Northampton Rabbi Jacob Fine aims to focus on agricultural roots

Last modified: Monday, September 24, 2012

NORTHAMPTON - It's not every day you meet a rabbi who compares the Torah to the Farmer's Almanac.

But for Rabbi Jacob Fine, the new senior educator at Congregation B'nai Israel in Northampton, much of the moral and spiritual power of Judaism comes from its roots in agriculture.

For example, one of "the most radical ideas in the Torah" he said, is the "shmita," the sabbatical seventh year where the land is allowed to lie fallow and anyone in the community can harvest the fruits of the untilled fields.

"It's really a profound social practice that speaks to the idea that no one person owns the land," said Fine, 36. "We usually associate that kind of land ethic with Native Americans. But being stewards of the land is a core piece of Torah theology."

Fine, an Amherst native whose father, Lawrence, is chair of Jewish studies at Mount Holyoke College, returned to the Pioneer Valley from Putnam Valley, N.Y., last year with his wife, Julie, and two young daughters, Meira, 2, and Nessa, 11 weeks.

Leaders of B'nai Israel say they are excited to bring Fine, whom they describe as a leader in Jewish education, to the teaching program of their 107-year-old synagogue. He fills a new family education post that will support the congregation's two volunteer education directors.

Fine, who began part-time work at B'nai Israel earlier this month, brings experience as director of programs for the Jewish Farm School, a New York-based nonprofit that promotes sustainable agriculture.

"The kind of grassroots, farm-based experience he's part of represents an important vanguard in spiritual education and Jewish education in particular," said Rabbi Justin David, who leads B'nai Israel. "There are so many ethical insights that come from that."

Fine has long been interested in the links between Judaism and environmentalism.

At Vassar College, where he graduated in 1999, he was a dual religion and environmental studies major. Fine said his thesis was about the shmita, and his advisers were an Orthodox Jewish professor in the religion department and a "radical Catholic" geologist.

His first job out of college was with the Teva Learning Alliance, a New York-based Jewish environmental education organization.

Learning about Jewish agricultural traditions helped "re-energize me about Judaism," said Fine, who was ordained by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles in 2007.

"When I started getting that our land-based tradition was about taking care of the world, I saw things through a different lens," he said. "The Torah could be read almost like a Farmer's Almanac."

Fine noted that many of Judaism's core holidays, including Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot, are "agricultural, pilgrimage festivals" centered on planting and harvest. Even traditions such as inviting those in need to the weekly Shabbat table can be seen as stemming from the values of an advanced agrarian society, he said.

Prevailing images of Jews as wandering nomads - or, in modern times, urban intellectuals - ignore the religion's roots in farming, Fine said.

Those images have historical roots of their own, he noted. "For most of the last 2,000 years Jews have been landless. And in many places, it was illegal for Jews to own land," Fine said.

At the Jewish Farm School, where he still telecommutes as program director, Fine combines teaching Jewish theology with hands-on learning about agriculture. For example, the school hosts "alternative spring breaks" for college students that are weeklong service learning trips to urban and rural organic farms across the country.

Fine has also taught his students to make bread from the point of growing the wheat to baking the dough.

"As an educator, I want to provide more opportunities for youth in particular to have more authentic encounters with the world," he said. "There are so many dimenions to learning about food."

One of the lessons Fine hopes to emphasize at B'nai Israel is "food justice" - the movement to ensure that everyone has access to nutritious food produced in a way that preserves the land. He was excited to learn that the congregation already has an organic garden and regularly donates produce to the Northampton Survival Center, next door to the synagogue.

"I have a whole vision of how that could become a farm," Fine said. "It's a tremendous opportunity for community building."

Traditional religious practices such as tithing and gleaning - setting aside a portion of the fields for the poor to harvest - are the seeds of the modern food justice movement, Fine said. "It's different from charity," he explained. "The really radical piece is that as the grower, you don't own that corner of your field where the needy are allowed to glean. It's an obligation. It's actually justice."

In the coming weeks, Fine will be leading community programs for the Yom Kippur and Sukkot holidays at B'nai Israel and exploring ways to use the garden for expanded education and service activities.

Finding the connections between Judaism and farming is "a deepening of our relationship with our tradition," he said. "We meet students all the time who say Judaism is not that relevant. But they are interested in sustainable agriculture. It launches them on a path."


Support Local Journalism

Subscribe to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, your leading source for news in the Pioneer Valley.

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


Copyright © 2020 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy