Shoresh Food Conference Opening Remarks or Inspiration, Move Me Brightly.

Shoresh Food Conference
Opening Address

Bruchim ha’ba’im.  Welcome.

My name is Risa Alyson Cooper, I am the Executive Director of Shoresh Jewish Environmental Programs, and it my deep honour to welcome you all to the second annual Shoresh Food Conference.

I’d like to begin this morning with a little bit about Shoresh…who we are, where we’ve come from and where we’re headed.      

Shoresh’s mission is to build a more connected, sustainable Jewish community.  We have over the last few years developed a wide variety of hands-on, innovative learning opportunities to allow community members from across the various spectrums that make up our community to explore Jewish teachings, ethics, rituals, holiday celebrations in real, relevant and meaningful ways.

Since 2009, we have operated Shoresh’s Kavanah Garden at UJA’s Lebovic Jewish Community Campus in Vaughan.  On just a ¼ acre of meadow, we developed a vibrant community space that hosted over 1500 individuals each season (families, students, b’nei mitzvahs, young adult volunteers)…community members of all ages, and abilities….community members for whom Jewish living and learning expressed itself in vastly different ways….community members who came together to learn, to celebrate, and to ultimately grow food (real food) for the most vulnerable in our community.  Shoresh’s Kavanah Garden is a model for Jewish experiential learning, and we were honored to be included in Slingshot Fund’s 2011-2012 Guide of the 50 most innovative projects in Jewish North America – the only Canadian project listed that year. 

This season, we head into our fifth growing season at Kavanah.  And it is with a heavy heart, and a full and grateful heart, that we will be planting this year’s seeds and seedlings in new soil…just across the ravine.  Because with the help of the Six Points Jewish Venture Philanthropy Fund, and the incredible support of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, along with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority, this spring we are building a permanent home for Shoresh’s Kavanah Garden on the Lebovic Campus.  Our new space will be a little bit larger, a lot more accessible, and will better reflect the reality that the Kavanah Garden is a key feature of the developing Lebovic Campus and its surrounding neighbourhoods. 

Outside of the Kavanah Garden, Shoresh is continuing to grow our programs in the Toronto area. 
-We are continuing to run workshops with our elders at Baycrest. 
-We are developing a new area of interfaith programming.  This year we are partnering with Dante Alighieri Academy, a Catholic school in Lawrence Heights, to jointly steward their garden space, which produces hundreds of pounds of food each year for the North York Harvest Food Bank.  Working with the school’s administration and staff, other organizations such as the Multifaith Centre at UofT, and Khaleafa (a Muslim environmental group), we are developing a series of multifaith food-focused programs for highschool students.
 -We are increasing our opportunities for text-based study.  Last year, following the first food conference, it was clear that meat was something we needed to explore more deeply.  So, partnering with some of our downtown friends, Makom, Annex Shul, and the First Narayever, we hosted a six-part Beit Midrash series that explored different aspects of the relationship between humans and nonhuman animals according to Jewish tradition.  This year, we are focusing our Beit Midrash series on Shmittah, the sabbatical year.  As we enter the next Shmitah year in September 2014, we want to better understand this agricultural and social justice practice that is a part of our Jewish heritage and have thought deeply about how we as individuals, an organization, and a community can mark and observe this time in our calendar.
-We are ensuring that our community has access to fresh, local, organic produce through Community Supported Agriculture Programs.  Shoresh has worked closely with our dear friends at the Cutting Veg Organic Farm for the last four years providing 65 families with farm fresh veg through our Kavanah CSA.  Now, as the Cutting Veg moves in a different direction, Shoresh is partnering with Highmark Farms and Holy Blossom Temple, to develop a consortium of Jewish CSAs across our city.  Details about how you can become a member of the Shoresh CSA network, coming soon.   

And we’re also growing outside the Toronto area….in a magical little place called Hillsburgh, Ontario….with Bela Farm.  Last year, we at Shoresh were deeply honoured and radically grateful to be the first Canadian organization ever accepted into Joshua Venture Group’s two year fellowship.  The fellowship includes funding and incredible capacity building support for Shoresh to develop our vision for Bela Farm and ultimately the tools to sustain our programs and projects. 

One of the things we have been working on this past year, is articulating an answer to the question, “So what is Bela Farm?  What are we planning to do there?”  The Bela Farm Creative Team, which includes myself, Sabrina Malach, Mati Cooper, Andrea Most, and Rochelle Rubinstein, has spent many hours in conversation, visioning and revisioning.  Andrea, who is a fellow with the Jackman Humanities Institute at UofT and is focusing her research on the Jewish Food Movement, has taken our hours of brainstorming and turned it into something intelligible (a commendable achievement I assure you), which we are really thrilled to share with you all today.      

