On the crumpled sheet of paper, a grayscale Mike Tabor looks away from the camera with
a grimace. Through the graininess of the tiny photograph you can still make out his full beard and shock of white hair jutting out from under a baseball cap. The photo accompanies a dense block of text that starts: “Michael Tabor — Tireless activist, organic farmer, justice-seeker, husband, father. The ultimate pot-stirrer. A non-conformist.”
But unlike most obituaries, this one is written in the present tense. And Tabor is seated at his dining table, looking at the sheet.
Last winter, Tabor, a fixture of lefty Jewish activism in the DMV since the 1960s, went to the doctor with back aches. Routine tests flagged an irregular heartbeat and Tabor was immediately hospitalized. He quickly underwent surgery to replace a damaged heart valve, a procedure that requires “turning off” the heart for several minutes.
Tabor didn’t know if he would live or die.
At some point during the eight-hour surgery, Tabor said that he perceived a conversation in which God asked what he’d done with his life to make his children proud and to make the world a better place.
Though the recovery has been long, Tabor, is back to holding court in his Takoma Park house and overseeing the vegetable harvest at Licking Creek Bend Farm in southern Pennsylvania. In many ways, it’s business as usual for the 79-year-old Tabor, who has split his time between the farm and home in the Washington area since the 1970s.
But the brush with death spurred Tabor to start putting his life down in writing, attempting to answer the question posed to him during the surgery: What has he done with his life?
The would-be obituary, penned by a friend for a party held shortly after the successful surgery, hits the highlights: Tabor helped create the Freedom Seder in the late 1960s, co-founded the Fabrangen chavurah and Jewish environmentalist group Shomrei Adamah, and created the now-defunct radical Jews for Urban Justice and the still-active Maryland political organization Progressive Neighbors.
Rabbi David Shneyer, who has known Tabor since the 1960s, said Tabor has had unique influence on the local political scene during his decades of work.
“He’s a sage of Jewish activism,” Shneyer said. “What can I say? He’s a pleasure to hang out with and he’s a pleasure to get arrested with.”
‘We were the exception, we were unusual’
Tabor was raised in a “Conservadox” household in the thick of Brooklyn Jewry. His undergraduate experience at SUNY Oneonta in upstate New York was his first exposure to both WASP and rural culture, as the college drew students from two-year agriculture school programs.
“We always joked with them, ‘Bill, wipe the shit off your shoes before you come in the room.’ It was always an object of derision,” Tabor said of the agriculture students. “If you had told me then that I was going to become a farmer, I would have been in complete
If the farming bug was yet to bite Tabor, he was already deep into leftist activism by the time he left college, graduating a year early, he said, at the insistence of an administrator furious with his publication of an underground student newspaper and general rabble rousing.
After Oneonta, Tabor enrolled in graduate school at the University of Maryland, planning to become a teacher. He became even more involved in the counterculture while in College Park after being radicalized by direct confrontation with both the heights of the Civil Rights Era and the depths of segregation.
The 1963 March on Washington took place on the weekend after Tabor’s first week of classes.
“I went to it and everything became irrelevant after that,” he said.
A few weeks later, Tabor invited a black classmate to grab beers in downtown College Park.
“They wouldn’t serve him because it was all segregated,”
Tabor said. “I was shocked coming from New York City — I didn’t know I was going into the Deep South.”
“I immediately got involved in everything: the sit ins, working in the South on voter registration.”
John Hope Franklin, the renowned African American historian, was one of the professors whose class Tabor blew off to attend civil rights demonstrations.
“He kept saying, ‘Mike, where’s your paper?’ And I’d say, ‘I just got beaten up in North Carolina, I had to take off,’ and he wasn’t at all sympathetic to my plight. I couldn’t get over that.”
Tabor was active in Hillel during college and continued leading an observant Jewish life during his first few years in Washington. But engaging with the mainstream Jewish community here became increasingly difficult for Tabor. He felt as though contemporary Jewish practice was losing its relevance and that local Jewish leaders were failing the moral test posed by the era.
“Throughout all the civil rights involvement, for a long time I kept on going to shul on Saturdays,” Tabor said. “I kept a strong identity but I was really unable to fuse that identity with a sense of change happening in the world.”
Tabor channeled his frustration into activism, working to end housing discrimination in the Maryland suburbs and eventually helping found Jews for Urban Justice in 1968. He also trained his sights on the Jewish community itself. One campaign targeted Joseph Danzansky, the Jewish president of Giant, for the grocery chain’s failure to abide by the California grape boycott.
One action that encapsulated both Tabor’s passion and his willingness to confront the mainstream Jewish establishment took place at a Rockville shopping center in 1969.
When the original Jewish community center in the District announced plans to relocate to the Maryland suburbs, Tabor and a group of fellow activists opposed the move. Tabor personally enjoyed playing handball on the JCC courts, and said he and other young Jews in the city attended lectures at the center and used their facilities for events. But they also worried that the relocation marked a shift in the center of communal gravity.
“The wealthier Jews — the Jews who were able to — moved to the suburbs and that became the centerpiece of Jewish Washington,” Tabor said.
The activists worried about an abandonment of the lower-income, elderly and young Jews still living in the city.
“There was some opinion that we should not move, that this was a little more revolutionary than evolutionary, for which reason there was a lot of dialogue,” real estate developer and former JCC president Robert Kogod recalled in a video made for the Bender Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington’s 100th anniversary celebration.
When that dialogue failed to bring about change, Tabor and a small cohort brought their objections to the ribbon cutting ceremony in Rockville. With the new JCC’s parking lot still under construction, attendees were instructed to park at the nearby E.J. Korvette’s hopping center and board shuttles to the ribbon cutting, where Vice President Spiro Agnew and the Marine Band would be ready to greet them.
Tabor and a handful of other protesters lined up along the route to the shuttle buses and for an hour they handed out leaflets to the hundreds of attendees. “This is the Bus to Auschwitz,” exclaimed the front of the flyer.
While community leaders were aware of some discontent around the move, Tabor said attendees were shocked by the protest.
“We didn’t announce that we were going to be there and disrupt your happy event,” he said. “People were very upset.”
“We were trying to make our point and the times were different. This was the ‘60s and shock value was important to help make your point.”
(Holocaust survivor Arno Winard was one of the action’s leaders, and went ahead to the site of the ribbon cutting to protest there.)
Shneyer said that leftist and progressive Jewish organizations like Bend the Arc and IfNotNow are far closer to the mainstream today than they were in the 1960s and 1970s when Tabor and Jews for Urban Justice were first active.
“We were the exception, we were unusual,” Shneyer said. “The Jewish community as a whole has since moved to the left in how we respond to local needs for Jews and non-Jews.”
Tabor said that while the JCC flyer’s language was especially dramatic, the clash between his small group of radical Jewish activists and the mainstream Jewish clergy and lay leadership in Washington was standard at the time.
“We were not treated very well by rabbis, for the most part,” Tabor said.
It was in this context that Tabor got out of Dodge, heading north with a contingent of fellow Jews likely disillusioned with the mainstream and looking to reconnect with the faith on their own terms.
“It came out of yiddishkeit and a basic feeling that we were going in the wrong direction as a community of Jews,” Tabor said. “What’s this heritage about? Where’s it coming from? Why don’t we dig deeper?”
On the farm
Tabor started farming in Pennsylvania in the early 1970s as part of the “diaspora kibbutz” movement, helping create a communal farm with Jewish activists from Washington who wanted to escape the bleak political scene during the height of the Vietnam War.
“It was the time of communes,” Tabor said. “The war didn’t want to seem to end, no mattter what we did, and there was an attempt to look at other avenues for resolving our mental and existential distress.”
Tabor decamped to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and set about creating a sustainable community. The group wrote to the Baron de Hirsch Society, which helped develop Jewish agriculture in pre-state
Israel, for advice, and sought guidance from a handful of similar communities in New Jersey. In the end, it was a short-lived effort kept afloat with funds from Tabor’s side job as a columnist in the Jewish press and paid speaking engagements he flew to from the Hagerstown airport.
“We didn’t know how to make a living farming,” Tabor said.
But Tabor stayed in a farm country, struggling through a series of lean years to build what is now a successful fruit and vegetable operation with active farmers markets throughout the Washington area. The farm raises its harvest “naturally,” but eschews the organic label, and accepts food stamps and even the occasional barter at its markets in Adams Morgan and Congress Heights.
