Food Justice and Sustainability – From KAM Isaiah Israel to Your Nonprofit

KAM Isaiah Israel Farming ImageEven as we anticipate the beginning of summer, I am thinking back to this past Sunday, May 20, 2018.  In the Jewish liturgical calendar, the day marked Shavuot, when in ancient times, Jews were gathered up to Jerusalem for the Festival of First Fruits.  In the Christian calendar, the day is known as Whitsunday—Pentecost—the day that marks when the church was first gathered.

These holy days, however, share much earlier roots, a pagan, agrarian festival marking the first harvest of the year. Our ancestors—and we who observe these festive rites—fifty days after Passover and Easter, are ever reminded of how dependent we are upon the land and its bounty.  Food was never to be taken for granted in the Biblical era. And, regrettably, for far too many in our own time and in our own country, food insecurity is a reality.

KAM Isaiah Israel

Recently, we have engaged with a client who is doing something about it.  A 170-year-old congregation, KAM Isaiah Israel, is a city-wide Reform Jewish community in the Hyde Park-Kenwood neighborhood. The congregation was founded by the founders of Jewish life in Chicago.  It is known for its dedication to intellectual inquiry and the pursuit of social justice through action, knowledge, and advocacy.  We have been engaged with this historic community to re-envision its future and raise the funds to achieve it.

Food Justice and Sustainability

A hallmark of the congregation’s social justice program is its award-winning, nationally-recognized Food Justice and Sustainability Program begun in 2009.  Through these efforts, KAM Isaiah Israel members address basic human needs and rights—access to nourishing, wholesome food, clean air and water, healthy soil—through urban farming. They have transformed the synagogue’s lawns and others around the neighborhood into food producing micro-farms, growing fruits and vegetables while distributing the harvests to those in need.

The members of the congregation not only grow and distribute food. They also teach urban agriculture and sustainability skills and advocate for healthy, local food systems and responsible energy, land and water use. This group utilizes an annual mid-January MLK Food Justice and Sustainability Weekend, annual mid-summer Farm and Food Forest School, and new Elementary School Environmental Education Initiative to create awareness, make an impact and share their knowledge.

In addition to all the good that it does, the program is a magnificent engagement tool for the congregation and has attracted people of all ages to the synagogue.  Since 2009 more than 500 people have been involved with the program. They have educated, advocated, planned, organized, planted, tended, harvested, and delivered more 12 tons of fresh produce. The work is done by an extraordinary group of individuals—members and non, interfaith, younger and older. Consequently, the program enjoys a high retention rate and a steady, annual influx of new participants.

What can you do at your nonprofit?

Aspects of the KAM Isaiah Isreal’s program are within the ability of any community to do. While a farm may be beyond your reach, it’s not difficult to establish gleaning programs or plant trees.

With an emphasis on climate change, imagine if every congregation stopped flying in cut flowers for the bimah. Instead, they could decorate with crops they had grown or gleaned, and then donated the food to a meal program. That alone would have a big impact on energy consumption. But, this community demonstrates every day the power we all have to effect change and action.

As a result, at this season when we have just marked Shavuot—the time of the giving of the Torah—the core of our values—and Pentecost—when the church was first gathered, I think back to the shared, ancient agrarian roots of these great days.  I think about how we can address the issue of food insecurity in our own communities.  And most noteworthy, I see how we can bring people together in common cause for the good of all.

We are proud of our association with the people of KAM Isaiah Israel.  If you would like to learn more about this program and how you can start something similar in your community, contact me and I will connect you with the leaders of this great social justice engagement program.