Environmental Group Hazon Celebrates Sukkot at the Source

Row upon row of green produce stretches toward a line of trees bordering the picturesque fields of Branch Creek Farm in Perkasie. There is no modern farming equipment in sight, no electric lights — just an old-time covered wagon, a tall red barn and wood-frame greenhouses covered in thick plastic.

Oh, and one other thing — a sukkah big enough to accommodate a wedding party.

The Dornstreich family normally doesn't put such a large ritual hut at the edge of their fields, where they've been cultivating organic crops for 30-plus years. Sunday, however, was a special occasion — a farm-to-table feast supporting Hazon, a New-York based environmental organization that promotes healthy and sustainable Jewish communities.

A sold-out crowd of 150 people drove upwards of an hour from South Jersey, Philadelphia and even New York to partake in a five-course meal prepared by Michael Solomonov, chef of Zahav restaurant in Old City.

The feast marked Hazon's first official event in the Philadelphia area and brought in more than $27,000, said organizers.

"It's literally giving people a taste of Hazon," said executive director Nigel Savage.

And, Savage added, how better to promote Hazon's mission than during a holiday that emphasizes the Jewish connection to the physical world?

Jews have eaten in sukkahs for 2,000 years, Savage said, but "to do it where we're on a working farm, we're starting to think seriously about where our food comes from and what it means to keep kosher in the 21st century."

"A meal like this, in the middle of a field, in the middle of nowhere — it is remarkably indicative of what it is to challenge ourselves as a community."

The idea to serve a meal at its source, so to speak, came from Solomonov.

Over the past few years, Solomonov said, cooking Israeli cuisine has brought him closer to his roots, but work has also kept him too busy to be as involved in the community as he'd like.

Volunteering to cook a holiday feast "seemed like the right thing to do," he said.

The timing was perfect, too. Last winter, Hazon had tapped two dozen environmental enthusiasts in the Philadelphia area to form its first local advisory board. One of them happened to be a friend of Solomonov.

Microgreens, Mini Vegetables

Board members found willing partners in Judy and Mark Dornstreich, who agreed to host the event and provide fresh herbs and vegetables for the meal. What they didn't have, Solomonov ordered from other organic farmers in the area and Israel, taking care to include the seven staples Jews ate in biblical times: wheat, barely, figs, dates, olives, pomegranate and grapes.

Though Solomonov prepared most of the food off-site in advance, tractors had to be moved from the barn to make room for a makeshift kitchen. There, about 25 volunteers helped heat and plate the meal while the Dornstreichs gave tours of the farm, pointing out various microgreens and miniature vegetables often favored by upscale restaurants.

Before leading blessings over the meal, Rabbi David Teutsch, a professor at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote and a Hazon advisory board member, urged the crowd to think about their impact on the earth.

"The fragility of the sukkah should remind us of how fragile our environment is, and what we have done to put it in that position," said Teutsch.

Simply being more aware of where food comes from is a huge part of what Hazon is all about, said Abby Contract, who co-chaired the event.

"It's not just food, it's the people behind the food — the farmers who grow the food, the people who pick the food," she said. "What you put in your body affects other people around you."

Hazon staff said proceeds from the event will go into the agency's budget, which funds a host of environmental programs, including an annual food conference, food guides, bike rides and a network of community-supported agriculture sites, or CSAs. That network currently includes more than 45 sites across the nation that collectively funnel about $1.2 million into local farms.

Locally, Hazon started a CSA in Elkins Park in 2007 and added two more — one in Merion Station and another in Cherry Hill — last year. About 500 Jewish families pick up fresh produce between those three sites.



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