Tzedakah, the Jewish Market, and Maxie's Garden

When we hear the word “tzedakah,” many of us think of the word “charity,” or recall placing our parents’ pocket change in jangling boxes (known as a pushke in Yiddish)  in Hebrew school or at synagogue.

In fact, the word tzedakah is translated as “justice.” Maimonides lists eight levels of tzedakah — the highest level is to empower the individual, by offering a loan; assisting people with finding employment; or helping people establish businesses. While giving charity to the poor through donations is noble, and makes Maimonides’ list in several forms, it often chains the needy to a system of relying upon external groups to sustain themselves. This is generous, but not necessarily just — empowering individuals to sustain themselves is the highest degree of Maimonides’ concept of tzedakah.

At Shoresh, everything we grow is donated — the Kavanah Garden produces over 500 pounds of fresh vegetables annually for distribution in the community. We have always donated our harvest to tzedakah including organizations such as Ve’Ahavata and Jewish Family & Child  (JF&CS). In 2014, we adopted a new approach to tzedakah and what unravelled was the launch of Maxie’s Garden — a story that begins in Kensington Market.

Market harvest 

Dave Pinkus has lived on Nassau Street since 1927.

At the close of the 1920s, Toronto was home to a burgeoning population of Jewish immigrants, highly concentrated in the Kensington neighbourhood. Just a few years later, vendors had set up food and goods, lining the street in what came to be known as the Jewish market. It closed on Friday nights each week as the bustling crowds would disappear into their homes to observe the Sabbath, coming to life once again on Saturday nights and flooding the streets with members of the surrounding immigrant community doing their shopping throughout the week.

Jewish Market Day on Kensington Avenue, 1924. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Today, we know this area of Toronto as Kensington Market. The majority of the Jewish population that once enlivened its storefronts and alleyways moved north — but not Pinkus.

The same year that he came to the neighbourhood, the Kiever Synagogue was established at 25 Bellevue Avenue. His parents were founding members of the shul that remains in its original location to this day. The Kiever remains active today, and Pinkus serves as its president.

In 2014, Shoresh began to set roots in downtown Toronto and were looking to start a new community garden in the area.  Through a variety of connections, Pinkus heard about Shoresh’s interest and generously offered up the backyard of his 90-year-old Nassau Street residence. The project was called Maxie’s Garden, after Pinkus’ late brother.

For 23 weeks, 5-10 clients of JF&CS came to the garden to learn how to tend to the land, guided by Shoresh Director of Community Outreach Sabrina Malach from seed to harvest. The group was called “Back to Our Roots.”

In the shadow of the vibrant Jewish market of nearly a century ago, coloured by the produce of downtown vendors, the group grew fresh produce in Kensington to take home and to donate to the community. In the rich soil, invested in several years earlier by Pinkus, the group grew carrots, beets, radishes, herbs, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, chard, chives, zucchini, beans, garlic, flowers, and more.

Pinkus, an incredible community leader and a living library of the history of Toronto’s Jewish community, engaged with the group throughout the program.

I really enjoyed myself both for the learning factor but also in having the true privilege of meeting David and getting to know him somewhat and in marvelling and also being amazed at his vast knowledge and memory,” one participant described, “What a true mensch and wonderful, wonderful man. I loved hearing him speak of my uncle and family that he knew. It is very rare to be in the company of such a gifted and kind man who possesses such a razor sharp memory and accurate too.”

Participants with Pinkus and Shoresh and JFCS staff in the garden.
Several participants found the experience of working in the garden healing, and many expressed that they enjoyed the collaborative, social nature of the work.

I love the garden more every time I come,” said one participant, “I find it therapeutic and it makes me feel proud.”

Food justice

“After learning from Maxie’s Garden, I planted my own garden,” said one participant of the JF&CS-Shoresh collaboration.

A flower in the garden.
Describing the highlights of her experience in the program, another participant describes, “taking home the harvest, [having] access to organic food, [and] knowing that I was a contributing hand.”

Looking ahead to the next iteration of the garden, Shoresh and JF&CS hope to incorporate cooking classes to provide even more practical skills to program participants.

Tzedakah is not the only Hebrew concept that is sometimes mistranslated — we often think of “mitzvah” as meaning “good deed,” but in fact, it means “obligation.” Tzedakah is a mitzvah — and social justice, more than a commendable endeavour, is an obligation upon the Jewish community.

At Maxie’s Garden, the Maimonidean principle of the highest degree of tzedakah as social justice is seen in action — participants learn to plant, weed, and harvest their yield, so that they can nourish themselves independently. Beyond this, they also have the opportunity to socialize; to meaningfully work with and learn from others; and to engage in the ineffable healing and empowerment of gardening.

As one participant noted, “the process of seed to the table is truly divine.” 

Shmita 101

On the side of a highway in southern Israel, a field of dried out sunflowers likely strikes observers, initially, as abandoned — a sprawling, desolate pasture, unattended and still except for the inaudible decay of the remaining brown blooms.

Before the field stands a large, yellow poster, with green Hebrew letters declaring, “We observe the shmita year.”

A fallow field in Israel during the 2007/2008 shmita. Courtesy Yaakov via Wikimedia Commons. 