In recent years, Tabor has taken on a mentoring role for younger Jewish farmers. In a profile of Tabor, the Jewish Food Experience blog described “a new generation of Jewish farmers cropping up in the DC, Virginia and Maryland … following in Tabor’s footsteps.”
He said it makes sense that some Jews would be drawn to farming and that he deepened his relationship with Judaism through closeness to the land.
“As we became more and more involved in farming I realized there were overlays with the holidays,” he said. “We were a nomadic people, and then became a pastoral people, and so Pesach is the barley harvest and then 49 days later Shavuot is the wheat harvest.”
But even with a slight uptick in the number of young Jews getting into farming, American Jews remain a decidedly urban people. Tabor recognized early on that he was largely on his own at the farm and tried to keep both his faith and politics under wraps in the largely Protestant and very conservative Hagerstown region.
“Right from the beginning, it was very difficult being in a rural Protestant area,” Tabor said. “You learn the taboos of rural culture: You don’t talk politics and you don’t talk religion, so it was very difficult to talk about the things I believed in.”
After several years in the region, Tabor figured most of his neighbors knew he was Jewish. He said he’s felt no hostility on that basis, and is friendly with the handful of Jewish professionals who live in the area.
Yet being one of the few Jews in the region has had its moments. There was a woman years ago who informed Tabor, in a manner that he found close to propositioning, that the local tradition was for women to convert to their husband’s faith upon marriage. And then there was the neighboring farmer who, in the middle of helping Tabor with a sheep in labor, tried to clarify that despite being Jewish Tabor still accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and savior.
While he eventually came up with the solution of splitting time between the Maryland suburbs and the farm, the first years were especially difficult. Tabor was still learning to run a farm and had to stay on the property full time.
The isolation got him interested in the success of Jewish peddlers, who used to frequent rural areas like the one where his farm is located.
“A peddler’s purpose was to have a 50 mile circuit, get back by Shabbos so he could be with other Jews who spoke Yiddish, save money and bring his family over,” Tabor said. “There’s something very noble about that to me. That’s very appealing.”
As part of the writing project he began after his heart surgery, Tabor has been researching the history of peddlers in his county and nearby areas.
Tabor believes the story of these peddlers, who may have traversed some of the same roads he uses to get to and from his Pennsylvania farm, is being lost to history. Peddling, he said, offered new immigrants a path to economic stability — spend a few years on the road before opening a store of one’s own — while exposing rural Americans to a variety of goods they otherwise wouldn’t have had access too, especially in the case of women and African Americans often shut out of traditional retail consumerism.
“It’s a remarkable history of Jew and non-Jew getting benefit from each other in a positive way,” Tabor said.
Ninety-six percent of American Jews live in urban areas, according to the 2013 Pew Research Center Study, and that figure has remained nearly constant since the early 20th century.
Attempting to elevate the history of the forgotten rural Jew is perhaps especially fitting for a man who has spent much of his adult life at odds with the mainstream Jewish community, refusing to accept conventional communal wisdom.
But contrarian views and even radical politics are not so unusual among Jews.
Shneyer said Tabor has had an outsize impact because he’s able to get other people in the community to take action: attend a protest, sign on to a campaign, even run for office.
“He’s been able to influence other people in creating change in the Washington, D.C., area and maybe even beyond,” Shneyer said, recalling years’ worth of phone calls he’s received from Tabor urging him to join a variety of causes.
Importantly, Shneyer said, people listen when Tabor makes an ask.
“He’s so committed to social justice, and so articulate, and is not afraid to speak with people who are in positions of influence,” Shneyer said. “And he has the credibility because he has almost 60 years of political activism behind him.”
Post-heart surgery, Tabor is still on the farm most months of the year and attending conferences and traveling for his book research during the off season. Pushing 80, he’s trying to figure out how many days per week it’s healthy for a man of his age to exercise.
And if he has any second thoughts about having worked a life of manual labor interspersed with political agitation, well past the age that most of his peers have retired, he doesn’t show it.
“Had I gone through the normal path of taking a job and then in my 50s retiring and, I don’t know, being in Florida, what would I do? I just can’t conceive of that,” he said. “It’s a good way to die early.”
Arno Rosenfeld is a Washington-area writer.