New 'Abundance Farm' at Congregation B’nai Israel, Northampton, to provide food for the Survival Center

Last modified: Friday, May 23, 2014

NORTHAMPTON — When Rabbi Jacob Fine came from New York to take a job at Congregation B’nai Israel in the summer of 2012, he was excited to see a small garden in a field next to the synagogue.

Fine has a passion for Judaism’s agricultural history and traditions, and said then, “I have a whole vision of how that could be a farm.”

Now, it is Abundance Farm.

On Sunday, more than 300 people took over a one-acre site between the synagogue and the Northampton Water Department on Prospect Street to make the farm a reality. They spread compost and readied a 6,000-square-foot vegetable garden and planted over 40 fruit trees and 45 berry bushes.

Similar to the early Jewish law that required farmers to leave the corners of their fields unharvested so the hungry could pick what they needed, the fruit in the orchard will be available, once it matures, for anyone to pick and eat.

Abundance Farm is a collaboration among the synagogue, the Lander-Grinspoon Academy behind it and the Northampton Survival Center next door. Fine, the synagogue’s director of Jewish life, described it as a food justice farm that will provide produce for the Survival Center, an outdoor classroom for students of the Jewish day school and a place for the community to meet and get closer to its agricultural roots.

The idea of a food justice farm goes back to the foundational Jewish religious text, the Torah.

“In our tradition, it’s not charity. The word is ‘tzedaka,’ and it means justice,” Fine said. “Food security is a central value in the Jewish tradition. There were laws about sharing resources.”

In addition to the law about the corners of the fields, called pe’ah, other laws required farmers to tithe 10 percent of their crops to provide for the community and let their land lie fallow every seventh year known as shmita. In that year, anyone in the community can harvest whatever the untilled fields produce.

“One of the things we were talking about as we designed this project was how can we take the spirit of these laws, or actively put some of these old laws into practice?” Fine said. That’s where the pick-your-own orchard comes into play.

The other produce raised, from peas to green beans, will be delivered to the Northampton Survival Center, and people who use the center are welcome to volunteer on the farm, Fine said.

While the farm will at first involve the synagogue, school and Survival Center, Fine hopes to eventually expand its reach to include other schools, the wider faith community and more city residents.

The congregation’s longtime leader, Rabbi Justin David, said Abundance Farm is a “visionary project that is certainly unique among synagogues.”

It makes sense in this area especially, where people are very supportive of conscientious farming, David added. “I think it’s particularly well-suited to what it means to be a synagogue and a place of worship in the Pioneer Valley in the times in which we live,” he said.

Heidi Nortonsmith, executive director of the Survival Center, said she appreciates the inclusive spirit of the project, as well as the produce it will provide for the roughly 4,000 people that rely on the center each year.

“They want to invite collaboration, invite volunteers and clients to come and help themselves to food,” she said. “They say, ‘Come dig in the dirt with us.’ ”

Sarah Pease, program director of the Survival Center said organizers of Abundance Farm inquired about the kinds of produce clients need the most. “That’s always a wonderful phone call to receive,” she said.

Abundance Farm planted raspberry and blackberry bushes because the Survival Center rarely gets berries because they do not transport or keep well.

Fine said the estimated budget for the inaugural year of the project is $30,000. To raise the first $10,000, they have launched the “100 Bowls for Abundance Farm” fundraiser. The first 100 people who donate $100 to the cause will receive an “abundance bowl” made by potter Emmett Leader, a member of the congregation, using clay from the excavation site of the new Northampton Police Station on Center Street. So far, that has raised about $8,000.

Growing a farm

This is not the first time the site has been tilled. From roughly the 1800s to the 1950s, Fine said, the parcel was the site of the Alms House and part of the 15-acre poor farm tended by its residents.

Sitting at a picnic table on the property last week, Fine and Leader explained that the congregation bought the property from the city in 2002 without a clear vision of how to use it.

After nearly 10 years, a few parents in the congregation, including Leader, decided it would make a good site for a garden where their children could learn about growing food. They fenced in a small portion of the property, brought in topsoil and planted figs, horseradish, garlic, and other food. Leader built a traditional cob oven there using the Northampton clay.

Whenever they could, they brought produce to the Northampton Survival Center.

About a year ago, synagogue leaders, with the support of the garden volunteers, started looking seriously into the idea of making the small garden into a more active farm.

The area will include an orchard open to Prospect Street, a garden of row crops and the original garden Leader and his friends planted. There will also be an outdoor classroom that can double as a gathering place for weddings, bar mitzvahs, potlucks or just to hang out around the cob oven, Leader said.

A 15-member leadership team made up of representatives of the three institutions heads the project. They hired Tory Field, a co-founder of the Next Barn Over in Hadley, to be Abundance Farm’s part-time farm coordinator. She will manage the crops, the volunteers and students working on the farm, and the development of an after-school farming course for the Lander-Grinspoon students.

Deborah Seltzer, interim principal of the 74-student Lander-Grinspoon Academy, said there have been two small gardens on the school property in the last five years, but neither were very fruitful or integrated into the curriculum.

Some teachers took their students to the garden Leader and his fellow volunteers built, Seltzer said, but Abundance Farm will be a more official part of the curriculum.

The older students at the school with Grades Kindergarten to 6 will be especially involved on the farm as they study the environment and agrarian religious traditions.

Fine, who moved back to his hometown of Amherst in the summer of 2012, previously worked as director of programs for the Jewish Farm School, a New York-based nonprofit that promotes sustainable agriculture.

With more and more people becoming interested in local food, conscientious farming and sustainability, Fine believes that agriculture is giving younger people in particular a new, exciting connection to their faith. “People have re-engaged with the Jewish faith through hands-on agriculture,” he said.

He added that Jewish people typically are thought of as bookish types, academics and urbanites, but not farmers. But much of the religion, such as the many holidays based on harvest times, is rooted in its agricultural past.

Leader said the garden provided a way for his daughters to connect with their Jewish community outside of the synagogue. He sees that happening even more with both children and adults at Abundance Farm.

“It really does open the doors for people who might not normally come here,” he said.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at


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