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Jewish farmers? In the city? You better believe

Ekar volunteer farmers Eli Goldstein (l) and Ilan Salzberg strike a distinctly agrarian — and Jewish — pose in honor of  Grant Wood’s ‘American Gothic.’ (Shari Valenta)IF you listen carefully, you might hear new and curious sounds emanating from the Denver Jewish community.

Such as a rake drawing its tines through freshly turned earth.

Or a hoe chucking its way through clods and weeds.

Or the hushed plinks of water drops falling from hoses to dirt.

Or, perhaps, even the barely perceptible whisper of a young plant springing forth from a seed in search of sunlight.

Gardens and small farms are appearing in the city in all sorts of unlikely places, including Jewish places — in the shadow of a synagogue, on newly-acquired land that might one day become a Jewish high school, on an empty lot amidst the hustle-bustle of downtown itself.

Although part of a growing national movement that values urban farming, organic food and a philosophical return to nature and hard work, these are Jewish gardens.

They are reminding modern urban Jews of their distant agricultural past. They are reconnecting them with the seasons and cycles of their own ancient religious calendar and providing precious opportunities to honor the commandments of their tradition and faith.

They are, in many ways, helping 21st century Jews rediscover something elusive yet powerful, something essentially human and mystical — the timeless harmony between man and nature.

In physical terms, raising crops is hard and unromantic work. Bringing forth food from the land means getting dirty and sweaty, enduring blistered hands and sore backs, as it always has. It might also mean disappointment and loss when the weather is at cross purposes with the farmer.

But ask any of Denver’s modern urban Jewish farmers whether they regret it when the summer begins to wane into autumn and the first crops are ready for harvest.

As they hold the fruit or vegetable they raised from a seedling in the spring, nurtured and supported during the summer and harvested in the fall, they’ll be happy to tell you that few human victories are as sweet as theirs.

GAN Kehilati is Denver’s first synagogue garden.

In fact, the small plot of land situated on the south side of the Hebrew Educational Alliance is so new that as of early June its small cadre of gardeners hadn’t quite completed the first planting.

HEA member Fred Karp, who came up with the idea of Gan Kehilati — which means community garden — a few months ago, says that this spring’s late snow and cool spell put the farmers a bit behind schedule.

Karp, a Denver attorney by trade and a longtime home gardener by avocation, chuckles, perhaps at how agricultural he sounds after only a few weeks in the dirt.

The HEA garden seemed to be an idea whose timing was perfect, he adds. After coming up with the basic idea, Karp ran it by the synagogue’s board, executive director and rabbi and says he encountered absolutely no opposition along the way.

“The rabbi,” he says of Rabbi Bruce Dollin, “responded very warmly to this idea.”

Rabbi Dollin, in fact, plans to incorporate the idea of the garden into his spiritual leadership, using Gan Kehilati to discuss Jewish perspectives on food, agriculture and related subjects.

Karp uses such modest phrases as, “It’s so small as to be almost experimental this year.” Yet, his pride in the new garden project is obvious.

Composed of six raised beds about 12 by 5 feet each, the garden is located on empty land between the synagogue and the Thomas Jefferson High School baseball field.

A “sort-of” committee of HEA members have signed onto the garden project and have already done a good deal of work, Karp says.

The volunteers roto-tilled the plot and helped set up an automatic irrigation system of drip and soaker hoses connected to strategically positioned spigots. The crops are varied and their selection is left up to the planters. So far, Gan Kehilati boasts budding crops of peppers, tomatoes, watermelons, cucumbers, brussel sprouts, broccoli and herbs.

Karp says not to expect a gigantic harvest, at least not this year.

“I don’t think there’s going to be an awful lot of food,” he says, ‘but this is part of a larger idea of investigating food. Rabbi Dollin plans to do some teaching on the Jewish aspects of farming and food. And if there is any surplus food, we’ll be likely to donate it to the JFS food pantry or the food pantry at New Life Fellowship on Iliff.”

If the idea catches on — and Karp hopes that it will — next year’s harvest might be considerably larger. There is additional land available and the synagogue is already discussing the idea of garden expansion.

Karp is asked why any of this is important.

“It’s good to know the sources of our food,” says Karp, “It’s local, it’s fresh and it’s nominally organic. There’s also the fact that some of these foods will be vegetables that we’re not necessarily familiar with from grocery stores. There will be a variety of things that we wouldn’t be likely to shop for.”

