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.
Rabbi Aaron Philmus, originally from Matawan, NJ is the spiritual leader of Temple Torat Yisrael in East Greenwich, RI. Learn how he engages his congregation and why we call him the Homesteading Rabbi.
How why did you first get involved in Ganei Beantown?
When I moved back to New England three years ago I was feeling isolated in Rhode Island. I wanted to be part of a larger network of educators and food people so I attended the Boston Jewish Food Conference. I presented in a session on Judaism and Chickens. The next year, my wife Valerie (who is a kosher chef), and our daughter, taught a cooking class and led a group in preparing lunch for the conference.
How would you describe your involvement in the current “Jewish food movement?” What does the involvement look like in your community?
We live in the parsonage house in front of the shul. We are always bringing people from the community in to visit our vegetable garden, chickens, honeybees, and a small (but growing) herd of Nubian goats. Our community also maintains a mitzvah garden for donating produce to the local food pantry. For Rosh Hashanah the older students join me for a visit to the beehive to harvest fresh honeycomb. We dip apples in honeycomb and learn how bees are needed to pollinate apple trees. In the Summer, Gan Izzy campers milk the goat and taste fresh goat-gurt and goats-cream. They collect chicken and duck eggs for challah making.
Tell us something exciting that’s coming up in your community.
Here in the Ocean State, we have congregants who fish a lot for Kosher Catch, Southern New England’s only exclusive source for fresh locally caught Kosher Fish. It’s delicious! This Chanukah we are hosting a locally caught “fish fry” with them and I couldn’t be more excited.
Also, one of our goats is due sometime before Pesach. I think our students will love bottle-feeding and snuggling with the baby goats. After the kids are weaned, we will have enough milk to teach cheese making on Shavuot.
Do you remember the moment when you started learning about our food system?
I was teaching environmental education at a local park system in high school. It was really depressing and overwhelming. Many years later in rabbinical school I rode in the Hazon New York Bike ride. That’s when I discovered a more positive and uplifting way to respond to the environmental crisis of our global industrial food system. Since then, I have been on a mission to get closer to my food source and hopefully inspire others to join in the fun.
What Jewish values underlie this work for you?
I like that Judaism sees an active and positive role for humanity on earth. In Genesis, Adam was placed in the garden “l’ovdah u’lshomrah” – to work and to guard the living earth. Adam is the word for human and Adamah is the word for humus, or soil. As children of Adam it is still our job to be Shomrei Adamah. Our concept of Shmitah, a year of Shabbat for the land, is in many ways a Divine challenge to humanity. We can turn this world into the Garden of Eden if we want. It’s all up to us.
I often teach about “Tzaar baalei Chayim” – that we are forbidden to cause (unnecessary) animal suffering. I love the teaching from Proverbs that “A righteous person knows the soul of his animal, but the compassion of a wicked person is cruelty.” What does it mean to know the soul of an animal? Taking care of animals is an excellent way to teach compassion and love. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and their families were all shepherds. The Midrash says that leading their flocks in the Wilderness taught them how to be compassionate leaders so they could be shepherds of G-d’s flock: Israel.
What Jewish values and traditions speak to you most?
I love Torah Study. Torah is “Tree of Life” to all the tree huggers. When we are holding Torah we are holding the infinite. Our thoughts and voices bounce off of each other and merge with thousands of years of Jewish study and commentary.
I love that we have a lunar and solar calendar that connects us to the moon’s cycles and the four seasons in such a deep way. I love group singing of niggunim (prayer melodies) and I also love doing hitbodedut, which is the ancient practice of entering nature and talking to the Creator in your own words. I like to do this out at the pasture with my goats. All human beings have the potential to be an image/shadow of G!d in this world (Btzelem Elohim). We are not to make static images…
What resources or advice can you offer others?
If you are interested in raising chickens please be in touch. I am happy to give advice and support. It is actually pretty easy. Chickens are very entertaining and they are great for your garden.
You don’t have to be a beekeeper. You can help save the bees by not applying chemicals to your lawn and by planting lots of native flower gardens.
Also, I love goats. Someday I would like to bring my goats to visit communities and camps for green landscaping, milking, hiking, and camping. It would be a new kind of shepherding for our time. I am currently apprenticing with a goat-scaper to learn the trade. I think the best way to start is always to find local people who are doing what you want to do and offer to help.
You can follow me and my flock on Instagram.
If you find Rabbi Philmus’ story as inspiring as we do, please consider an end of year donation.