We have a mission statement:
Bela Farm is a centre for sustainable, land-based Judaism located an hour northwest of Toronto in rural Ontario.  This one-hundred acre farm produces organic fruits, vegetables, and value-added products, offers a full season of public educational programs, merges nature-based art with experimental agriculture, and serves as a laboratory for creative responses to global environmental crisis. A project of Shoresh, the design, goals and activities of Bela Farm are rooted in Jewish values and practices and open to all.
We have articulated 5 core values of the farm:
1.     Healing the Earth / Healing Ourselves: 
2.     Wandering Home: 
3.     Holy Land / Sacred Table
4.     Nature Time / Jewish Time
5.     Community: 
Unfortunately, I don’t have time enough now to explain these more deeply, but we have posted the full Mission Statement document on a Bela Farm display board upstairs, AND we will have a round table discussion about Bela Farm during our last session for those of you eager to learn more about the farm and our vision.  These core values will inform and shape the farm’s landscape design, public programs, products, and working process.  And by embodying these values, Bela Farm will model new ways of approaching longstanding Jewish and global concerns.    As Jews have throughout history, at Bela Farm we will emphasize the Jewish laws and ethical principles that will help us respond to the pressing problems of our time.
Bela Farm is a work-in-progress and our plan is to be fully operational by 2016 (we’ve set a date!)  This year, we will begin planting a perennial meadow – a two acre plot that will serve as the spiritual, ethical, and aesthetic heart of the property.  Ultimately, the 100 acre farm will include fruit trees, berry patches, grain crops, a varied market garden, chickens (for eggs and meat), goats (for dairy), beehives, fields for hay and pasture, and a few fields for rental to neighboring farmers.  We are committed to restoration of native forest and grasslands on the property where possible.  In addition to the necessary outbuildings to support these activities, the farm will also include a commercial kitchen, a house for the farm manager, offices for Bela Farm staff, housing for interns, and various spaces for programming.  By 2016, we will host a farm internship for those interested in pursuing in-depth learning about sustainable agriculture, artisanal food production, and intentional Jewish living and learning, as well as an annual calendar of events open to the community.  We will produce a line of artisanal kosher products, as well as a CSA subscription program that will uniquely follow and support the Jewish holiday cycle. 
So, we’ve been up to lots of good stuff.  And before we get into the good stuff that’s happening today, I want to take a quick minute to learn about the community of individuals that make up this room.  I’m going to borrow from last year’s opening address a quick activity to help us better understand who is here.  Who are the people in this room that have made the decision to invest their time, energy, and resources in a day of exploring the intersection between food and Jewish tradition.  Super simple…I am 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 work with food professionally.
-Stand up if you consider yourself to keep a kosher home.
-Stand up if you say a blessing before eating.
-Stand up if you transited from outside the Toronto area to be here today.
-Stand up if you think latkas beat hamentashen.
-Stand up if you, in the last few years, have tried being gluten free.
-Stand up if you donated something to the Shoresh silent auction or to today’s lunch.
-Stand up if you have ever witnessed or participated in an animal being killed and prepared for food. 
-Stand up if you grow your own vegetables.
-Stand up if you have ever tried kale chips.

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. 

In last Wednesday’s Toronto Star, the front page of the Life and Entertainment sectioned featured an article “How kosher is kosher?  Food Conference Seeks to Square Ancient Traditions and Other Jewish Values.” 

Star reporter, Michele Henry, writes about a great questioning happening today within our community…a questioning that is not new….a questioning that has been happening for the last 5000 years….what does it mean to eat Jewishly? 

Does eating Jewishly mean eating foods that are culturally Jewish?  This year United Bakers Dairy Restaurant celebrates their 100th anniversary.  Established in 1912, United Bakers is Toronto’s oldest family restaurant, and they have spent the last century serving up “heimische” baked goods and comfort foods.  My Zadie swears by their twister bagels.  For me, as an Ashkenazi Jew, is eating at United Bakers, eating Jewishly?  What if I am a vegan, gluten intolerant, Ashkenazi Jew …can I still eat Jewishly if challah, matza ball soup, mandel broit, brisket, bagels with lox and cream cheese…if those foods are not a part of my diet? 

Does eating Jewishly mean eating foods prepared according to the traditional laws of kashrut?  Who decides if something is kosher?  100 years ago, the women in our family, the keepers of the kitchen, they decided if something was kosher.  They knew the butcher, the cheese monger, the baker…the community held their food providers to a certain standard of kashrut.  As our food system developed into a global food system, a system where our food is often grown/raised, packaged and prepared, out of sight, certifying agencies became important in helping consumer make informed food choices.  This year, the Kashrut Council of Canada celebrates their 60th anniversary.  For 60 years, they have served our Jewish community by overseeing the practices of our food providers, most of whom are now inaccessible to the community.  So what happens now that we are seeing a move back to smaller, locally-based food systems?  For many, certified kosher has become the new standard of kosher.  Can something be kosher without a heksher?  What if you know your butcher, your cheese monger, your baker…do they now need to be certified to be kosher?  How can we help bring small scale artisanal food producers into a certifying system designed for corporate food businesses?  Do we need to?