The educational dimension, both in the practical and spiritual dimensions of farming, is of considerable value, in Karp’s view.

“Learning will take place on two levels,” he says. “Less experienced gardeners will be shown how to create a bed and how to begin and care for plants. Local experts will be invited to teach both basic and advanced lessons in growing, from soil preparation to seed saving.”

Gan Kehilati is part of a larger food focus at HEA, which ties in with the national Conservative movement’s new ethical hechscher program and a ‘CSA’ (community supported agriculture) movement that is gaining momentum nationally and locally.

The congregation is teaming up with Temple Sinai on a CSA arrangement with Grant Family Farm, setting up a subscription-like system by which members regularly acquire fresh produce from a regional farm.

Karp adds that another source of inspiration for HEA’s nascent team of farmers is the example set by the early settlers of Israel, the halutzim, who often worked in agriculture, a critical realm for the nascent Jewish state.

“There is an identification with those people,” Karp says. “It’s not life and death for us like it was for them, but there’s still an identification.”

Ekar is Denver Jewry’s largest — and only — farm.

There’s really nothing else to call some two acres of newly tilled and planted land.  Located on previously unused land owned by the Denver Academy of Torah — and possibly destined in the future to become the site of a high school — Ekar itself could expand as time goes on. The vacant lot is a total of five acres, and might soon all be cultivated.

The idea for a farm adjoining an Orthodox day school came from several sources, says Ilan Salzberg, a volunteer with a farming background who more or less manages and oversees the farm.

“It came from a lot of places. There were people from DAT who said, ‘Hey, we have this piece of land, let’s do something with it.’ There were people at DAT who were interested in the garden because of the food movement as a whole. Rose Community Foundation was interested in pushing the food movement forward. There were a lot of people who wanted to see something happening in food.”

A former organic vegetable farmer from Boulder, Salzberg is a law school grad and former realtor. He’s Jewish, but has no formal ties with DAT besides having friends there.

He was planning to be a stay-at-home dad after his twins were born last December but grabbed the opportunity to become a volunteer farmer when he was contacted through the RCF Roots & Branches group.

“I was thinking that this is something that I have the skill set to do,  I have the time to do, and it’s the kind of thing that I could give to my twins that would have more value than money,” he says about Ekar and his willingness to work the land without pay.

“It’s worth it to me. If I can pay the cost of my sitter while I’m out here, that makes sense. For me, that’s what my compensation will be. Hopefully, this thing will still be around in one form or another in three to five years and my kids will run around on a tractor. That’ll be all the thanks I need.”

Organized as a semi-independent non-profit as part of Denver Urban Gardens, Ekar has been an idea in the works since last winter when a group of dedicated committee members — Amy Berkowitz Caplan, Aaron Ney, Jessica Simmons, Jordan Linkow, Eli Goldstein and Salzberg — got things started and organized.

This spring, initial preparation was made on two acres of the total plot. Soil tests were conducted on the former Lowry AFB land, a city water tap was installed, drip irrigation systems put in and some 240 yards of compost (“about five semis’ worth”) was worked into the tired soil, “mostly by volunteers with shovels and wheelbarrows,” Salzberg says.

The name “Ekar” — which in Hebrew means either “root source” or “farming” — was chosen.

“People want it to be an acronym, so they can do that if they want,” Salzberg adds. “I like Eco Kosher Agricultural Resources.”

IN physical terms, Ekar is divided into two unequal portions, each with a distinct purpose. On the periphery of the plot will be a mini-orchard of apple, plum and pear trees, about half of which are already planted.

On the west side of the land is a community garden of 50 plots, 10 by 20 feet each, which can be leased by individuals or groups for a seasonal fee of $72. Ekar provides the water “and then it’s their plot,” Salzberg says, with the gardeners making their own decisions as to what to plant.

A number of DAT groups, families and individuals have plots, as do residents of various Lowry neighborhoods, the George Washington High School Youth at Risk program, a group of Bhutanese immigrant families and others.

Everyone from toddlers and tykes to senior citizens can regularly be glimpsed tending to their garden plots.

“What I find is that the Gen X is out here like crazy,” says Salzberg, who seems to fit into the Gen X category himself.

“The younger ones are out here like crazy. The Greatest Generation are out here like crazy. The Boomers? There are some, but there are less Boomers for sure.  I think they kind of feel like they’ve made it when they pay someone to mow their lawn.”

