Confessions from a Food Conference Participant

We asked participants from the first annual Shoresh Food Conference to share their experiences with us. Posted below is an articulate, thoughtful and inspiring piece by Daniel Joseph.

Thanks Daniel!

I took the stairs to the third floor at the Miles Nadal. Eschewing the elevator with a smug green smile and shortness of breath, I walked up to the Shoresh Food Conference. As I opened the door, I was greeted with the strong ruach chaim of energetic conference attendees and the bustling of staff making final preparations. It seemed that every corner was buzzing with something new to stimulate my curiosity (and appetite). I filled up my mug with chai tea, and began absorbing information and the great atmosphere. It was nice to be around like minded people who value ethical, good quality food, and want to create change.

The conference sessions ranged from dairy to meat, ethics to praxis, and everything in between. I learned about the use of rennet in the coagulation process of cheese, kashrut laws relating to rennet, and that the main vegetarian alternative to rennet is a GMO product. Shocking! Ruth Klahsen of Montforte Dairy and Rabbi Aaron Levy of Makom provided a very informative dialogue on the intersection of kashrut and cheesemaking. The session also included a discussion on why we don't have organic kosher cheeses at the ready in our fridges. Perhaps someday soon we may merit such cheeses!

The theme of bringing organic kosher products to the market came up again in the session titled, “Is Kosher Meat Fit to Eat?” This session yielded an intense discussion centred upon the difficulties in bringing organic, local, sustainable kosher meat to the market. Participants and panel members volleyed back and forth on a variety of issues, and with no end in sight, the session concluded with the creation of a sign up sheet for those who wished to continue the conversation. A big thank you to Jonathan Abrahams from the Healthy Butcher and Aaron Gross from Farm Forward for being amazing panel members and helping to facilitate such an informative discussion.

At the closing ceremony I felt a heightened awareness of the many unknowns that stand between our current situation and an ideal future. I also felt a sense of unity and determination to carry the momentum forwards into the Toronto Jewish community. Can't wait until next year's conference – see you then!

A taste of the Shoresh Food Conference

In an attempt to share the positive and palpable energy from the first inaugural Shoresh Food Conference, I thought it would be a good idea to share Risa Alyson Cooper's Opening Remarks with the public here.

Opening Remarks

Bruchim ha’ba’im. Welcome everyone to the first ever Shoresh Food Conference.

My name is Risa Alyson Cooper and I am the Director of Shoresh Jewish Environmental Programs.

Shoresh’s mission is to build a more connected and ecologically sustainable Jewish community. We have developed a number of hands-on, innovative, learning opportunities that allow community members from across the various spectrums of our community to explore and experience the Jewish teachings of environmental stewardship and social justice in real and meaningful ways. In 2009, we created the Kavanah Garden, our flagship programming space in Vaughan at UJA’s Lebovic Jewish Community Campus. On just a ¼ acre of land, we have developed a vibrant community space that hosts 1400 people each season, including families, schools, synagogues and camps. With no running water, we manage to grow 500 pounds of food each year for community members in need.

In 2011, we were honoured when Shoresh’s Kavanah Garden was listed in Slingshot’s 2011-2012 Resource Guide to Jewish Innovation as one of the 50 most inspiring and innovative Jewish projects in North America. We are the only Canadian project included in this year’s guide.

And while I don’t think I’m technically allowed to tell you this, I’m going to anyways so as not to miss this opportunity: we have recently been informed that the will be receiving funding and capacity building support from the SixPoints Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund to build a permanent home for Shoresh’s Kavanah Garden.

In the past few years, we have greatly expanded our programming in the community, partnering with organizations such as Makom, PJ Library, and Baycrest Seniors Cente. We have even expanded our programming beyond city boundaries. We are in the beginning stages of developing Bela Farm, a 114 acre farm in beautiful Hillsburg, Ontario that will be jointly stewarded by Shoresh, the farm’s owner, and the greater community. Bela Farm will be a rural centre for sustainable land-based Judaism, a place where community members can come together to connect to and experience our rich Jewish agricultural heritage while developing a real, deep, and soulful connection with the earth that sustains us. A place where we can ask and try to answer the question, “what does it mean to grow food Jewishly.” I hope you will share with us your visions for Bela Farm and help us create a space that will profoundly change the face of the Jewish Food Movement in Ontario.

