Walking inside from the cold wintery streets of Montréal, where the smell of onions and carrots fill the two-story shul, one can hear Friday night prayers ring out from a boisterous crowd of 20-somethings, excited university students and local community members welcoming the Shabbat Queen. The smells come from the Shabbat dinner last week, which consists of a warm chicken soup with kosher organic grain-fed chicken from a farm located in the Eastern Townships of Québec, a locally-grown bean puree and, “Spectacular Salsa” with local tomatoes, onions, and garlic, a cabbage salad with carrots and beets, and a frittata with mushrooms, onions, and eggs. And that’s just the first course.
Thanks to the Shefa Project, a student-run organization aimed at engaging Jewish people with sustainable solutions to environmental problems, members of the Ghetto Shul in Montréal, Québec enjoy weekly Shabbat dinners that are local, sustainably-grown and kosher. The initiative called Sustainable Shabbat began in 2010, when second year Agriculture student Aryeh Canter started holding educational programs at the Hillel at McGill University. Canter was interested in promoting sustainable practices within the Jewish student community at McGill. The programs became more practical when Canter’s friend Jordan Bibla found organic kosher chicken raised in Québec and they applied for grants from Gen J, a Jewish community grant organization, and the Student Society at McGill University.
The Shefa Project, named after the Hebrew word for abundance or “the bountiful, delightful joyful, divine flow of life-energy from creator to creatures,” has two main projects, Indoor Gardening and Sustainable Shabbats, in addition to holding workshops and experiential education field trips to local farms. Sustainable Shabbats are the most popular and wide-reaching of Shefa’s initiatives attracting 100-150 volunteers a year. Each week a head chef is assigned to organize the Shabbat dinner and collects a group of 5-10 volunteers to help cook. According to Canter, the biggest challenge for the project is to convey the idea of staying “local.” This means no lemons! The trick is to rearrange how you cook: you aren’t just working with recipes, but with local ingredients. First asking the question “What do we have?” helps cooks settle into the right mindset. If we don’t have lemons, improvise and use something else — maybe a handful of kale or Jerusalem artichokes would work better with the chicken this week.
Before dinner is served, the meal’s head chef gives a “food tour” of the dishes after Kiddish and Hamotzi. By introducing the food, the chef acknowledges where the food comes from and introduces a new level of gratitude. As Canter described, we are grateful on a more tangible level for the food that G-d has given us after the traditional, more esoteric prayers for the gifts of Shabbat, wine, and bread.
In addition to providing healthy, local Shabbat dinners every week, the Shefa Project has also cut the Shul’s food budget in half. The weekly budget expects 50-100 attendants for dinner and estimates approximately $200-250 for supplies, most of which is earmarked for the Kosher chicken. However, cost is only one reason to opt for sustainable changes in your local shul and/or household. When asked what the most rewarding part of the project was, Canter answered that the growing relationships with local farmers outweighed even the benefits of the meal itself.
So, how can you make your Shabbat table more sustainable? Factory-processed produce is a relatively recent development for Shabbat tables. Canter explains that Judaism can direct the now-popular push towards sustainable eating, because we have a “vast wealth to inspire how we live.” We are able to turn to Jewish text and traditions as guides for how to create sustainable communities. From man’s environmental responsibility in Bereshit to daily blessings said before eating, Judaism discusses the intrinsic, intertwined nature of humans and their environment. The first step towards a more sustainable Shabbat might be to cut out the plastic plates or to “go local” by finding locally-raised kosher meat. However we decide to make our “first step” towards sustainability, we can be sure to look at the strong traditions that have led us to where we are today. Besides, who can argue with an organic chicken soup using local root vegetables?
For more information on the Shefa Project, go to: http://shefaproject.wordpress.com/.
Alyssa Bauer runs a farmers’ market in Montreal, QC and has become a lover of red wine after a recent trip to Argentina. You can follow her on her blog.