Community effort propels garden beyond humble roots

JCC Rabbi Brad Horwitz leads a garden dedication ceremony in 2012. The Garden of Eden had only a few garden beds then. The garden has steadily grown in the year since.

By Hannah Boxerman, St. Louis Jewish Light

It began as a project to feed the hungry, and grew into an unexpected partnership between cultures—and gardening techniques.

The Garden of Eden, as it’s called, sits on the edge of a soccer field north of the Jewish Community Center in Creve Coeur. The garden, which represents a partnership between the JCC and the Union for Reform Judaism, is now in its second year of yielding produce for the Harvey Kornblum Jewish Food Pantry.

The Garden of Eden has expanded greatly since its planting last summer; more beds have been added, and produce winds up trellises made from branches and poles.

The idea for the garden was born after Lesley Levin, who serves as the Social Action Vice President for URJ’s Central District, heard of a similar venture at a Chicago synagogue. Interested in the idea of a community garden that could provide fresh vegetables to those who live in what she called a “food desert,” Levin held an educational meeting about the proposed garden and was able to recruit Myra Rosenthal, Alan Raymond and Linda Kram to the project as well.

The JCC signed on to the project after being approached by the committee.

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“I helped work them through the logistics of finding a space and working with the JCC building and grounds staff to get all the necessary permissions,” said Rabbi Brad Horwitz, who is in charge of the Helene Mirowitz Department of Jewish Community Life and officiated at the garden’s dedication in last summer. “In terms of a Jewish value, growing food organically is important and connected to the JCC’s mission.”

“It turns out that many of the residents at Covenant Chai are low-income, and if they’re from Asia, here is where they get to have familiar foods,” Rosenthal said.

The garden committee asked that the residents donate at least 10 percent of their crop to the food pantry; according to Levin, the residents were happy to do so.

“These are people who would be using the food pantry themselves; people who are low-income,” she said. “In this case, it’s a ‘teach a man to fish’ situation.”

However, the residents of Covenant House/Chai not only contributed crops, but also knowledge. 

The Asian residents introduced trellises to the garden plots, which allow vegetables to grow up and off the ground for better support and exposure to sunlight.

“We have learned from them how to garden,” Rosenthal said. “They have done such nice things for us; they planted the cucumbers for us. They’re incredible people.”

Despite the garden’s successes, the committee has no plans to stop improving and growing.

Rosenthal said that there would soon be negotiations for expanding the garden on the Covenant House/Chai side, which would allow for better irrigation and the use of a pump to water crops. The proposed expansion would go into effect next summer.

However, those behind the garden want to see it grow not only in size but also in its impact on the community. 

“We would like to involve the whole community in this garden: to have congregations support us, to have teen groups support us, to have people with disabilities also come and support us and work in the garden with the idea that this would be like a small working farm, all to provide food for the food pantry,” Rosenthal said. 

She also expressed a wish to tie the garden in with the Jewish calendar, such as offering area congregations the opportunity to harvest from the garden in celebration of Sukkot.

Levin said that the garden very much needs volunteers from March to November; only the original four members of the committee consistently work in the garden. 

Campers from the JCC day camps often come to the garden as part of the camp’s nature education, but Rosenthal said that she would like to see interest from children throughout the community. 

“We would like to teach children about farming and gardening and to involve them in the actual work of mitzvah,” she said.

For now, however, the Garden of Eden will continue to be tended by various volunteers and by the Covenant House/Chai residents, whom Rosenthal said have grown very attached to the work they do in the plots.

“You can imagine that the days at Covenant House/Chai can be very boring, especially if you don’t know the language,” she said. “In one case, a resident even said to me, ‘This garden is my life.’ ” 

And for those behind the Garden of Eden, it’s been a transformative year for the project. 

“It’s been a year and definitely a learning experience,” Rosenthal said.