And today marks the beginning of a whole new area of Shoresh programming….the Shoresh Food Conference.

Before I address how today came to be, I want to take a quick minute to learn a bit about all of you, about the people who decided to give up their Sunday (Superbowl Sunday no less) to explore the intersections between food and Jewish tradition. We’re going to do a quick exercise and here’s how it’s going to work: I’m going to make a statement….kindly stand up if that statement applies to you. Please know that there is sincerely no judgment in any of these.

-Stand up if you are a chef or nutritionist.

-Stand up if you consider yourself to keep a kosher home.

-Stand up if you consider yourself to be kind of kosher.

-Stand up if you have ever seen or participated in an animal being killed and prepared for food.

-Stand up if you do eat meat, but would not if you have to kill and prepare it yourself.

-Stand up if you grow your own vegetables (in a garden, on a farm, in a box on your windowsill, etc.)

-Stand up if you say a blessing before eating.

-Stand up if you think there is no one in this room who has anything on your Bubbie’s chicken soup.

-Stand up if your grandparents were farmers.

-Stand up if you like cilantro.

Today is about growing Jewish food consciousness by bringing together diverse community members…by bringing as many voices as possible to the table, by taking note of whose voices are not represented, and figuring out how to bring them into this conversation. Our strength as a community is our diversity and we have a lot to learn from one another today, presenters and participants alike.

So, why host a Jewish food conference?

Food today is complicated. Is it locally grown? Is it sustainably produced? Does it contain genetically modified ingredients? What is the packaging made of? Was the farmer paid a living wage? How were the animals raised? How were they slaughtered? Is it organic? Is it too expensive? Is it not expensive enough? We live in a society where you can eat fresh strawberries in January; where it is illegal to keep chickens in our own backyards; where we often depend on certifying agencies to tell us if something is organic, fair trade, or kosher; where government regulations strongly favour agribusiness over agriculture; where there are people in our community who are hungry, who are undernourished, not because of a problem with food production, but because we have a real problem with food distribution.

And these issues, the core issues that are driving a movement of people to demand food systems that are just and sustainable, issues such as genetic engineering, factor farming, local vs. global food systems, environmental degradation, preserving green belts, hunger relief….all of these issues ARE Jewish issues. These are issues that our tradition has a lot to say about. Jewish texts and teachings are clear – there are rules that govern our relationship with food – how we grow it, how we prepare it, how we eat it, how we share it with others.

To give a few examples:

Today, our community is struggling with food justice. We live in an incredibly fertile part of the world, and yet there our people in our community who are hungry. Our food banks (not only exist), but are filled processed, packaged, nutritionally empty foods. And Jewish tradition teaches us that this is not okay. When the Torah talks about givingtzedakah (what is often translated as “charity” but is more accurately translated as “justice”), it talks not about giving money, but about giving food. We are commanded to leave peah, to leave the edges of our fields untouched, so that people who are in need can come and harvest for themselves. And the rabbis in Mishna are very clear – in leaving peah, you cannot leave the worst part of your field. What you leave must represent, at the very least, the average of your harvest. What you give must be at least as good as what you and your family are going to eat. So it is not okay to empty our cupboards of whatever cans of food we forgot we even had for the food bank and consider our obligation to the needy fulfilled. We are commanded to take care of those in need, which means actively working for food justice in our own community.

