There Was a Chasid Who Had a Farm

Kosher Organic Farmers Find Mandate for Environmental Sustainability in Torah

By Jennifer Fishbein

Published December 26, 2003, issue of December 26, 2003.
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With interest in environmental sustainability burgeoning, organic farmers are finding more and more buyers — with kosher-keeping consumers among them. It’s all possible thanks in part to a growing number of chasidic Jews who are swapping their black coats for overalls, citing the Torah and a Jewish farming tradition as their mandate.

“The Torah is the original environmental primer,” said Shmuel Simenowitz, a Lubavitch rabbi, lawyer and Jewish educator who began farming about 17 years ago on Long Island. “Fifty years ago, all our grandparents had chickens…. So we’re not coming from outer space.”

Simenowitz said the fast-paced atmosphere and superficial mindset at his former New York law firm prompted him seven years ago to move to bucolic Readsboro, Vt., and establish Sweet Whisper Farms, an organic educational farm and maple syrup business.

“Many said I was crazy,” he said of his former colleagues. “All said, ‘We wish we had the guts to do what you’re doing.’”

Yosef Abrams has a similar story. Fed up with an unfulfilling 26-year law career, Abrams — who once argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court — bid farewell to his Chicago firm in 1998 and bought a 200-acre farm in Waukon, Iowa. His mission: to join nearby Postville’s 50-family Lubavitch community and create a premium-quality kosher cheese.

“I never looked back,” said Abrams, proprietor of Mitzva Farms, which produces such cheeses as Yetta’s Chedda, A Bis’l Swiss’l and Mazel Rella. “It was like walking away from Sodom and Gomorrah.”

In embracing farm life, both men have rejected modern conveniences in favor of Old World technology. Simenowitz heats his home with wood-burning ovens and tends his farm with horse-drawn plows. “Not everything is… press a button and it happens right away,” he said. “The attitude today is, if it takes more than 10 seconds, it’s not worth doing.”

Abrams said the no-frills quality of farm life appeals particularly to Lubavitchers.

“In many ways, farm life rejects a lot of the secular world,” he said. “The frills, the fluff, the insincerity. It’s all about hard work and a handshake — no written documents. You wear overalls, not a $500 suit; you go to Wal-Mart for your dishes, not Saks Fifth Avenue. That’s the nature of Chabad — you return to the simple things. You throw your TV in the trash, basically. It’s a perfect fit.”

Indeed this “perfect fit” inspired seven Lubavitch families to found America’s first kosher organic farming community in 2002. Named Eretz Ha’Chaim — Hebrew for “the living land” — the 70-acre farm in Sunderland, Mass., harvests about 25 varieties of produce, tends cows and chickens and boasts a synagogue, school and mikvah, or ritual bath.

“The Ba’al Shem Tov [the founder of chasidism] encouraged simpletons to put their hands into their work,” said 26-year-old Tuvia Helfen, chief farmer at Eretz Ha’Chaim. “Even scholars should work with their hands to leave their minds free for Torah.”

But Helfen said farming possesses a universal appeal that enhances the faith of all Jews, not just Lubavitchers.

“There’s nothing like the farming, the magic of creation,” Helfen said. “No matter how much work you put in, you’re amazed at what goes on there. It also enhances the holidays.” For example, he said, fall is a time of renewal: “The leaves are changing, we read the Torah again, it’s kind of like the creation process is starting anew.”

The men said their zeal for farming stems from the Torah’s prescription of environmentalism and social justice.

“The Torah says we are to dominate and command the land, and it’s our charge to take care of it,” Abrams said. “If there was any document that was environmentalist 3,000 years ago, it would be the Torah.”

The farmers do observe the commandments to let their animals rest on the Sabbath, leave the land fallow every seventh year and grow certain crops apart from each other. But modernity has rendered other laws — such as the commandment to designate a corner of one’s field for the poor — obsolete.

“I would be surprised if I saw people gleaning in the corners of my fields,” Simenowitz said. “I would be happy, but society doesn’t lend itself to that. Would you approach homeless people from the [New York] Bowery and tell them to scour through your garden?”

To compensate, the farmers have crafted what they see as modern-day equivalents. They hold environmental and Jewish education classes for children and adults, donate food to local families and participate in the Community Supported Agriculture program . This last effort allows nonfarmers — neighbors and nearby city dwellers — to buy shares in a farm’s produce at the start of the farming season and in exchange enjoy a steady supply of fresh fruit and vegetables.

More than 1,000 CSA farms exist in the United States and Canada, but Eretz Ha’Chaim ( is the only kosher farm to participate so far. Another one is on its way, however, at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn.

Adam Berman, executive director of Eretz Ha’Chaim, said his wish to live in a nondenominational Jewish farming community inspired him to initiate Adamah, a six-month environmental leadership training program at the center. In the summer 2003 pilot program, six young adults built a garden that featured chickens, bees and fruit trees. A five-acre farm is in the works for this spring, with a CSA program to follow.

“There are thousands of young Jews out there who are much more compelled by environmental issues than they are by Judaism,” Berman said. “It’s very sad for me. To me, they’re intricately linked — passion for environmental sustainability and love of Judaism.”

Though these pioneers are revolutionizing the Jewish identity and guise, they are reluctant to consider themselves saintly revolutionaries. “We’re not tzaddiks,” Abrams said, using the Hebrew word for righteous person. “We’re just the soldiers of God.”

Jennifer Fishbein edits Fabrics & Furnishings International, an interior design magazine.

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