For American Jews living in the Northeast, it may seem strange to celebrate Tu B’Shevat in January.
How do you celebrate the birthday of the trees at a time when they look cold and dead?
The answer lies under the surface, according to Klielle Glanzberg-Krainin.
“Around now is when the sap is starting to flow in the tree, so if you’re tapping, like, maple trees to make maple syrup, around now is when you start tapping,” she explained.
The recent Tufts University graduate spoke about her experience learning about sustainable food production on farms at a Tu B’Shevat webinar for Beth Sholom Congregation and Kehillah of Old York Road. During “What’s Drawing Jewish 20-somethings to Farming?” on Jan. 27, three Jewish college students discussed their experience working on farms and its connection to their Jewish identities.
Jessica Schenk, a sophomore at University of Vermont, and Simmy Decker, a junior at Brandeis University, have both participated in World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, more commonly known as WWOOF-ing. The program links visitors with a global network of organic farmers to promote a cultural and educational exchange and build a global community focused on sustainable farming.
Decker has worked on farms in Israel, the Pacific Northwest and Hawaii. Producing fruits and vegetables reminded her of the Jewish tradition of recognizing where food comes from in the blessings before meals, a corrective to a food production system that relies on disconnection and distance.
“We devote that time before we eat our food to think about how our food grows, whether it grows in the ground, whether it comes from a tree,” she said.
Schenk decided to start WWOOF-ing due to the pandemic, which closed the summer camp she was planning to work at and moved her classes online. She changed her plans and worked on farms in Pennsylvania and Tennessee, where she learned how to care for cows and harvest vegetables.
The experience completely changed the way she thought about eating. She grew used to cooking based on what was in season and available, rather than what she could find on supermarket shelves.
Now, she goes out of her way to select less-than-perfect produce, knowing that it may go to waste due to superficial flaws.
“Something that I’ve been trying to do more recently is that even if something doesn’t look perfect, that doesn’t mean that it’s not still going to be delicious, or, you know, completely edible or just good when cooked. So I try to be less picky about the food that I’ve been eating,” she said.
Glanzberg-Krainin was drawn to agriculture from a young age and grew up growing vegetables in her grandparents’ garden in Vermont. She worked on a farm near their house for several summers during college. She spent last year on a farm in Israel, where she studied permaculture, the design of agricultural frameworks based on natural ecosystems. She also interned on an urban farm in West Philadelphia in the fall.
She loved the work, and is now interested in pursuing a career in sustainable agriculture and food justice.
Nati Passow, operations manager at Dayenu: A Jewish Call to Climate Action, said young adults’ interest in farming experienced a revival between 10 and 15 years ago.
“Our society is one in which people are largely disconnected from their food, disconnected from the earth,” he said. “It’s been a kind of reawakening of sorts, a resurging interest in finding work that feels more physically meaningful.”
Passow was the co-founder and executive director of Jewish Farm School, a Jewish sustainable agriculture organization in Philadelphia that closed in 2019. He said many of the young adults who participated in its programs, like summer camps and alternative college breaks, felt like they didn’t have a Jewish home in synagogue life. Joining the farm school seemed different.
“They finally felt like they had people who were simultaneously interested in Judaism, interested in creating a robust and vibrant Jewish life and doing so also in an environmentally sensible way,” he said.
While the organization no longer runs programs for young Jewish farmers, it created a “seed packet” of tools and resources to be used by synagogues, day schools and Jewish individuals interested in seeking a spiritual connection to their food.
The Jewish farm movement is far from over in the Philadelphia area.
Farmer and Jewish educator Yitzchak Glasman is planning to start building Shalem Farm in Doylestown this month. The organic farm will be an education site for Jewish sustainable agriculture, and Glasman is using some of the JFS “seed kit” to develop his programs.
The pandemic also has heightened interest and concern about food production systems. Passow said many organic farming programs are working to meet demands for donations to food pantries in the face of widespread hunger and unemployment. Farming presents job alternatives to students like Schenk and Decker, whose plans for work and school changed in the face of remote classes and shutdowns.
Glanzberg-Krainin said Judaism and farming have provided comfort in the face of uncertainty.
“When you’re farming, you can do everything right and then still have a crop failure because of the weather or like any number of things,” she said. “I feel like a big part of what’s important to me about Judaism, or I guess just being a religious person more broadly, is just like being aware of the mystery of the things that are out of our control.”
[email protected]; 215-832-0729