Jewish roots: the Kent farm cultivating Jewish principles of land stewardship – The Guardian

Posted By on June 14, 2022

While for most British Jews, synagogue is the focal point for religious life, Talia Chain finds her faith in nature. Its why, in 2018, she founded Sadeh Farm in Kent, currently Europes only Jewish farming community.

On the edge of Sadehs plot is its forest garden a low intervention and sustainable agronomic system based on trees, shrubs and perennials. Perched on a seat, 33-year-old Chain is describing one of her most treasured Jewish customs. Its called the law of orlah, Chain says, where you dont pick or eat the fruit from a fruit tree for its first three years producing. Instead, you let the fruit ripen and fall to the ground to rot naturally.

Its just one of many Jewish laws put into practice here, with visitors and residents invited to explore their faiths now rarely exercised agricultural customs.

Its clearly a markedly different approach to working the land than that taken by their neighbours. Sadehs fields, including a wildflower meadow left untouched in the hope of restoring the local butterfly population, are surrounded by hectares of constantly productive monoculture wheat and barley.

We create opportunities for Jewish people and others to connect with nature, says Chain. Were trying to remind the Jewish community that environmentalism, sustainability and preserving the planet is a fundamental tenet of their faith.

Chain first came to Skeet Hill House, on the outskirts of Orpington, in 2017. A Jewish community space since the early 1940s, it was owned by the Jewish Youth Fund, and initially run as a retreat for young, deprived Jewish youth from a war-torn East End of London. As Jewish demographics shifted, it became a retreat for religious schools, youth movements and community groups.

Chain was granted permission by Skeets previous management to turn a small corner of the land into a vegetable garden. Three years earlier, she had on a whim enrolled on a training course at the Isabella Freedman Center, a Jewish farm in Connecticut. I read Michael Pollans The Omnivores Dilemma and realised despite being Jewish, and therefore eating ten meals a day I had no idea where my food came from.

Previously, shed struggled to connect to her culture through synagogue and orthodox practices. And here was this other Judaism that Id never heard of, using a Jewish lens to explore climate justice, food security and sustainable growing.

After relocating to Kent, Chain set about sharing her newfound knowledge with young visitors and building the impressive operation that is housed on the site today: theres a six-bedroom kosher guesthouse, brewery, staff and volunteer accommodation, and various agricultural and community programmes, all centred around their secluded seven acres.

For many Jews today, certainly in the UK, agriculture isnt integral to Jewish practice. Modern British Jewry is a mostly urban population, but these cultures and customs come from a time when Jewish communities farmed the land. Then from 70 CE until fairly recently, Chain says, not only were Jews not on the land, for much of that time they couldnt legally own it. Jews therefore had to find ways to practise their faith beyond its land-based beginnings. Chains ancestors swapped their scythes, she says, for books of law. Today, Jewish festivals are understood to be about the Jewish narrative story, Chain says. Passover is the Exodus from Egypt; Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles) desert dwelling post Egyptian exit, and Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) the subsequent giving of the Torah. But these festivals are actually centred around the harvest, says Chain, and reintroducing that link to the land has never been more urgent.

Over 900 trees have been planted on the site so far, most as part of the celebrations for Tu BShevat: in the Jewish calendar, the annual birthday for trees. In biblical times, Chain says, some of the harvest would be donated to the temple to feed the people who worked there. Today, we give a portion of what we grow instead to local food banks.

Judaism, Chain argues, charges its followers with preserving the planet. We have the principle of Bal tashchit the principle of not destroying the earth or wasting resources. Chain thinks modern Judaism urgently needs to consider this as significant as keeping kosher or observing the Sabbath.

She points to the law of Shmita, the Jewish practice which dictates every seventh year crops are neither sewed nor harvested. Customarily, its only observed within biblical Israels borders, but at Sadeh it is practised. So much farming is akin to mining these days, she says. We demand land is endlessly productive, taking out as much as we can. But theres no time for decomposition, for the land to rest and microorganisms to recuperate, and so we become addicted to fertilisers. When they no longer work, and the land has been totally exploited, were left with dead soil. By periodically leaving land untouched, the soil has respite to rebuild.

Over at the no-dig vegetable patch, 25-year-old Sadeh apprentice Mariel Poulos is in the full swing of weeding. Here were growing everything from garlic and turnips to chard, potatoes, beans, coriander and callalloo, she says, gesturing across the allotment. And of course we have dill a Jewish favourite, too.

Poulos lives on site, just across the field in a cosy green caravan. She arrived on a three-month fellowship, and now is undertaking the apprenticeship scheme. Like many at Sadeh, Poulos had previously felt disconnected from her Judaism. Id done nothing Jewish since I was a young teenager, she says, But I signed up. And it was the best three months of my life. Hanging out with other Jews, working the land, learning about Judaisms agricultural roots. It helped me see my own heritage differently. It offered me a place to be an active Jewish person, being a steward of the land.

Slowly but surely, Sadeh is becoming a valuable asset to the Jewish community. Their certified-kosher guesthouse provides a space for the coming together of all corners of the Jewish community. Just last week, the Board of Deputies British Jewrys community leadership organisation came for a pickling awayday.

In January this year, however, the Jewish Youth Fund Sadehs landlords informed Chain the site would soon be put up for sale. We are running a campaign to try to save Sadeh, Chain says. We want to stay until the end of our agreed 10-year lease, giving us time to find a buyer and to continue our work here.

An outpouring of support for Sadeh has come from all corners of the community, including from chief rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. I know Sadeh Farm to be an exceptional facility, Mervis says, creating impactful educational experiences for all, especially young people, helping them to understand the importance of sustainability and care for our environment. This would be a real loss to our community and I sincerely hope that a favourable solution will be found.

According to the Jewish Youth Fund, the proposed sale has not been undertaken lightly. The Jewish Youth Fund admires the education work that Sadeh does with schools and families, a spokesperson said, but this is outside our remit. The reconfigured building, with its much-reduced capacity of about 28 in en suite bedrooms, is now completely unsuited to youth groups. This has created an impossible problem for us as it is a non-income generating asset not being used in line with the charitys objectives.

To Chain, however, this just doesnt add up. What could be more important for Jewish youth, she asks, than ensuring they have a planet to live on, and our community like all others has a future? Thats what were trying to achieve here.

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Jewish roots: the Kent farm cultivating Jewish principles of land stewardship - The Guardian

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