Sowing the seeds of faith: New Jewish food movement takes root in the Bay Area

Jews and food — it’s a phrase that typically conjures images of kugel, matzah balls and gefilte fish.

The new Jewish food movement is trying to change that.

But the movement isn’t trying to change the types of foods Jews eat — it’s merely trying to change the way they’re prepared. Think kugel made with organic, local potatoes; gefilte fish made from locally caught carp; and matzah balls seasoned with herbs grown in your own backyard.

“The kugel remix, that’s how I think of it,” says Emily Freed, a Jewish farmer who grows organic herbs. “The new Jewish food movement is really reshaping the idea and the importance of what Jewish food is to our culture and religion. It’s making people — Jews and non-Jews — aware of where food comes from and how we can play an active role in the food system.”

The Jewish food movement hinges on a push from a range of Jews — farmers, foodies, locavores, vegans, omnivores, rabbis and lay leaders — educating their Jewish communities about where food comes from, who grows, raises or kills it, how far it travels from the field to the dinner table and how all of those concerns are woven into the Jewish tradition.

Though the movement formally began in New York in 2000 with the creation of Hazon (“vision” in Hebrew), a nonprofit linking Jews to the sources of their food, it will make a big splash in the Bay Area in December when the organization’s third annual food conference comes to the West Coast for the first time.

Coordinators of the Hazon Jewish Food Conference expect 500 people to attend the four-day affair that will explore the intersection of Jews, food and contemporary life, Dec. 25 to 28 in Pacific Grove on the Monterey Peninsula.

Freed, 32, is helping to plan the conference, but her full-time job is as assistant production manager for Jacobs Farm, which grows 44 different types of herbs in six locations in Santa Cruz County.

To Freed and her fellow conference coordinators, the westward move is significant.

“It’s an exciting moment, that the Jewish food movement is making its first big step to the West Coast — this means it’s a bicoastal movement,” said Zelig Golden, an attorney at the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit in San Francisco, and co-chair of the food conference.

For decades, California has been the epicenter of food and farming, while the East Coast has been seen as the center of American Jewish life.

The Hazon conference, Golden said, is “a meeting of both coasts, combining our strengths to really work on what it means to be Jewish and do tikkun olam in the world of food and agriculture.”

The new Jewish food and farming movement actually has its roots in ancient Israel. Biblical Judaism revolved around agriculture and the seasons, and most ancient Jews were farmers. Two of the major Jewish holidays, Shavuot and Sukkot, were traditionally harvest festivals, and seven of the Torah’s mitzvahs relate directly to agriculture.

In contrast, today’s Jews who farm, garden and educate communities about sustainable food sources do so as a choice — and not an easy one at that, given that most American Jews congregate in urban centers.

“Sonoma is one of the rare places where there’s a significant Jewish community in a rural community,” said Steve Schwartz , owner of New Carpati Farm in Sebastopol.

Schwartz named his farm after the Carpathian Mountains in Czechoslovakia and Romania, where his grandparents lived and his father was born and raised, until he was sent to Auschwitz at age 13.

In 1998, Schwartz founded California FarmLink, a nonprofit that helps preserve family farms by matching up retiring farmers with younger-generation farmers. Three years later he started his own farm, growing specialty mushrooms, berries and herbs. That year he also went back to the land his father once cared for.

“Over time I’ve come to understand better that one of my inspirations in being involved in farming and helping families get and maintain their land is that the Hungarian Nazis forced my family from their land,” he said.

The historical and religious roots of Jews, food and farming are central to the new Jewish food movement. Those involved in the movement do not simply believe that it’s trendy or timely to care about our food and its sources, but also that there is a Jewish imperative rooted in Torah and Israel to care about such things.

Though many of the principles are parallel to those of the internationally renowned Slow Food Movement, the Jewish food movement is distinct in its focus on Jewish wisdom, law and ritual.

Rabbi Steve Greenberg, Hazon’s rabbi-in-residence, spoke at synagogues and JCCs around the Bay Area this month. During a presentation to staff at the JCC of San Francisco, he drew connections between the past and present.

He pointed out that Abraham and Sarah’s tent had four openings, one on each side, so they could invite passing visitors from every direction inside for a meal. When Isaac blessed Jacob, it was during his meal. When Jews received the Torah at Sinai, they saw God — and ate and drank.

“Every moment of covenant is about eating,” Greenberg said.

But the Torah is not the only connection to Jews and food, particularly in Northern California.

In the early part of the 20th century, hundreds of Eastern European Jews, fleeing pogroms and hardships, immigrated to the United States and settled in Petaluma. They lived as socialists and secular Jews, and worked not as shopkeepers or professionals, but as chicken farmers.

Their story is detailed in “Comrades and Chicken Ranchers,” a book published in 1993. A film about the community, “A Home on the Range: The Jewish Chicken Ranchers of Petaluma,” debuted in 2002 at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival.

Today’s Jewish farmers are a different breed. They are often just as focused on their crops as they are on advocating for sustainability. Some are nonreligious, like most of the original Petaluma farmers, but many are quite observant, and see a direct relationship between their interest in growing food and their Judaism.

Michael Straus, whose parents started Straus Family Creamery in 1941 near Tomales Bay, said most of the Bay Area Jewish farmers he knows are, unlike him, the first generation in their family to raise animals or grow crops.

“From what my friends tell me, when you grow up in a city, you feel disconnected from the land, and I think at some basic level they yearned for a deeper meaning — and it was expressed by working with their hands and the environment,” he said.

Michael worked on the dairy farm growing up, but as a young adult chose not to make farming his career. His brother, Albert, runs the dairy today. Albert converted it to an organic operation in 1994, during which time Michael moved back to be involved in the transition. Today, Michael runs a communications firm that works with environmental and sustainable organizations and businesses.

