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Down on the farm: Connecticut Rabbi Practices Jewish Agrarianism

Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener at East Hill Farm in Middlesex, N.Y.Photo by Carla Padvoiskis

Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener at East Hill Farm in Middlesex, N.Y.
Photo by Carla Padvoiskis

By Cindy Mindell

In Scripture, Culture and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (Cambridge University Press, 2008), author Ellen F. Davis describes the Torah as agrarian literature; a sort of ancient Farmer’s Almanac. It is the story of a people whose relationship with God is intimately tied to their stewardship of the land. Treat the land well and God will grant the right rains at the right time to produce food over the generations. Mistreat the land and there will be scarcity and famine.

In fact, rabbinic literature refers to the majority of inhabitants of ancient Israel as am haaretz, “people of the land,” says Jakir Manela, a founding director of Kayam Farm at Pearlstone in Reisterstown, Md. These subsistence farmers, an indigenous agrarian society, lived from what they could grow and respected the laws that would care both for the land and those dependent on the food that came from it: they tithed ten percent of their crops, let the earth rest every seven years, and expressed gratitude to God by bringing agricultural offerings to the Temple in Jerusalem three times a year.

Jews first settled the Land of Israel in order to be farmers, and our calendar and celebrations are organized around the agricultural cycle, says Nati Passow, co-founder of the Jewish Farm School in Philadelphia. The Jewish calendar is both lunar and solar, with the extra month of Adar II added seven times every 19 years in order to keep the holidays in line with the seasons.

The pilgrimage festivals – Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot – are the three anchors in the calendar that are harvest holidays of barley, wheat, and fall fruits, respectively. Those holidays and harvest times are the core celebrations of the Jewish people, and also celebrate the main areas of sustenance: barley for the animals, wheat for bread, and the tree fruits and grapes for Sukkot. In this way, our holidays inextricably weave together religious themes and sustenance, spirituality and the land.

“The rabbis used to determine whether it would be a leap year by going out into the field and looking at the barley,” he says. “And if the barley looked like it would be ready to harvest in another month, they declared it a normal year. If the barley was still very small and wasn’t going to be ready to harvest, they added an extra month because they knew that you harvest barley at Pesach. I don’t know how many rabbis there are today who would even know how to do that.”

Probably not a lot. But Andrea Cohen-Kiener is about to add this skill to her long resume of environmental endeavors. The Jewish Renewal rabbi, spiritual leader of Congregation P’nai Or of Central Connecticut, is also founder of the Interreligious Eco-Justice Network in Connecticut and a longtime student of ancient and modern sustainable food systems.

For the last several months, she has lived on the 350-acre East Hill Farm in Middlesex, N.Y. in the Finger Lakes region. The farm is the residential campus of the Rochester Folk Art Guild, a non-profit organization founded in the ‘70s as an “intentional community” of artisans and farmers. Cohen-Kiener, who lived in West Hartford for many years, returns to the Connecticut town twice a month to lead services at P’nai Or.

“I am a student of Jewish agrarianism – living with the resources of the earth as best I can as a Jew,” she explains. “I’ve wanted to live like this for a long time, and I feel more and more engaged as I go through this process of ‘re-skilling,’ learning the skills for civilization. I came because I think more of us need to know how to live simply and how to make things for ourselves.”

Cohen-Kiener researched farms for several years, including Jewish farms like Adamah at Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Falls Village. She learned of the Rochester Folk Art Guild while attending a conference.

She applied to live at the farm for two years, explaining to the 19 other residents that she wanted to explore both the philosophy and practice of living close to the earth as a Jew.

Cohen-Kiener refers to her downsized, less costly lifestyle as “voluntary simplicity.” She lives in a room at the farm and uses one room in her West Hartford house, the rest of which she rents out. She still owns a car, to travel between her two home bases.

“I have decided that Jews do not understand our own texts because we are not farmers,” she says. “I am not in Judaea so the farm cycle in Middlesex doesn’t always echo properly. As Jews in the diaspora, we’ve made a lot of adaptations because we’ve been wandering for a long time. But that means we’re not in tune with the Torah.”

And that’s the challenge, she says: How can Jews live according to the agrarian laws of the Torah, outside the land that the laws explicitly refer to?

Still, Cohen-Kiener is learning a lot in western New York.

For example, “I think biur chametz, burning the chametz was a time for Judean farmers to clean out barley and wheat, and they had to throw out every last seed,” she says. “That annual cleaning controls pests and mold, which was a hygienic practice. The matza uses and represents the last of last year’s grain, and the rest is burned. Then we count seven weeks because that’s how long it takes for the barley to be ready.”

One ‘a-ha’ moment came after Cohen-Kiener had been working in the East Hill vineyard, tying the vines tightly to the metal-wire trellises that resemble musical clefs. “Then I was reading in the Torah that, in the seventh year of grape production, you can’t do batzar to the vines, a Hebrew word that is not always translated correctly, but I finally knew exactly what it meant – ‘fortify’ – because I had just been doing it,” she says.

Soon, Jews throughout the world will begin praying regularly for rain in Israel, as the holiday of Shemini Atzeret – the final day of Sukkot – marks the start of the traditional rainy season in Israel and a special prayer is added to the weekday Amidah prayer, until Passover.

But it’s not just rain we’re asking for.

“There are many Hebrew words for rain, and different kinds of rain,” Cohen-Kiener says. “We pray for the right rain in its right season, because we know first-hand what happens when there’s torrential rain and we’re not ready for it. The Prayer for Rain mentions yoreh, early rain or sprinkling, to soften the earth for sowing; and malkosh, last rain or downpour, to nourish the crops at the end of their growing cycle. You want them both, but in their right time.”

When she leaves the farm, at the end of next year, Cohen-Kiener hopes to use her knowledge to launch Noah’s Ark Farm School – with instruction in topics such as orcharding and canning, fermenting, gluten-free baking, season extension, and urban homesteading – at locations around the region that already specialize in these skills.

In the meantime, Cohen-Kiener does what’s needed on the farm: one day in September, her chores included canning pears, delivering fruit to the East Hill CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) members, and composing kitchen food waste. She also is bringing a little Yiddishkeit to the farm. “I had to explain what a shofar was; people got curious because they heard me blowing it every day,” she said. “Before I knew it, we were all chanting Hebrew together.”


Comments? Email cindym@jewishledger.com.

Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener at East Hill Farm in Middlesex, N.Y.

Photo credit: Carla Padvoiskis


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