A Synagogue Returns To Its Roots
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A Synagogue Returns To Its Roots

Down on the farm in Briarcliff Manor.

Merri Rosenberg is the Westchester correspondent for The Jewish Week.

Before Congregation Sons of Israel (CSI) in Briarcliff Manor was a synagogue, it was farmland. The synagogue’s recent building of a farm on about two acres of the congregation’s seven, is, said Rabbi Steven C. Kane, a restoration in part, “to what it was.”

Admittedly, in mid-summer a visitor would have to stretch her imagination to see the kale, Swiss chard, radishes and spinach that would be emerging later in the fall, or the flowers and herbs that are planned. It helped that there were 10 chickens providing an appropriate sound track.
Never mind. The CSI farm hopes to grow more than fruits and vegetables.

As synagogues search for ways to attract new members and engage new members, there’s increasing recognition that not all of them involve davening and ritual.

Few would deny “a lot of synagogues, especially Conservative synagogues, are struggling with membership,” said Fredrick Schulman, a member of the CSI board of trustees and a key donor and founder of the new farm-garden project. “We’re trying to maintain memberships. There are assets we can leverage that are unique.”

Schulman, the son of Holocaust survivors who grew up on a farm in Connecticut, added, “We’re creating something that can cause people to reconnect with the synagogue. It may attract people who are sitting on the fence.”

Rabbi Kane said the new effort has “three different goals,” encompassing education, engagement and recruitment of members, as well as potentially generating additional revenue. “One is our own ability to add another Jewish dimension to education. We’re already pretty green. Then there are the families that don’t want the same synagogue experience they grew up in and are looking for new ways to approach Judaism.”

Students in the nursery school and Hebrew school will be able to plant and observe what they grow. For the Hebrew school students, there will be lesson plans specifically linked to Jewish teachings about the land. Passover and Sukkot, for example, naturally lend themselves to these connections.

As discussion about the potential farm took shape, it helped that a congregant who had been raised at CSI had recently returned to the area and was eager to offer his expertise.

Michael Yoken, a professional landscape designer and installer had “learned a lot about connecting Judaism with gardening and farming and the spirituality that flows from all that. It’s an agricultural religion…we’re doing all these things to commemorate all the traditions and festivals. We’ll only grow what we need. Food is something everyone does.”

Yoken, who’s volunteering his time, is optimistic the farm will “attract a lot of people who don’t want a traditional shul setting.” He added, “we can change hearts and minds, and change people’s attitudes when we change their surroundings. It’s a way to be in the Jewish community.”

The land is being planted with native shrubs and trees, with fruit trees ultimately part of the master plan. Each 4-by-20-foot bed will offer congregants an opportunity to “garden with fellow shul members,” said Yoken. Of the 375 member families, by late summer 40 members had signed up to work on the farm (there are currently 50 plots available for members to have their own gardens). There will also be designated plots where the synagogue can grow vegetables and fruits to use during Kiddush and to donate to a local food pantry.

The farm isn’t the only way CSI is committed to environmental issues.

This past year, from Labor Day through the end of the Hebrew school year, CSI has organized and run an organic market on Sunday mornings. CSI also has solar roof panels, does recycling and composting and uses electronic communication.
Still, the farm represents another level of commitment.

“I think it’s completely unique,” said Rabbi Kane. “ Everybody will have a way to participate. It should be a positive experience.”

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