Synagogue Gardens Sprout Up

This originally appeared in the Jewish Journal.
By Amy Sessler Powell

Synagogue gardens on the North Shore are sprouting up much like the fresh green chard and tall tomato plants within their boundaries. During this growing season, three local synagogues, Temple Sinai in Marblehead, Temple Shalom in Salem and Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly, have joined both a national and a Jewish trend of going back to the earth. “Our tradition is rooted in agriculture, and everything from there is rooted in our ethical laws,” said Rabbi Aaron Fine of Temple Sinai.

In a prior position at a Jewish camp in Western Mass., Fine learned that many Jewish values can be taught through a community garden. He also has access to expertise through his brother, Rabbi Jacob Fine, who is director of the Jewish Farm School. Like Fine, other rabbis and synagogue leaders are finding that gardening offers a multitude of ways for synagogues to engage with Judaism. From connecting to the harvest holidays to Jewish values of tikkum olam to community engagement, the garden is ripe with opportunity.

Leora Mallach, co-founder and director of Ganei Beantown (Beantown Jewish Gardens), a resource for synagogues, said, “One of the beautiful things about farming is the ability to transcend institution walls and denominations.”

Ganei Beantown hosted the first Boston area Jewish Food Conference in April featuring speakers on a variety of subjects. Rabbi Aaron Fine and Tom Cheatham, a member of Temple Shalom, spoke during a workshop called “Voices from the Garden: The Oy’s and Vey’s of Educational Gardening.” The workshop discussed the synagogue garden as a setting for Judaic or community engagement, intergenerational learning, social action and fun.

Each North Shore synagogue has focused its garden projects a bit differently to meet the unique needs of their communities, but all acknowledge that the projects present all sorts of possibilities.

At Temple B’nai Abraham, the sixth grade families have taken the lead, along with the synagogue’s Social Action Committee. As these students prepare for their upcoming b’nai mitzvah, they are taking weekly summer shifts in the garden to weed, water, plant and harvest.

“They are getting to that age where they will become more responsible as Jewish adults to do mitzvot, and this is a good way to learn how to give to the poor,” said Rabbi Alison Adler, who has developed a curriculum based on Torah text to go along with the garden.

The produce harvested in B’nai Abraham’s garden goes to Beverly Bootstraps. Educators from Bootstraps have worked with the synagogue to enhance the learning experience.

Cheatham said that Temple Shalom’s placement of Gan Ruth on the front lawn of the synagogue generated some lively debate, but ultimately raised the garden’s visibility in the neighborhood. The garden is a partnership with Little Beginnings, a neighborhood preschool that rents space in the temple.

Each Friday, Suzie Cheatham, temple administrator and Tom’s wife, works with four children in a rotation, and they bring the produce home to their families. Another bag or two of produce goes to Lifebridge, a shelter in Salem, and some of it is used to prepare salad for the synagogue’s Kiddush lunch.

“Our preschool families are not wealthy, and this is a way to connect with them. We are contributing healthy food as a way to express the value of leaving something for the poor, and we have a built-in constituency,” said Suzie Cheatham.

Temple Shalom has worked with many community resources to get the garden started. They used a $300 Innovation Grant from the Jewish Federation of the North Shore, as well as expertise from Ganei Beantown and the Highland Coalition, a grass roots group in Lynn that works with the Ford School community garden. They also partnered with Temple B’nai Abraham on some garden-based educational programming.

As the gardens grow, the first harvests are being donated. Temple B’nai Abraham donated 15 bags of lettuce to Bootstraps. Temple Sinai donated fresh lettuce and chard to the Jewish Food Pantry, and Little Beginnings families are enjoying fresh spinach, lettuce and peas.

As the summer goes on, these gardens will yield potatoes, tomatoes, berries, greens and, ultimately, pumpkins, squash, gourds and more.

Temple Sinai has arranged a series of programs tied to Jewish festivals and Rabbi Fine hopes to decorate the sukkah with bounty from their Menorah shaped garden. As they expand their garden, he is also building a gaga pit to create a pleasant outdoor space on Temple Sinai’s beautiful grounds.

Jordan Tarbox, 13, of Marblehead, is working with Rabbi Fine as part of his mitzvah project for his upcoming bar mitzvah.

“We come out here on Shabbat with families and we see how the garden is growing, we play a post-shul gaga game. More than anything, the garden is a good community builder for people of all ages,” Fine said.