What about the issue of animal rights? In 2008, the raid on Agriprocessors Kosher Slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa, called into question what “kosher” means in an age of industrial food production. The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals documented hundreds of cases of extraordinary animal cruelty at Agriprocessors, not to mention the abhorrent treatment of Agriprocessor’s illegal immigrant workers. But the meat coming out of that factory was certified kosher because it complied with the laws of shechitah, kosher slaughter, which deal specifically with how an animal is killed and processed, and not how it is raised or handled. While the laws of kashrut were not being violated at Agriproceessors, that is not to say that raising animals in crammed feed lots, feeding them GMO corn and antibiotics, and treating them violently is okay according to Jewish teaching. The Jewish ethic of tzaar baalei chayim, which prohibits the unnecessary suffering of animals, was clearly violated in the treatment of the animals brought to Agriprocessors. Perhaps we need to expand our definition of kosher, or perhaps we just need to demand that our kosher food producers adopt a fuller practice of Jewish teachings.

Today we often eat without any intention whatsoever. We take packaged, prepared foods out of the freezer, pop them in the microwave, and eat them in the car. We don’t take time to think of how much goes into our food. Who grew the different ingredients? Where were those ingredients grown? Who harvested them? Where were they transported? Who prepared them? Where were they packaged? How many kilometers are represented in each bite you take? What resources were expended to make your meal? Jewish tradition demands that we eat with intention. That we take a moment to consider the ultimate source of the food that sustains us and that we express gratitude.

Yes, food today is complicated. But our community has been exploring the nature of our relationship with food for over 5000 years. We have texts and teachings, as well as a rich agricultural and culinary history, all of which can help us navigate what and how to eat within a complicated food system.

In 2006, Hazon hosted the first Jewish Food Conference in rural Connecticut. On hundred rabbis, academics, farmers, and chefs came together from all across North America to explore contemporary food issues from a uniquely Jewish perspective. Since then, Hazon’s annual conference has grown and with it the Jewish Food Movement. Hazon’s multiday conference now attracts over 500 community members. Both Sabrina and I have attended multiple Hazon conferences, I as a participant and presenter, and Sabrina as a Hazon staff person. Today is about building on the energy and successes of what Hazon is accomplishing on a national scale in the U.S., while also celebrating how the Jewish Food Movement is manifesting itself locally, in the Greater Toronto Area. All of the sessions today seek to collectively answer not just the greater question of “what does it mean to eat Jewishly,” but more specifically, “what does it mean to eat Jewishly here?” Today is about exploring how we as a community can work together and affect real change in our local food system.

I would like to thank and honour the incredible team of people who have worked so hard to make today’s conference happen.

First, I would like to thank our partners, the Miles Nadal JCC (and with them the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and United Way) as well as the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto.

I would also like to thank the individuals and businesses who donated food for today’s snacks and lunch and those who donated items or services for our incredible silent auction.

Thank you to Aviva Allen, author of the Kosher Organic Cookbook, for preparing what I’m sure will be a delicious and nourishing lunch, and to Andi Yumanski and Jess Smith from Conscious Kosher Catering for baking the really yummy morning and afternoon snacks.

Thank you to Aaron Gross, our keynote speaker, for making the journey to Canada to be with us today. We hope you will all join us this evening for his lecture “Kosher Law, Animal Ethics, and Jewish Identity” at 7pm at Hart House at UofT.

Thank you to our incredible team of presenters who have given so generously of their time to be here today. It’s not every day that you get to learn with and from rabbis, academics, farmers, and community activists all in one place.

Thank you to our amazing team of volunteers: Alex, Mati, Andrea, Leemor, Lauren, Rita, Alexandra, Sarah, Marc, Mike, Brian, Jorge, Janice, Rico, Pav, and Arian. We could not have done this without your help and we so deeply appreciate all of the ways that you are supporting us today.

Thank you to the Food Conference Planning Committee – thank you Sharoni and Andrea for enduring numerous meetings, countless e-mails, and even a few panicky phone calls. It has been a pleasure working with you.

And lastly, a huge thank you to Sabrina Malach, whose vision, ambition, and energy, were the driving force behind this conference. Sabrina has poured herself into making today a reality and deserves all of our gratitude and respect.

