Volunteer project focuses on sustainable food and farming

Dana Blecher wants you to get your hands dirty — so bring your gardening gloves and your Jewish self too.

The social worker and Jeremiah fellow at the Progressive Jewish Alliance has partnered with American Jewish World Service to create an eight-week service learning initiative focused on food justice and sustainability.

Jews in the Garden: A Food Justice Project is intended for young adult Jews in their 20s and 30s. Food justice refers to fruits and vegetables grown without chemicals, animals raised and killed in a humane way and crops that were harvested by workers paid a fair wage. It also prizes fruits and vegetables grown locally and sold seasonally.

Volunteers will visit sites in Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco’s Bayview and Bernal Heights neighborhoods. Each project will conclude with a group discussion linking Jewish text and thought with food and agriculture.

“I wanted to create a community of like-minded people who are interested in giving back to their community and learning about food issues in a Jewish context,” Blecher said.

The 15 to 20 participants selected will participate in four Sunday garden projects in which Jewish educators will work alongside volunteers, then lead informal reflection discussions. Participants also attend an evening educational event, a Shabbat dinner and a graduation.

Blecher created the Tikkun Olam TeamWorks as part of a yearlong fellowship with Progressive Jewish Alliance. The Jeremiah Fellowship — nearing the end of its inaugural year in San Francisco — requires its 15 participants to spend several months volunteering (or creating) a service project of their choice.

Tikkun Olam TeamWorks is modeled after the TeamWorks program developed by Hands on Bay Area, a S.F.-based organization where Blecher works as a senior community programs manager.

TeamWorks is a service learning initiative that brings together eight to 15 people several times over a period of six weeks. The group participates in volunteer projects and gathers for related group discussions.

The Food Justice Project borrowed that structure; Blecher’s vision added a Jewish glaze.

Blecher, 31, has degrees in social work and Jewish studies. Though she worked at U.C. Berkeley Hillel for one year after graduate school, she has worked primarily in the secular community since, first with Larkin Street Youth Services, where she helped get homeless teenagers off the street, and more recently with Hands on Bay Area, where she helps train community volunteers.

“My parents thought [Larkin Street] was the best job I ever had because I called them almost every day thanking them for the support they gave me throughout my life.” Through her work, she said, she “recognized not everyone had that.”

She loves that the Food Justice Project unites so many of her passions.

AJWS is excited to be involved too, said Heidi Winig, program officer in San Francisco.

“We’re trying to build a global Jewish social justice movement,” she said. And with Tikkun Olam TeamWorks, “We’re using a Jewish lens to learn about issues affecting all of us — the places that we live, and the foods we eat.”

In choosing participants, priority will go to alumni of AJWS and Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps, but Winig encourages anyone interested in the project to apply.

Tikkun Olam TeamWorks begins March 30 and ends May 20.

To apply to Tikkun Olam TeamWorks, email alumni@ajws.org. For more information about the schedule, contact Heidi Winig at (415) 593-3299 or hwinig@ajws.org. Applications are due March 5.

Stacey Palevsky