“I started a business completely connected to agriculture and the environment in a way that makes sense to me,” he said. “It’s deeply rooted in farming.”

The Hazon Food Conference seeks to bring together two worlds that, until recently, rarely intersected — American Jewish life and agriculture.

“We like to joke that the Hazon food conference is the only place where rabbis and farmers sit down with each other,” said Judith Belasco, the conference director.

Topics and speakers often address provocative and timely issues. For instance, this year Rabbi Seth Mandel of OU Kosher and Rabbi Allen Morris, who is pushing for a Hekhsher Tzedek, or justice certification, will sit on a panel together and talk about the kosher meat industry. The industry has been in the headlines often since Agriprocessors, the world’s largest kosher slaughterhouse, was raided in May, uncovering a host of immigration and labor law violations, as well as a number of questionable kosher slaughter practices.

At last year’s conference, participants watched as a shochet (kosher slaughterer) killed two goats.

“We are expanding people’s notions of the connection between Jews and food,” Belasco said. “As someone who had never seen a slaughter before, I was surprised by how peaceful and calm the process was.”

This year, there is no kosher slaughter on the conference’s agenda. But those who arrive early can watch a shochet kill 15 to 20 pasture-raised, organic turkeys, and can volunteer to clean, kasher and prepare the turkeys for the conference’s Shabbat meal.

Roger Studley, a Berkeley resident who attends Mission Minyan in San Francisco, is organizing the session.

“I have this idealistic notion that if I’m going to eat meat, I ought to be willing to kill the animal myself,” he said. “I hope [the volunteers] will be reconnected to this process, rather than completely divorced from it, when they only experience chicken as this stuff that comes wrapped in cellophane at the grocery store. People should have a sense of what it takes to feed themselves.”

Studley is not just focused on this issue for the food conference. He’s trying to start the West Coast branch of KOL Foods (Kosher, Organic-raised, Local), a Maryland farm that distributes its kosher, grass-fed beef and lamb to several communities on the East Coast. KOL does not sell its products in the West, since that’s antithetical to its mission to promote eating local.

“There is no way to get grass-fed kosher beef in the Bay Area, and so if you keep kosher, then you have to compromise right now on ethics and sustainability,” Studley said. “I’d like people not to have to make that compromise.”

Conference programming will include workshops on how to grow your own food and compost, how to eat and cook healthier, what’s happening in Israel regarding organic food production, and how to incorporate ancient Jewish wisdom into your gardening, grocery shopping and cooking.

The conference will also provide opportunities for prayer, Torah study, yoga, beach bonfires, bike rides, music and dancing. The food served will be kosher, local and, for the most part, organic.

“One of the strengths of Hazon is that it [attracts] people excited about food and the environment and brings that into a Jewish context, and it also [attracts] people who are deeply Jewish and exposes them to issues of food and the environment,” Golden said. “This is how we cross-fertilize.”

But the food conference isn’t the only venue for growing the conversation about Judaism and agriculture.

Twice a year, a cohort of young Jews migrates to a farm in Connecticut, where they live in tents on a farm, learn about Judaism and Torah and practice sustainable agriculture.

About 10 alumni of the three-month fellowship, known as Adamah, live in the Bay Area. Golden, who participated several years ago, said the experience had a huge impact on how he lives and practices Judaism today. While on the farm, he helped start a pickling business (which is still in production) after the farm had a bumper crop of cucumbers and didn’t know what to do with the excess.

“We couldn’t let them rot,” he said. Starting a kosher dill pickling operation “was taking old world Jewish values and putting them into real practice.”

His ultimate goal is to create an Adamah fellowship in California.

“As a Jewish community, it’s incumbent upon us to be a light, and to make food the centerpiece of our communal work,” he said.

To that end, there is also Tuv Ha’Aretz, a community-supported agriculture program, which in the Bay Area is organized by Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley and the JCC of San Francisco. Members of Tuv Ha’Aretz get a box of produce each week from a local farm.

Hazon started Tuv Ha’Aretz in 2005 with just five communities. Next year 30 communities plan to participate.

“There are a certain number of kids who are growing up getting fresh vegetables every week at their synagogue,” Belasco said. “That is a shift.”

Schwartz, the owner of New Carpati Farm, believes that instilling ethical food values at a young age is an important component to the movement. He hopes the agricultural life his children are growing up with will deepen their understanding and appreciation of Judaism.

“Growing up and being able to talk about the gathering of eggs and growing food will help them understand that the cycles of the agricultural seasons are defined by the same calendar cycles as our Jewish traditions and our holidays,” Schwartz said. “I think it will help all of us better understand our Judaism.”

Hazon Food Conference 2008

The third annual Hazon Food Conference begins 3 p.m. Dec. 25 and ends 1 p.m. Dec. 28. All events will take place at the Asilomar Conference and Retreat Center in Pacific Grove, on the Monterey Peninsula.

Food served at the conference will be kosher, local and (mostly) organic. During the conference, Asilomar will be a glatt kosher facility supervised by a mashgiach (kashrut supervisor) from the Vaad HaKashrus of Northern California.

Topics discussed at the conference will be diverse and wide-reaching. Workshop topics will include Jewish ritual, food and labor policies, Israeli agriculture, worm bin composting and kosher meat.

The conference will incorporate speakers, panel discussions, hands-on workshops, cooking demonstrations, and opportunities for collective and individual Jewish learning.

Registration is $290 for adults, $150 for teenagers ages 14-17 and $50 for children ages 3 to 13. Registration is free for children under 3. Scholarships are available for rabbinical students. Lodging at Asilomar ranges from $100 to $520 for the four-day conference.

To register, visit, e-mail or call (212) 644-2332.

cover photo & design | cathleen maclearie

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.