Lettuce pray: Synagogue garden idea bears fruit in Berkeley

Jeremy Gillick’s hands are dirty.

For the last few weeks, Gillick and scores of volunteers have been harvesting the chard, parsley, mustard greens, tomatoes and lettuces growing in the garden of Berkeley synagogue Chochmat HaLev.

It’s not quite the Garden of Eden, but the 56 square feet of growing space has been a great, green success, thanks to a pilot program that Gillick has created. Green Chaverim, which helps synagogues plant gardens and fruit trees on their property, won a two-year $3,000 grant from NEXT: A Division of Birthright Israel Foundation this past spring.

Jeremy Gillick and one of Green Chaverim’s two garden boxes

Coinciding with Sukkot, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the traditional harvest, the timing — and the produce — couldn’t be better.

“We’re just wrapping up the first harvest,” the Berkeley resident said. “My idea is to have lots of synagogues replicating this.”

Gillick, 27, is a graduate of U.C. Davis with a degree in Jewish studies. New to the realm of Jewish nonprofits, he and his brother, Dan, founded Green Chaverim because they saw a need.

The brothers were well aware of and had a lot of respect for Urban Adamah, the nonprofit that promotes sustainable agriculture from a Jewish perspective via its urban farm in Berkeley.

But, they thought, what about people who don’t know about Urban Adamah? Why not bring the same idea to them instead of hoping they’ll seek out the Berkeley farm?

The plan is to establish gardens at synagogues, day schools and other Jewish institutions. The Gillicks applied for the NEXT grant last December and by spring they had passed the audition.

The brothers brought Chochmat HaLev on board, using their grant money and volunteers to erect two raised redwood garden boxes on the synagogue’s south lawn.

“I spent less than a third of [the grant] buying wood for boxes we built, for fancy soil to get a good start, tools, compost, bins and seed,” Gillick said.

He bought plants from nearby Willard Middle School’s spring plant sale, and received donated seeds from the Victory Garden Foundation as well as from Urban Adamah.

Over the course of the summer, Gillick gave children a chance to tend the garden. Some of the summer vegetable crop was turned over to the nearby Telegraph Ministry Center’s food bank and pantry.

That giving spirit ties in with Gillick’s Jewish values, which he says are the core of Green Chaverim (chaverim means “friends”).

“The environment, the cooperation, the charity: You can make a case they are all subsumed under the Jewish tradition of being at the forefront of social movements,” Gillick said. “Judaism in America has been good at that.”

There are no other synagogues signed up for planting just yet. Gillick wants to complete this trial run, assess and then move forward. He and his brother also see no reason to limit the concept to Jewish institutions. “I’d love to see churches and mosques with a garden,” he said, “with the food donated or for community members.”

Meanwhile, Gillick will soon swap his overalls for pinstripes, as he has just started studying law at U.C. Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. Somehow he plans to run Green Chaverim at the same time.

“Our generation is going to need to be more cooperative and thriftier than our parents’ generation,” he said. “We’re going to need to be more conscious of the environment and have higher standards when it comes to quality of our food. This project will help us figure out a potential way to that.”

More information at www.greenchaverim.org.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.