8 Sparks of Light: Laya Steinberg, Synagogue Garden Leader

Throughout Chanukah, we’re sharing our “8 sparks of light” providing inspiration and insight into the diversity of people working on a local level for a more transparent and just food system.


Laya Steinberg of Newton, MA started the garden at her synagogue. Learn why she started the program and how she involved the whole community.

How would you describe your involvement in the current “Jewish food movement?” 
I lead a group from my temple, Congregation Dorshei Tzedek (CDT), farming a vegetable plot in Waltham. Our aim is to grow fresh organic produce to donate to the Newton Food Pantry and other local organizations.

Do you remember the moment when you started learning about our food system?
I joined a local organic farm many years ago, long before the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) model became popular. I picked produce for my family and volunteered on the farm. Often my two young children came with me—it was a great place to teach them about nature, and how our food grows. So when the farmers asked if any faith communities would be willing to help with the fall harvest being donated to the Greater Boston Food Bank, I got involved. It was a perfect Sukkot outing for CDT—connecting the harvest holiday to food justice, and the event ultimately served as inspiration for a picture book that I wrote years later which was just released, called The Best Sukkot Pumpkin Ever published by Kar Ben.

When and why did you first take action?
I first got involved on a community level when my children were in elementary school. I had read about The Edible Schoolyard, a Berkley, California school garden inspired by famous Chef Alice Waters. I thought our local public school could do something similar so I approached the administration who, along with fellow parents, teachers, and the PTO, helped realize my goal. I designed an outdoor garden classroom with vegetable beds, a butterfly garden, and a seating area large enough to accommodate a few classes at a time. I wrote grants for funding and solicited donations of materials and then led a crew of volunteers in building the garden. Many of the teachers, who lacked gardening experience, asked me to teach the students. It was my favorite volunteer job at the school because I was sharing my passion for nature and organic gardening with students who had never gotten their hands in the dirt, or knew how a green bean grew, or why bees were so important to our food supply. It was exciting and gratifying to see their ‘growing’ enthusiasm.

What Jewish values underlie this work for you?
Tikkun Olam seems to covers most of what we do: growing vegetables for food-insecure neighbors means we’ve provided them with fresh healthy produce; taking care of the land by not loading it with toxic pesticides; composting; protecting beneficial insects; and reducing our carbon foot print by providing locally-sourced food.
Many of the clients at the pantry are elderly and most are immigrants so we’re also caring for a vulnerable population who rely on this assistance and deserve to have high-quality fresh produce. There are also families, with growing children who need proper nutrition. It’s gratifying to know that we fill some of those needs (along with other farms and food gleaning programs that supply the Pantry).

How did you first get involved in Ganei Beantown?
I attended the Boston Jewish Food Conference organized by Ganei Beantown. I was inspired by the speakers and the whole experience of coming together to talk about food systems and food justice and then sharing a meal. I spoke with an attendee who had recently planted a garden at his synagogue. I thought Dorshei Tzedek could have a garden plot much like theirs. A friend from the First Unitarian Society of Newton had a plot they were gardening and they welcomed us to join them. A year later CDT took the helm.

What advice do you give to others looking to be involved? What’s a good first step?
I recommend visiting other gardens to see what people have done. Start small. We inherited a 1200 sq. ft. plot. In our first year only half-a-dozen people volunteered and it was a drought year that required frequent watering. We also had a tough time with rabbits eating our sprouts. It was a struggle to keep things going, and a steep learning curve, but we were proud of the 200 lbs. we donated. This past year, our second, we harvested and donated 100% of what we grew: 860 lbs!

If you plan to donate to a specific place, ask them what they would prefer. In our case we found out that they regularly received donations of carrots and potatoes and did not need any more from us. We’re also flexible enough to grow produce that various cultures prefer such as Bok Choi for the Asian clients and beets that the Russian immigrants enjoyed.

What resources can you offer?
Come visit our garden. We are proud of our ‘little’ strip of dirt and happy to show it off and answer questions. (Though it might be worth waiting until June or July when we have something growing).

If you find Laya’s story as inspiring as we do, please consider an end of year donation.

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