By Rachel Feidelman
Jesse Rabinowitz was a freshman at the University of Maryland in 2009 when he and a few friends thought it would be a great idea to grow their own spices for Havdalah.
They dug a garden in front of the Hillel Jewish student center and planted fruits and vegetables. Although Rabinowitz never got around to planting his Havdalah herbs, he sowed a seed that sprouted into what became known as JFarm, the university’s Jewish environmental group.
“I soon learned that what we made was much more than a garden,” Rabinowitz said recently. “It was a way to build community, do justice work and get connected to the Jewish environmental ethic.”
Rabinowitz graduated in 2013, with high hopes for JFarm. He still has them. “It’s my hope that JFarm can grow healthy, sustainable food for those in need while working to transform power structures and overturn systemic oppressions that result in food scarcity,” he stated.
Today, JFarm is run by students Anat Berday-Sacks and Adam Kellner. The group works the garden in front of Hillel and promotes environmental sustainability initiatives. “We believe that being environmentally conscious and having a connection with the earth are fundamental parts of Judaism, and it is important for there to be that kind of presence in the U-Md. community,” Kellner said.
The group donates its harvest to a local food bank or the Campus Pantry, a group that works to eliminate hunger on campus.
This year’s crop includes squash, watermelon, cucumber and kale, as well as basil, mint, rosemary and thyme.
JFarm also holds events such as tea making and pickling parties, and Tu B’Shevat celebrations, Kellner said.
Last summer, they refurbished the garden that Rabinowitz created, building and painting a fence around it. JFarm also joined the UMD Garden Collective, which connects them with other gardening groups on campus.
And Berday-Sacks and Kellner refocused the JFarm mission to include stronger education efforts. They believe many students are not as connected to the environment as they should be.”
As you’re walking around campus, you’re not looking at the trees, you’re looking at your phone,” Berday-Sacks said. “When you’re eating at the diner, you’re not thinking about where your vegetables came from — you’re not appreciating it because you don’t know the work that went into it.”
The environmental issues JFarm is most focused on are recycling, composting and reducing food waste.
Last year, the group started a compost collection program for students living on or near campus.
“I saw people who previously didn’t think too much about their food waste get really excited about composting and cutting down on their waste,” Kellner said. “I love seeing people get excited about environmental issues.”
JFarm has a small core of active members, and Berday-Sacks hope the group will grow.
“I’m hoping to really grow our followers, so that more people see the garden as a place to relax and are pulled in toward our other activities to learn more about sustainability.”