Does eating Jewishly mean eating in a way that reflects Jewish ethics and values beyond kashrut?  Yes we have been having this conversation of what does it mean to eat Jewishly for thousands of years, AND our food system has changed radically in the last 60-70 years.  Food today is more complicated than ever.  Is it organically grown?  Is it fair trade?  Is it genetically modified?  What is the carbon footprint of my meal?  How were the animals raised?  How where they slaughtered?  Some are arguing that we need to expand the definition of kosher – can we call something kosher, which literally means “fit” to eat, if it has been grown in soil sprayed with known carcinogenic chemicals?  Can we call something kosher if we are packaging or serving it in Styrofoam?  Can we call something kosher if we know that those who helped grow or prepare our food were not paid fairly or given a safe working environment?  Can we call something kosher if the animals were raised in conditions resulting in incredible suffering?  There are those who say kosher is kosher (we don’t need to redefine kosher), AND that does not give us permission to willing overlook our traditions ethical teachings when it comes to the food choices we make.  Tzedek, tzedek tirdof….justice, justice you shall pursue.  Justice for those by whose hands we are fed.  Justice for the earth.  Justice for the non-human animals in our food system.  Justice for our own bodies.  Justice for those who are hungry in our community.  The Torah commands us to pursue justice.  Eating has become a political act.  So maybe eating Jewishly means embodying the fullness of Judaism’s ethical principles as they apply to our current food system. 

Does eating Jewishly mean creating space for the divine at our tables?  Does it mean acknowledging the role of an ultimate Creator, an unifying energy or breath of life?  Does it mean saying a blessing, expressions of gratitude?  According to the Talmud, it is forbidden for a person to enjoying anything of this world without a blessing, and if anyone enjoys anything of this world without a blessing s/he commits sacrilege?  Does eating Jewishly mean eating with intention? 

Jewish texts and teachings are clear – there are rules and traditions that govern our relationship with food – how we grow it, how we prepare it, how we eat it, how we share it with others.  Our community has been exploring the nature of our relationship with food for over 5000 years and today is about moving that conversation forward.  Which is why we have brought you all together – foodies, chefs, rabbis, farmers, students, teachers – we need everyone’s voice at the table, we need to think holistically about what it means to eat Jewishly here, today.            

Yesterday was Tu B’Shvat, the new year of the trees, one of the four Jewish new years in the Hebrew calendar.  Essentially Tu B’Shvat is a tax date, necessary for tithing purposes…any fruit produced before Tu B’Shvat were taxed with last year’s produce, any fruit produced on or after Tu B’Shvat, with this year’s produce.  It was a day set in the Hebrew calendar to help our ancestors manage communal food distribution.  That is radical.  So, it feels really appropriate for us to be gathering today to be thinking about our relationship with food from a Jewish perspective, whatever that means to you. 

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 the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. 
Thank you to the Ontario Jewish Archives for pulling together a beautiful slideshow of historic Jewish food photos, which was on display earlier this morning and which we will show again during our final session.
Thank you to Hillel of Greater Toronto for helping to subsidize our student rate tickets.
Thank you to the incredible 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 Laurenn Schecter, Moishe Oziel, and Michael Schecter from Mo and Lo Organics for preparing what I’m sure will be a delicious and nourishing morning snack and lunch. 
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 Sipos-Kocsis, Marc Levy, Dana Sipos, Andrea Schaffer, Naomi Tessler, Cara Gold, Alexandra Kuperman, Mati Cooper, Aldea Mulhern, Andrea Toole, Sara Brodbar-Nemzer, Leora Mallach, Rachael Roter, and Bemnet Worku.  From organizing our silent auction, to serving food, to working on our nametag assembly line, today could not happened without them.  Thank you.
Thank you to Deanna from the MNJCC for managing kitchen chaos. 
Thank you to the Food Conference Planning Committee – thank you Andrea and Sharoni for enduring numerous meetings, countless e-mails, and even a few panicky phone calls.  We are so grateful to have partners like you in our community. 
And lastly, an epically huge thank you to Shoresh’s Director of Community Outreach, Sabrina Malach, who claims she is not a detail oriented person, and yet held the 8403 details it took to bring today together.  Every day I am radically grateful to work with such a dear friend, a tireless and committed coworker, and a true visionary.  

And thank you to all of you.  Thank you for coming, thank you for spreading the word to family and friends, thank you for all the ways that you have supported us and will support us in the future, thank you for helping us move this age old conversation of what and how and when and with who we eat in new and powerful directions.

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. 

Thank you.