This seventh year of the Jewish agricultural cycle, where we are called to rest the land and to forgive any outstanding known as the shmita, represents an opportunity to refocus, to strategize, and to ask: what will our community look like seven years from now? Indeed, several commentators suggest that It is the years that lead up to and follow shmita that matter far more than the year itself. It is a period to reflect on the past, and to vision forward.

Shmita is not without its challenges, and not only for those Jewish farmers who seek out loopholes to get around the commandment. The term is translated as “release” — and, realistically, it’s not always easy to let go. Carving out time to rest, to reflect, and to plan can be difficult to prioritize.

But shmita is process-oriented — it is a proactive project of critically analyzing our behaviour towards implementing positive changes. This can be a personal process, reflecting on the way we go about our lives — where our food comes from, what we eat, or how we relate to the environment, for example. But it can also be communal, asking big questions about our community and how we can implement systemic changes with broad impact.

Shoresh is participating in the shmita, and we’re certainly not alone. In this blog post, we take a look at how other organizations are approaching the seventh year, as well as gather some essential resources on the subject with the hopes that you can incorporate some of the deep wisdom of shmita into your life.

Diverse contemporary approaches to shmita

The Shmita ProjectThis collaborative initiative by American organizations Hazon, 7Seeds, and the Jewish Farm School aims to increase awareness and understanding of shmita and its modern applications, and to foster a global network of Jewish organizations and individuals towards implementing shmita values into communities worldwide. The project provides comprehensive educational resources on shmita, programming ideas, and several online networks for participants to connect with one another.

Give it a rest: Shmita, social action, social justiceA campaign by the Jewish Social Action Forum (JSAF) in the UK offering educational resources those wishing to participate in the sabbatical year and hosting related events. The theme of the JSAF’s campaign is inequality, drawing attention to stark income gaps in the UK and encouraging individuals to donate to local food banks.

Israeli shmitaA nation-wide coalition based in Israel organized by Teva Ivri, with the goal of ensuring that every person in Israel knows that shmita is happening. The campaign also aims to provide tools for interested individuals to incorporate shmita values into their lives. Their projects include establishing community volunteer banks wherein community members can withdraw or deposit volunteer time; swap markets; free entrance to 15 nature reserves; and advocating for a moratorium on fishing in the Kinneret.

How is Shoresh participating in Shmita?

To honour the Shmita year and its ethic of rest, release, and balance, we are devoting the fall and winter months to strategic planning for our young, small, not-for-profit organization.  In order to do this, we have limited the amount of educational programs we are running and have put the annual Shoresh Food Conference on hold until 5779 (2016).

    Produce for sale at an Israeli shmita store. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Discover shmita: Resources for understanding the sabbatical year

The Shmita Sourcebook — A free, comprehensive resource put together by Hazon containing biblical, rabbinic, and modern texts on shmita, accompanied by commentary and discussion questions.

What is shmita and where did it come from? — A brief, easily digestible history of shmita from Ha’aretz featuring some interesting insights into how ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel observe it.

Envisioning sabbatical culture: A Shmita manifesto — A short collection of poetry, art, and brief essays from 7Seeds that delves into the mythic symbolism of shmita and questions the depth of potential that shmita offers modern Jewish communities. 

Shemita as a Foundation for Jewish Ecological Education — A helpful article from Jewish Education News to understand the connections between shmita and environmental issues.

Rav Kook’s Introduction to Shabbat Ha’Aretz — “What the Sabbath achieves regarding the individual, the Shmita achieves with regard to the nation as a whole,” writes Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel, in his 1909 essay in which he offers a halakhic framework for shmita. For this year, Hazon has a released a new translation of the work.

More shmita resources can be found at Hazon.

5 ways you can get started with shmita

  1. Join the conversation on social media by sharing articles and thoughts on Facebook and Twitter with #shmita. Hazon also hosts both a network and a Facebook group for those participating in their Shmita Project.
  2. Host a potluck shmita Shabbat or, looking ahead on the calendar, a shmita seder, using locally-sourced perennial or wild ingredients and preserves. Hazon offers a guide containing sources and discussion questions for hosting a shmita seder.
  3. Organize an exchange meet at your home or synagogue to trade anything from items like clothing, books, or food; to skills, like sewing a button back on a sweater or fixing a wobbly table leg. Rather than buying new or outsourcing assistance, share what you have to offer with your community in the spirit of the shmita principle of local collaboration.
  4. Create a shmita book club with texts focusing on sustainable agriculture and Jewish approaches to environmental issues.
  5. Start your own shmita project — whether it’s planting a garden of perennial plants, or developing long-term 7-year personal goals.
Want more ideas? Check out 100 ways to get started with shmita from 7seeds.

Photo courtesy Yaakov via Wikimedia Commons

More shmita facts: 

  • A line from Leviticus referencing the shmita year can be found on the Liberty Bell in the U.S.: “Proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”
  • Stefan Sagmeister, a New York-based graphic designer who has designed album covers for the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith, closes his studio to clients every seven years for the sabbatical to “experiment” and refresh his creativity and that of his staff. He gave a TED talk about it called “The power of time off.” 
  • In Israel, low-income families can have their debts cancelled this year if they participate in a finance management course as part of the Israeli Shmita initiative.

Danielle Klein is a student at the University of Toronto studying literature, history, and Jewish Studies. She is interning at Shoresh through a service-learning course offered by the Centre for Jewish Studies at U of T called "Community and Identity," which explores Jewish social philosophy.