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'Eco-kosher' Jews have an appetite for ethical eating

Choosing organic and locally grown products helps them fulfill a religious obligation to protect the environment.

May 08, 2009|Mary MacVean and Duke Helfand

With Sabbath candles burning and 14 guests seated around her dinner table, Joanna Arch held up a cup of kosher red wine and chanted the kiddish prayer in Hebrew:

"God blessed the seventh day and made it holy because on it he rested from all his creative work."

As is the custom, the guests observed the holy day of rest with a meal, but with a twist: They were sharing a "sustainable" Sabbath dinner on this Friday evening, with food that was locally grown, mostly organic and intended to elevate their practice of Judaism.

Arch and her husband, David Andorsky, passed around goat cheese -- made at home -- sprinkled with oregano, thyme and chives. Sarah Newman brought ratatouille made with her home-canned tomatoes and vegetables from a farmers market.

The others, too, prepared food that was not only kosher and vegetarian, they explained, but provided a way for them to strengthen their ties to their faith and to live out a Jewish imperative to protect the Earth.

The dinner reflected a powerful current in Jewish culinary consciousness: Growing numbers of people are choosing to express their values through the food they put on their tables, altering the most basic day-to-day decisions about nourishment. It's why Jenna Snow picked loquats from her yard -- rather than buying them at the store -- for the custardy cake called clafoutis that she made for the Sabbath potluck.

The movement has become so popular in recent years that synagogues increasingly are forging relationships with farmers, farm education programs are starting up and Jewish "sustainability" conferences are attracting sold-out crowds. At a three-day gathering in Northern California in December, volunteers even learned how to kill, pluck, salt and rinse their own turkeys.

"Food is the most intimate relationship we have to the nonhuman world," said Zelig Golden, a San Francisco lawyer who co-chaired that gathering. It was the third food conference sponsored by Hazon, a New York-based environmental organization that in 2004 branched out into food issues. It has since become the primary force behind many programs in the sustainability movement -- an effort to use natural resources responsibly to avoid depleting them.

"Jewish tradition has a lot to say about the use of land, the treatment of animals and workers," said Nigel Savage, Hazon's executive director. "Jewish tradition should heighten our awareness of the choices we are making."

Even though Hazon's efforts are aimed at Jews, the marriage of sustainability and religion reaches beyond the Jewish world.

The Presbyterian Church (USA), for example, has designed a curriculum for high school students and young adults titled "Just Eating? Practicing Our Faith at the Table."

The General Assembly of Unitarian Universalists Assn., meanwhile, last year selected "Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice" as a four-year topic of study and action by its 1,000 congregations.

Such efforts are part of a larger food movement whose advocates wrestle with ethical questions raised by the food they buy and eat. They have been inspired in part by Michael Pollan, author of the best-selling "The Omnivore's Dilemma," and others who argue that fast food and an industrial food system have divorced many people from the source of their food.

Rabbis and other Jewish leaders began picking up on the theme about five years ago. Sinai Temple in Westwood is among several dozen synagogues nationwide that have embraced community-supported agriculture projects -- in which people buy shares in a farm's operation in return for a portion of the harvest.

In explaining the project to two dozen congregants who came out one recent night to meet farmer Phil McGrath and taste some of his English peas and black Russian kale, Rabbi Ahud Sela said that God told Adam not only to till the land but to protect it. By purchasing a share -- $1,500 for 40 weekly boxes of produce -- congregants would get food grown 60 miles away, not shipped from South America, he said.

"I know where my produce comes from. It's a guy named Phil McGrath," Sela said. "He farms 300 acres in Oxnard. I'm proud of the person who produces the food for my family."

Another rabbi, Dov Gartenberg of Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach, is taking a different approach to "reestablish the centrality of the table" in Jewish life. Gartenberg and Emily Moore, a chef, are writing a book of holiday ritual meals -- which he will talk about at this year's Hazon Food Conference in December, to be held again at the Asilomar conference center near Monterey.

One such meal marks the holiday of Shavuot, which occurs in May or June each year and commemorates the Jews receiving the Torah from God at Mt. Sinai.

Gartenberg's congregation will share a Seder at their synagogue with foods tied to the Torah, including a honey-tasting related to teachings in Proverbs that wisdom should be as sweet to the soul as honey is to taste.

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