Otherwise, a broad spectrum of urban agrarians is represented.

“We’ve got everybody from people on food stamps to people with million dollar houses. We’ve got every age represented, we’ve got several African American and Indian families with plots, Jews, non-Jews. It’s everything, which is exactly what we hoped it would be. I say that the only barrier to entry to Ekar is a willingness to work. If you’re willing to work, come.”

Ekar does, however, have a deliberately Jewish character. DAT’s Rabbi Daniel Alter is planning a “halachic tour” of the farm for his students. Rabbis Marc Gitler of EDOS and Mitchell Delcau of Temple Emanuel are planning to give onsite educational talks at Ekar.

“We are a Shomer Shabbat farm,” Salzberg says. “The farm does no work on Shabbat. The garden, out of deference to the school, is asked not to do anything between nine and one on Shabbat and Jewish holidays because the synagogue is active.”

The farm’s Jewish supporters, he adds, includes everyone from “Peace Now types to the Greater Israel crowd,” with all Jewish religious persuasions included.

“My effort is to be as apolitical and as accessible to everybody as is possible within a religiously and politically charged universe,” Salzberg says. “If you’re strictly Orthodox or Reform or Reconstructionist or not Jewish at all, it’s not my issue. If you want to grow good food with me, come out and learn. The mission of Ekar is grow, learn, sustain, enjoy, repeat.”

largest part of Ekar is the actual farm, which occupies the eastern part of the plot. Most of the crops raised here by volunteers will be donated to the Jewish Family Service food pantry. A few people are also buying $180 memberships which will give them the right to harvest for their own consumption.

Other funding events will help sustain the farm. On July 25, for example, Ekar will participate in “Prep for the Schlep,” a 16-mile roundtrip bicycle ride from Ekar to Delaney Farm to the east, to help raise funds.

The farm’s first crop includes tomatoes, cucumbers, radishes, carrots, onions, squash, melons, zucchini, pumpkins and a small patch of lettuce.

Lettuce, Salzberg explains, makes him nervous because it has to be harvested with knives and many of the harvesters are expected to be children. It is one example of how running an organic, family-oriented and volunteer-driven farm can be a tricky business.

Salzberg expects this fall’s Ekar harvest to be quite impressive.

“The goal is about $200,000 worth of produce from this site,” he says. “This year will be less because it’s our first year and the soil is still not that great. I use that number to give people an idea what’s coming out of here. Over time, we can probably continue to up that number.”

Although Ekar’s crops will be technically organic — meaning grown without chemical fertilizers or insecticides —  it’s unlikely that the organizers will actually seek certification of that.

Such formalities don’t really mean that much to Salzberg and the rest of the farm’s supporters. He’s not particularly enamored with the whole organic food movement or the “Jewish food movement,” for that matter.

“To me, eating is fundamental,” he says. “It’s nice to know where you are. For me, very selfishly, I want my kids to know where they are and what they’re coming from. And where you are and what you’re coming from is the dirt that’s around you.

“It’s climate. It’s location. All of those things that make you feel very deeply human are part of the growing process. I know it’s spring because little green sprouts are coming up, because of the way the air feels in the morning. You feel far more connected when you have a seed in the ground. When it snows in May and you’ve got tomatoes in the ground, it snows on you. You feel it in a way that you don’t when you’re just sitting in your condo or townhome or house. I feel that those are things that make you feel deeply alive.”

It’s also about feeling deeply Jewish, he adds.

“Because I am Jewish and that’s what I know, my way of understanding the seasons is helped by that cycle of time. My connection to the Jewish calendar is very agricultural. It’s not an accident that people eat apples on Rosh Hashanah. Apples are harvested in September. Those connections connect me into my Jewishness in a very fundamental way.”

It’s also about the value of simple hard work.

On a recent cool Friday morning, Salzberg was joined at the farm by fellow volunteer and executive committee member Eli Goldstein who, thanks to a recent stretch of business success, is spending much of this summer toiling away in the garden.

Asked what his role at Ekar is, Goldstein replied simply: “I work.”

“I love working with my hands,” he elaborates. “I love being outdoors. I love getting dirty. I really enjoy having people come out here and seeing the satisfaction on their faces when they’re finished. I like being a part of making that possible instead of staying at home and doing sales. I much prefer getting a little burn and maybe some dirt on me.”

