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Putting the Jew in Sustainable Food Justice

Putting the Jew in Sustainable Food Justice

By Becky Wasserman

Sustainable food is trendy. More and more, people gloat about the heritage, organic, local tomatoes they bought from the farmer’s market and scoff at the McDonald’s burger. While it’s great that more people are starting to consider the human and environmental impacts of their consumption habits, an even bigger hurdle awaits in finding ways to make this food accessible to everyone. The good news is that Jewish communities are on the forefront of the fight for sustainable food justice.

Jews care about food--a lot--and for a large majority of Jews, they care about tzedek (justice) almost as much. It’s not a big stretch, therefore, to see how these two sets of deep values could intersect. In fact, the Jewish law of pe’ah explicitly talks about food justice when it tells us to leave the corners of the fields for the hungry. During shmita, the Sabbath year celebrated every seven years, we must let the land rest and any fruit produced belongs to everyone. And during the Jubilee year, every 50 years, workers of the land are proclaimed free and land is returned to God and let rest.

Jewish communities across the country are starting to really internalize this moral obligation to support sustainable food justice and transform it into action. Some synagogues pursue food justice through starting community gardens where all produce is donated to local food pantries. Others harness the energy of social justice groups and organize gleaning projects to avoid food waste and bring food to the hungry. And others still support local farmers by offering the physical space of the synagogue as a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) pick-up location. All around the country, Jewish synagogues are launching projects like these that challenge our country’s modern, unequal, industrial agriculture system.

Throughout my undergraduate thesis research interviewing rabbis and lay leaders about these projects, I noticed a central reason for their success: sustainable food justice programs thrive in a Jewish context because the practice of tzedek makes the philosophical value come alive. Jewish justice gardens, for example, appeal to congregants because it offers them an avenue to physically demonstrate their care for the earth and their pursuit of justice. They can act in a way that aligns with their morals, and in so doing, define their Judaism in new and expressive ways.

As people brought sustainable food justice into their Jewish lives, they strengthened not only their commitment to sustainability and food access, but also their understanding of Judaism. These projects can help us understand how traditional religious wisdom is relevant in addressing modern problems. By pursuing this work in a Jewish context, we have the power to transform a seemingly secular act into something sacred. We have the power to re-engage disillusioned Jews and show them what it means to be Jewish today. If we want to build stronger Jewish communities that take on contemporary moral issues, let’s start planting food right here--for our earth, our communities, and those less fortunate.

Becky Wasserman is a fellow through New Sector Alliance at Safe Havens Interfaith Partnership Against Domestic Violence. She also works as the Boston Citizen Correspondent for Earth Street, a program of the Environmental Defense Fund found at earthstreet.tumblr.com. She graduated in 2014 from Middlebury College, where she wrote a senior environmental studies thesis on the involvement of Jewish synagogues in the U.S. Sustainable Food Movement.

Published: 3/18/2015

Categories: Social Justice