Synagogue-Supported Agriculture: The Jewish Food Movement Makes Its Move

For many Jewish consumers, cooks, and eaters, opting for free-range chicken and organic, local potatoes isn’t merely an environmental choice, but a deeply personal one as well. Food has always played a central role in Judaism—from keeping meat and milk separate in a kosher kitchen, to warming up with a bowl of matzo ball soup—but now some Jews are aligning their cultural and religious values with what’s for dinner. These greener food traditions are a uniquely Jewish food movement.

A Different Kind Of Deli
The scene at Saul’s Restaurant and Delicatessen in Berkeley, CA is bustling: neighborhood residents and out-of-towners file in for a to-go dish of chopped chicken liver and slide into a booth for the potato latke and beer special. In the kitchen and behind the scenes, though, change is afoot. While pundits and cultural commentators are lamenting the demise of the Jewish deli, co-owners Karen Adelman and Peter Levitt are keeping Saul’s afloat by providing Jewish comfort food that doesn’t destroy the planet.

The philosophy of serving cuisine that nourishes the body, soul and environment seems like a no-brainer, especially in crunchy Berkeley, but nothing is so simple when food and religious identity are so entwined. “Especially for cultural or secular Jews, food plays a very central role—it’s the way we keep Judaism alive,” Adelman explains. “And so assimilated or secular Jews are freaking out about our menu changes because food was the way they could be Jewish.”

For the past 15 years, Saul’s has been adding local, organic and free-range ingredients. Swaps as seemingly innocuous as Acme bread—baked just a mile and a half away—for industrial loaves eventually caught on, and for the most part, customers appreciate the efforts to serve sustainable fare. That understanding did not extend to a recent decision to pull salami from their menu because Adelman and Levitt couldn’t find an alternative to the factory farmed version. In fact, the customer revolt inspired a referendum on the Jewish deli last winter, with enviro-bigwigs such as Michael Pollan weighing in.

Adelman and Levitt aren’t suckers for the abuse their salami-less menu elicits (“We get comments like, ‘You’re not a real Jewish deli,’ and ‘What kind of Jewish mother did you have?’” Levitt says); rather, they can’t conscionably sell products they deem unethical or unsustainable—and unpalatable. So they have replaced CAFO meat with local, grass-fed and pasture-raised choices, and they receive regular deliveries from the growers who set up shop every week at the farmers market next door.

Their efforts continue not least to find satisfactory salami. But the costs—from paying more for superior foods to enduring customers’ ire—make for better food and intact morals. Even though Saul’s isn’t 100 percent sustainable, “trying counts,” Adelman says. “We can’t be pure and we can’t not care. We operate in the murky territory where work is done. It’s hard but good.”

Putting Money Where Your Mouth Is
Ambivalence is common among religious foodies. Judith Belasco, director of food programs at Hazon, a Jewish non-profit that aims to create a healthier environment and community, also wrestles with the lack of a perfect solution in our food system.

“We have so many competing demands,” she says. “For some people, food needs to be kosher, and then after that is it that you knew the farmer, or that it’s organic, or that it has a low carbon footprint?” Hazon aims to educate people about those choices. Armed with 3,000 years of Jewish wisdom, they’re better able to navigate the grocery store and farmers market.

“It is an exciting challenge to see how Jewish traditions are a gateway to allow people to be interested in contemporary food issues,” Belasco says. “We have people from across the spectrum: rabbis deeply rooted in Jewish knowledge but new to thinking about food issues, and others who are involved in food work every day but have new life breathed into their work by ancient Jewish traditions.”

Hazon also sponsors 44 CSA communities across the continent. Belasco is acutely aware of the message those purchases send to the market: “Hazon CSAs direct over $1 million in Jewish purchasing power to small, local, sustainable farms,” she says.

Susan Carson, a mother of three, leads one such CSA. She had always gardened but “the production of food was a whole world I didn’t know about” before she became involved with Hazon in 2007, she says. She co-chaired the group’s first annual food conference and hasn’t been able to look at her plate the same since.

“We learned about what we put in our mouths, why we put it in our mouths; we questioned the ethics and health of good eating. The conference really raised awareness and started conversations,” Carson muses. Back at home in suburban Marion, PA, she suggested that her synagogue start a CSA. At first, the idea was a tough sell.

“We didn’t have a lot of eating local and organic, people didn’t cook a lot, and ‘CSA’ wasn’t a familiar term,” Carson explains of her community. “People weren’t aware of a growing season—at first, they were complaining that there were no tomatoes in their CSA box in May,” Carson remembers. “[CSA members] are now eating chard, beets, parsnips, turnips fresh from the farm—food they’ve never eaten before.”

Thanks in part to Carson’s efforts, Marion is enjoying a small-scale food revolution. The CSA she runs has expanded to serve three local synagogues and a Presbyterian church for a total of 180 families. Each shareholder pays up front for a portion of a nearby farm’s harvest, which is delivered weekly. The group also cooks communal dinners, visits the farm and donates a portion of the week’s bounty to local charities. Now Carson is fielding questions about gardening and even composting from synagogue members—the ones who had eschewed beets and other unfamiliar veggies not so long ago.

Carson’s perspective has been widened, too. Although her relationship to Judaism is more secular than observant, the Jewish eco-food movement has made a lasting impression. “It’s changed my life,” she says. “It completely opened up my world.”

Voting With Your (Kosher) Fork
These principles are gradually being coalesced into more cohesive guidelines: eco-kashrut. Jewish dietary laws, kashrut, have guided religious adherents on what to eat and how to eat for thousands of years. Now, religious leaders and forward-thinking eaters are interpreting this tradition through the lens of contemporary culinary issues.

“Eco-kashrut is partly a continuation of kashrut and partly an innovation from within the concepts of Jewish law,” explains Rabbi Dennis Beck-Berman, the spiritual leader of Congregation Brith Achim in Petersburg, VA. “Eco-kosher incorporates other Jewish laws, such as the prohibition against waste, compassion for animals, not enslaving people, caring for the body and health—categories that existed all along but are not weighed when a product is certified kosher.”

Of course, the Talmud makes no mention of bovine growth hormone or genetically modified organisms, but interpretation—itself a rabbinic mainstay—provides insight on these modern problems, Beck-Berman maintains.
Adapting those laws leads to some surprising conclusions from a rabbi. “At the grocery store, you might see a local product that’s certified organic and without preservatives, but there’s a kosher product next to it that’s shipped from halfway across America. You might decide that the more kosher one is the one without the [kosher-certified] symbol on it,” Beck-Berman, who teaches courses on eco-kashrut, says.

Without a clear guide—such as kashrut’s rule against eating pork—Beck-Berman and others must consider the myriad factors that make a food “sustainable”—itself a tenuous term. It’s unlikely we’ll see an “eco-kosher” certification anytime soon, but Beck-Berman is convinced that growing consumer demand can sway companies to sell more environmentally sensitive kosher products. After all, Beck-Berman has seen a steady surge of interest in “greening” kashrut over the last ten years. “Traditionalists are now aware of consumers wanting it, and they see that it’s not just a fad but has basis within Jewish law and tradition,” he says. “Now you can buy range-fed, preservative-free, kosher-slaughtered buffalo meat. It might cost more, but people are willing to pay for the quality and spiritual aspects.”

Back in Saul’s, co-owners Adelman and Levitt continue to wrangle with the tension between tradition and innovation, ancient precepts and modern crises. “An iconic eatery, especially a Jewish eatery and delicatessen, is not supposed to go through change—we’re supposed to let time and the world pass us by. That’s not what we’re doing here,” Levitt says. “We’re trying to be leaders and maintain our existence. We have to find a way to remain relevant. Tall meat sandwiches don’t do that.”
And while this relatively new establishment evolves out of the era of towers of pastrami, the two respect another birthright: kvetching.

“Complaining about food is part of the Jewish tradition, too. We’re a safe zone for that,” Adelman notes with a laugh.
That dissatisfaction, though sometimes bothersome to the likes of Adelman and Levitt, may be a, well, godsend. After all, keeping mum merely perpetuates the injustices of an industrialized food system. And although “nostalgia eating” may offer resistance to switching to a more sustainable diet, as Levitt says, spiritual and religious principles could encourage Jewish communities—and the nation at large—to adopt a more just, environmentally viable and healthy way of eating.

4 thoughts on “Synagogue-Supported Agriculture: The Jewish Food Movement Makes Its Move

  1. Thanks for this! You have given me a deeper appreciation of celebrating my faith and spirituality by thinking and working harder about honoring and respecting Earth and all that she gives me.

  2. The Reform Movement is embracing sustainable food systems as well! As the Legislative Assistant staffing our Green Table, Just Table initiative, I’m proud to say that Reform congregations across the U.S. and Canada are joining the food justice movement by starting synagogue gardens, passing new policies on ethical eating, joining CSAs and much more. We have curricular resources, garden guides etc. available at http://www.urj.org/food. Contact me (rbcohen@rac.org) if you want to learn more and get involved!

  3. Pingback: Increase In Jewish Community Gardening « Design & Everyday Experience