified organism.
He used the exercise to illustrate the damage caused by modern agricultural practices.
Such was the theme at the Hazon Food Festival, a daylong event Oct. 20 sponsored by the nonprofit organization, Hazon, which seeks to create sustainable Jewish communities.
The bustling scene at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, a Reform congregation on North Broad Street, included discussions, workshops and a large shuk where organizations with goals similar to Hazon promoted their efforts and vendors hawked their wares. Jews from a variety of backgrounds appeared eager to learn more about urban farming and locally grown food, among other topics.
These were not New-Age practices, Liebling and others said, but rather ones guided by Judaism’s core ethics.
“The great medieval Jewish theologian and philosopher, Maimonides, understood the oneness of creation,” he said. “This concept of the earth as an organic entity was relatively well known in the medieval world; they understood the interconnectedness of life.”
Hazon, which has offices in New York, Colorado and California, is working to establish a stronger presence in Philadelphia. In other cities, the organization offers workshops on topics such as growing mushrooms; sponsors bike rides that include visits to farms and Torah learning; and helps lead community-supported agriculture ventures that provide consumers with food from local farms.
The organization has held events in Philadelphia before, such as a Sukkot farm-to-table meal and a Lag B’Omer barbecue, but the recent festival was the largest event yet in Philadelphia, with more than 300 people attending. It featured classes on topics such as beekeeping, canning food and the benefits of eating locusts.
Hazon already works closely with the Philadelphia-based Jewish Farm School, which provides agricultural education, and is hoping to establish an office in the city.
Nati Passow, program manager of Hazon-Philadelphia and the co-founder of the farm school, said the organization wants to help synagogues add more environmental content to their curricula and programming.
“We are looking to support the work of individuals and institutions in the region who are working to create a more sustainable world,” said Passow.
Amanda Ross, who works in community outreach at Adath Israel in Merion Station, attended Hazon’s national food conference last winter at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut and has since become very involved with the organization. She co-chaired the festival at Rodeph Shalom and said she sees a significant number of like-minded people in the Philadelphia area.
For example, she said that her brother, Howard, who also attended the festival, “loves farming, loves camping, loves gardening — he does all of the things that Hazon loves, and he had no idea it even existed.”
Indeed, Howard Ross said he sees Hazon building on a natural partnership between Judaism and environmentalism.
“I think there is definitely an intersection there — with the Jewish emphasis on tikkun olam and healing the earth,” said the web designer, who has a garden at his Kensington house and eats a mostly organic, plant-based diet.
“I think it makes a lot of sense that Jews are really picking up and carrying the organic and sustainable movement.”
At a class on beekeeping, Anna Herman, who heads the Penn State Extension Master Gardener Program, spoke about the benefits honeybees provide, from pollinating plants and producing honey to apitherapy, which uses the insects’ products to ease ailments such as arthritis. By holding festivals and workshops, Hazon makes it easier for people who are interested in the environment to make the necessary alterations in order to change their lifestyles, she said.
“There are a lot of things to care about, and you can’t be an expert on everything,” she said, but you can discover what an expert recommends.
Liebling, for example, was joined by State Sen. Daylin Leach and Rebecca Frimmer, an urban farmer, for a dialogue about genetically modified organisms. They called for labeling food items that contained the organisms.
During her class, Herman and Rabbi Aaron Philmus of Congregation Brothers of Israel, a Conservative synagogue in Newtown, talked about hive behavior and whether humans could live more collectively like bees.
Before becoming a rabbi, Philmus worked as an environmental educator, and he has tried to bring practices from that field into the congregation but he has met some resistance, he said.
“Some of the people who know Judaism as being this urban, indoor, book-based tradition don’t really understand,” he said. “They think you’re just superimposing your personal hobbies and interests and values onto Judaism, which is really not true.”
For example, when he told people he was attending the Philadelphia Hazon festival, he said, “some were curious about it, but most people were just like, ‘Oh, that’s kind of weird.’ I think there are certain people in communities who — it’s going to take a longer time.”
But he said he’s encouraged by what he saw at the conference and the fact that Hazon’s work helps “validate” his efforts to integrate the outdoors and environmentalism into Jewish education.