He smiles and prepares to go back out into the field.

“It’s pretty much as simple as that.”

Salzberg echoes his colleague’s appreciation for the nobility of physical labor out in the fresh air.

“I feel that there’s a deep value to working,” he says. “You see these kids coming out and they just love it. They want nothing more than to fill up a wheelbarrow and run it around. That’s really cool.”

Tiri’s Garden is Denver only downtown garden.

Nestled at the corner of 15th and California Streets in the heart of Denver’s business district, it is 8,000 square feet of aesthetically landscaped and meticulously maintained greenery amidst towering skyscrapers and honking rush hour commuters.

Technically, it is not a Jewish garden, since its primary beneficiaries are homeless children of all backgrounds, but its progenitor and backer, Christie Isenberg, is Jewish, as is Evan Makovsky, the real estate developer who is allowing his vacant land to be used as a garden.

Not to mention the golden Jerusalem limestone used in the garden’s center, an arbor-covered seating area that seems perfectly suited for some serious meditation.

Tiri’s Garden has already had one growing season under its belt. It produced its first harvest in the fall of 2009 after Isenberg, the wife of Denver hotel baron Walter Isenberg, convinced Makovsky that she had a pretty good idea for vacant property that would, in better economic times, constitute prime commercial real estate.

“He had this empty land just sitting there,” says Isenberg.

It’s probably not a permanent arrangement, she acknowledges. When the economy picks up and development gets going again, she expects the garden will have to find another location, which she fully intends to do.

“We work with a lot of non-profits in Colorado,” Isenberg explains, “and Urban Peak happens to be one of them. We thought this idea would be good for the city and also for Urban Peak.”

Urban Peak is a shelter for homeless children in Denver, offering them school, room and board. Isenberg felt the children could learn a lot about farming and healthy eating habits while helping at the garden and the produce would help supplement their diets there.

It seemed a classic win-win situation.

Isenberg, however, wanted to take it a step further.

She says that she finds many urban gardens to be rather unsightly places, often not very well kept. She is also aware that downtown is a very image-conscious part of town. Tiri’s Garden sits directly across from the Hyatt hotel and near a lot of upscale downtown housing, so it was important that it look nice.

Which it certainly does, with its raised planting beds, gravel pathways, teak benches, pagoda-style arbors, sundial and wrought iron fence.

“We did not want it to be overgrown,” she says. “We wanted it to be manicured. We were very conscious of how it looked.”

Designed by Europa Landscaping, which used many donated materials, and planned with the assistance of Denver Urban Gardens, Tiri’s Garden is currently growing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables — squash, beans, lettuce, strawberries, tomatoes and more.

“We try to plant what will be easy for the kids to harvest,” Isenberg says.

While Europa performs regular maintenance, the Urban Peak kids are at the garden on a regular basis, helping to plant, weed and harvest.

“It really gives them a sense of ownership in the garden,” Isenberg says.

THERE are any number of corollary benefits, she adds.

“I think that people need to eat healthier and I think a lot of schools were not providing that. People are growing much more conscious about that and I think that this will all help tie into that. Several studies show that kids who work in gardens become much more aware of eating healthy.

“I also know that with Urban Peak, when they were working in the gardens they were getting better grades. It gives them a sense of pride when they’re eating what they’re growing.”

The name of the garden comes from Tirunesh — nicknamed Tiri — the four-year-old Ethiopian girl the Isenbergs adopted last year. “We actually named the garden in her honor before we picked her up last year,” her new mother says

Their daughter thinks the garden named in her honor “is pretty special,” says Isenberg, “and she thinks she’s pretty special too. In fact, she says, ‘That’s my garden.’”

Tiri has been to the garden several times and has enjoyed watching the other children working in it. The idea for Tiri’s Garden didn’t come from a personal passion in gardening, admits Isenberg, who works as the director for the Concert for Kids charity in Denver.

“I like to play around with flowers in the yard,” she says, “but I don’t actually have time to garden.”

Nonetheless, the value of urban gardening is certainly not lost on her. She is already working with Denver Public Schools to set up similar garden plots on DPS property in several locations. She would like to have school curricula harmonize with the operation of the gardens.

“The plans aren’t yet finalized, but we’ve already targeted a couple of schools,” Isenberg says. “We’d like to next year hopefully have three to four of them underway. There are so many positive things that come out of it.”

Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor |

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