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Garden of Eatin’

Barbara Bensoussan

Gardens and farms have always been part of human existence: Hashem created Adam and placed him in a garden, then expelled him and obliged him to farm for his sustenance. But nowadays, sowing, tending, and harvesting one’s own fruits and vegetables are something we read about rather than something we do. Our kids learn words like winnowing, plowing, and tilling in yeshivah, but can’t imagine anybody actually performing such labors. The Denver Academy of Torah (DAT) set out to change all that.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

When a community member proposed turning part of the five-acre, mostly vacant campus area of the Denver Academy of Torah (DAT) into a combination farm and community garden, enthusiastic supporters managed to organize, in an astoundingly short time, a two-acre agricultural space in the middle of the neighborhood.

As yeshivah parents, talmidim, and the larger community got involved, they discovered that a Jewish community farm sprouts much more than fruits and vegetables. It brings forth opportunities to understand Torah better, to give tzedakah, to become acquainted with a wider range of healthy foods, and to promote awareness of Shabbos and other Jewish concepts among nonobservant and non-Jewish neighbors.

DAT, which currently has about 140 nursery, elementary, and middle-school students, is located on grounds known as the Glassman Educational Campus.

“The people who donated this plot were visionary,” says Amy Berkowitz Caplan, DAT’s director of admissions. “It’s right in the heart of the East Denver community, literally in the middle of the neighborhood, with apartments on one side and houses on the other.”

“Our yeshivah is growing quickly,” says Principal Rabbi Daniel Alter with satisfaction. “We’re running out of space! We don’t even have a cafeteria or a gym yet, but we’re making do.” Part of that expansion, says Mrs. Berkowitz Caplan, is due to a small but steady trickle of new Jewish families moving in. “Denver is affordable, and we have a good quality of life,” she says, with the pride of a native.

As the school grew, different ideas were proposed for making best use of the expansive campus. “Some people suggested building a mikveh. A high school, Yeshivat Sha’arei DAT, is also planned for the future,” Amy says. But the idea that really took off was more original.

“About a year and a half ago, on Simchas Torah, a guy from the yeshivah’s shul approached me,” Rabbi Alter says. “He said, ‘The land here is just lying dormant. Why don’t we start a garden, or a farm?’ I said, ‘Why not?’ It certainly couldn’t do any harm.’”

This parent was interested in the Jewish Food Movement, launched in 2000 by the organization Hazon, which promotes Jewish agricultural education and food sustainability. He helped DAT connect to the Rose Community Foundation, which provides funding for much of Jewish community life in Denver. Fortuitously, the Rose Foundation had been looking for food-oriented initiatives and generously offered seed money. The yeshivah also teamed up with Denver Urban Gardens (DUG) to establish a community garden alongside the yeshivah farm, called Ekar Farm.

“These days, community and school gardens are very in,” says Amy, who serves as a member of the farm’s board of directors (see sidebar). “That, plus the fact that it’s so educational, made it easy to attract funding.” It also helped that Ekar Farm offered to donate its harvests to the Jewish Family Service’s kosher food pantry. The farm has been so productive that a truck shows up twice a week to pick up produce. “Last year, we donated almost 8,000 pounds of food,” Amy says proudly.

As the project was beginning to take shape, Denver real estate developer Ilan Salzberg was contemplating taking time off to be a stay-at-home dad to his preemie twins. Salzberg, who had formerly worked the oregano fields of Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in Beit She’an, and who’d founded the Red Wagon Organic Farm outside Boulder, realized that helping with a yeshivah farm was just the community work for him.

“I’d been thinking what I could do to make a better world,” he told Mishpacha. “I thought I could give part of my time to this project, to help them stitch all the ideas together.” Before he knew it, his involvement was full-time.

It was Ilan, Denver-bred but Jerusalem-born, who came up with the name Ekar. “I love the Hebrew language, and this seemed a nice combination of two roots,” he explains. “Ayin-kuf-reish, ikkar, means a core concept. And alef-chaf-reish is a Bibical, farming-related shoresh [root].”

The land was divided into a farm with fifty individual plots of 200 square feet each, available to anyone in the larger community who wanted one. A quarter belongs to yeshivah families. The remaining plots are farmed by Jewish and non-Jewish community members, including fifteen plots belonging to refugees from the Himalayan nation of Bhutan. “They literally survive from what they raise,” Ilan remarks, “including some very peculiar kohlrabi-type radishes I’d never seen before!”

Amy admits that East Denver wasn’t initially an ideal location for growing things. “We have a short growing season, because of our winters,” she says. “Our land is on an old Air Force base, and the soil wasn’t great to begin with. We did soil tests, and composting. This year, our second season,” she reports happily, “when you turn over the soil, you see earthworms.”

Ilan himself is dedicated to producing good soil, claiming, “A good farmer grows vegetables, but a great farmer grows dirt. Good soil will give you everything else you need ... You can’t just focus on the end product, but on the process and long-term effects.”

While Ekar Farm doesn’t have official organic certification, Ilan says his methods are purely organic. “That’s what people do around here, and that’s what I learned,” he says. He found an organic Israeli seed company, Genesis Seeds of Ashalim (south of Beer Sheva), which agreed to donate seeds.

Last year, some 1,200 people volunteered at Ekar. Ilan started out with no paid staff, but this year he’ll take on two paid workers. How much do the yeshivah kids actually pitch in? “They do everything!” Ilan says. “They plant, they mow, they spread straw, they keep the weeds down, they help harvest. We go through seed catalogs together and choose new things to plant; they also contribute ideas for the greenhouse.” During the summer, children from the yeshivah’s camp, Camp Maayan, also lend a hand. Sixth-grader Shimmy Alter says his “day in the dirt at Ekar was hard work and fun.”


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