And thank you to all of you. Thank you for coming, thank you for spreading the word to family and friends, thank you for helping us move this 5000 year old conversation of what and how and when we eat in new and powerful directions. And thank you for gifting us the challenge of figuring out how to feed 100 people while holding the values of supporting local food producers, procuring organic and fair trade products, minimizing our carbon footprint by reducing waste, and honouring the Jewish laws of kashrut all at the same time. If my Bubbie were catering today’s event, she would have made a brisket, some roasted potatoes. To the macriobiotic gluten free locavore kosher vegans, she would have smiled, and served you brisket and potatoes. Please know that a lot of energy and intention went into thinking about the food being served today and we want your feedback. What to serve for lunch at a Jewish Food Conference should be considered an ongoing conversation/session.

One quick side note…a public service announcement if you will….everything served today is or was made with hekshered kosher ingredients in strictly kosher kitchens. The only two exceptions are 1. The kimchi served at lunch today was made in a vegetarian home that uses non-hekshered kosher products, and the Yemenite coffee served this afternoon was roasted and prepared in a home that uses non-hekshered kosher products. There will be reminder signs.

When you signed in at the registration desk this morning, you were given a few things: your name tag (kindly wear them), a program guide with today’s schedule and session descriptions, and a Get Involved flyer. We hope that at the end of the day you will feel inspired and energized and eager to go out and do something. And that’s great because there are lots of ways you can get involved. Shoresh hosts a myriad of educational programs for students, b’nei mitzvahs, adults, and seniors, both at our Kavanah Garden in Vaughan and at schools, shuls, and community organizations across the city. Bring a group to us, or bring a Shoresh educator to you….let’s keep building a community of people who understand that sustainable food systems, animal rights, food access and hunger ARE Jewish issues. These are issues our community must understand and feel empowered to respond to. Get involved by working or volunteering with us. We are currently hiring and accepting applications for two exciting internships this growing season at the Kavanah Garden. For more information, check out our website or see the job/intern postings on the info table in the lobby. Keep in touch with us. Sign up to get our newsletter. E-mail us with your good ideas. Shoresh is a young organization, a very grassroots organization and there is a lot of room for community involvement and visioning.

And lastly, you can get involved by supporting the work that we do by making a tax-deductible donation today. Our annual fundraising period begins on Tu B’Shvat next week, the birthday of the Trees according to the Jewish calendar, and goes until Shavuot, the second yearly harvest festival in May. In that time, we need to raise $12,000 to support the various programs and activities we have scheduled for 2012. And while the Shoresh team is extremely gifted with vision and energy and skills in growing food and educating community members, we humbly acknowledge that we are a little lacking on the business planning side of things. We so badly wanted today’s conference to be accessible to everyone – we gave out scholarships, reduced rates, worktrades…we didn’t turn anyone away for lack of funds. And we ended up with a conference that is at absolute capacity…that was sold out well before today….and we’re probably just going to break even when all is said and done. On the back of your Get Involved flyer is a donation form. Please, take a minute to fill it out and donate today to support the formative work Shoresh is doing in our community. You can give the completed forms to Alexandra on your way to your first session.

Before we break off into our first block of sessions, a few tachlis/logistic details:

If you are so eager to donate that you can’t wait for us to go home and process the donation forms on Monday, that’s okay. We have a silent auction table in the lobby filled with incredible items from yoga classes, to local honey, artwork by local artists, resources, garden consultation. Please take time during the breaks to look at the items, and mark down your bids. And make sure you check back often to see that you haven’t been out bid. All of the proceeds from the silent auction will help support the work we do. There is also an info table…a very very full info table. So many organizations doing really holy work in our community have materials here….so please make use of this opportunity of resources.

Washrooms are down the hall.

Staff and volunteers have “Ask Me” written on our name tags…feel free to ask us if you have any questions.

If you are not joining us for lunch (i.e. if you do not have an apple sticker on your name tag), or if you are looking for a place to grab dinner after the conference before heading to this evening’s lecture, there are posters in the lobby highlighting some neighbourhood restaurants that are close-by, delicious, and some are offering discounts to Food Conference participants (just bring your name tag with you).

Consider yourselves officially welcomed and briefed. I wish you all a day filled with deep learning, engaging conversations, delicious food, new friends, and inspiring realizations. Please head to your first session of choice.

Thank you.