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How does our garden grow?

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Thanks to Bobbi Rubinstein for sharing this update about the garden at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, CA. Bobbi is a publicist, journalist and green activist. She’s chair of the Valley Beth Shalom Green Team and co-founder of Netiya: The Los Angeles Jewish Coalition on Food and Environmental Justice Issues.

I am excited to share some news with the Hazon kehillah. My shul, Valley Beth Shalom, has broken ground on an urban garden called the Gan Tzedek Initiative. We’re growing food to donate to local food pantries and creating educational opportunities around Torah and environmental study. And perhaps most importantly, we’re building community across all age levels since this is a team effort among all the schools, teachers, parents, administrative staff and clergy.

All these green thumb efforts fall under the VBS Green Team. For almost two years, our mission has been to educate the community about environmental issues and suggest ways the congregation can take what they learn home to shrink their own carbon footprint.

The driving social justice force behind the Green Team is Rabbi Noah Zvi Farkas, a presenter at this year’s amazing Hazon conference. Plus we called on other community resources including Dr. Gabe Goldman, Professor of Experiential and Service Learning at the American Jewish University/Brandeis Bardin Helping Hands Garden, and Bill Kaplan, Executive Director of Shalom Institute, Initiative team leader and third grade day school dad, to help us design and construct the garden. Bill Kabaker, a longtime shul member and irrigation specialist, stepped up to help us keep the veggies well tended.

As Angelenos, we’re lucky to have a climate similar to Israel’s so we decided to put in a biblical garden. These plants will provide us with hands-on opportunities to learn about Israeli ecology, ancient Israeli life and Jewish holiday practices related to Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah and Tu B’Shvat. As we build a curriculum around the garden, students will learn Jewish ecological principles about bal tashchit (prohibition against waste), halachot (laws) related to land care in Israel and the meaning of l’ovdah u’shomrah (to work and protect) through our care of the garden.

The gardens are being implemented in phases with day, Hebrew, ECC and special needs schools each planting their own area. In the Torah garden we have a ‘Garden of the Sages’ where students will learn about the learned Sages of our tradition and the edible and decorative native sages of our region. We also have the Shevat Haminim (Seven Species- wheat, barley, grapevines, figs, pomegranates, olives and honey from dates), and Peah (the portion of the crop that must be left standing for the poor in accordance with Lev. 19:9) where seasonally appropriate crops will be harvested and donated to food pantries.

We’ve planted a container Havdalah Garden in our outdoor chapel that reflects the symbols of the service: spices (herbs), candle/light (olive tree/olive oil), and wine (grapevine). The pizza garden of tomatoes, basil, garlic, and oregano was a personal request from senior Rabbi Ed Feinstein.

We broke ground on all school gardens throughout the week leading up to Tu B’Shvat. On Friday during day school planting, we rotated learning opportunities starting with Rabbi Feinstein’s presentation to third graders and parents. Rabbi Farkas ran study sessions. Bill hosted a seder with dried fruits, nuts and grape juice, and Elana Havusha, the Shalom Institute farmer, supervised the planting.

Our garden launch ended with both family and congregational Tu B’Shvat Seders during Shabbat. The environmental Haggadah written by Rabbi Farkas and Rabbi Paul Steinberg, rabbinic leader of the day school, tied together the issues of climate change, the destruction of trees and Tu B’Shvat bringing our groundbreaking to a fitting close.

I recently toured our plantings and am happy to report that our seeds have not only sprouted but are flourishing. Have any of you started gardens at your synagogues or community centers, either on site or nearby? Please share your experiences.

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