Nine years ago, a gentleman walked through the doors of what then was called the Jewish Family Service of Bergen and North Hudson and said that he was hungry. He couldn’t afford food. Meals on Wheels came through for him.
It was this initial request that led to the establishment of the food pantry at the Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey, at 1485 Teaneck Road in Teaneck.
The pantry feeds more than 3,000 people a year. In order to protect the privacy of those who benefit from this invaluable service, which is open five days a week, clients must schedule an appointment. To help those people in need, monetary donations and donations of non-perishable food items as well as household items are always appreciated.
Shomrei Torah, a Conservative synagogue in Wayne, took the food pantry concept one step further. In 2016, the synagogue received a grant from DigIn! City Green, a non-governmental organization that works with the Passaic County Freeholders. It was the only synagogue to receive such a grant.
Synagogue leaders used the grant to build its community garden. According to Rabbi Randall Mark, Shomrei Torah’s spiritual leader for the past 22 years, “Linda Dumoff was the congregant who first brought this to our attention — that the grants were being offered to institutions that were interested in establishing community gardens.” But what is a garden without a gardener? So, “I spoke to one of our members, Henry Ramer, because I knew that he liked to garden and had been doing more around the synagogue since they moved from a single family home to a townhouse. He took the lead and I lent my support where needed.
“Lo and behold, we have a garden!!”
Mr. Ramer was more than happy to help with the garden project. A retired lawyer, Mr. Ramer’s love of gardening has been with him for over 35 years. He used to watch his father garden when he was a little boy, who helped by squirting the tomato plants with a garden hose. “I think anybody can grow a string bean,” Mr. Ramer said. “But our specific challenges have been, one, to involve as many synagogue members as possible in the garden, not only to spread the labor across a broad base of workers, but also to bring the idea and benefits of locally grown vegetables to as many as possible. We’ve used no pesticides or chemical fertilizers. The idea has been to demonstrate by our actions a respect for the earth and our obligations as responsible stewards
“And two, to distribute our produce wisely and mindfully. Some of the veggies have been used at our Saturday kiddush lunches. As August wears on, more and more tomatoes, squash, peppers, zucchini, etc., will begin to ripen. We want to give some of it away, but sensibly, to places such as food banks.
“Rather than just writing a check, we think giving away the fruits of our labors is more meaningful.”
“People think that if they can’t donate money, they can’t do anything to help, but this was a perfect example of an extremely creative way to help support the food pantry,” Ellen Finkelstein, JFCS’s marketing director, said. “The fresh vegetables are a welcomed addition to the selections available.”
Shomrei Torah member Lauryn Tuchman helped make the connection to the JFCS food bank. Mr. Ramer said that the synagogue also hopes to “contribute food to the Wayne Interfaith Network food pantry, which is run out of the Wayne JFCS office in the Y.”
As for the garden itself, “The garden employs a square foot, raised bed technique that was quarterbacked by synagogue member Dr. Anita Skolnick. Member Eric Weis contributed funds to enable us to get an automatic underground irrigation system.” Mr. Ramer is proud of the synagogue’s involvement in this project. “Several members regularly work in the garden, he added, and Rabbi Mark has supported the effort consistently
And it hasn’t been just the adult congregants that have taken on this project with a full heart. “On May 7, our religious school kids came out, about 50 of them, to help us get our growing season off to a good start,” Mr. Ramer said. “I hope the kids learned something about gardening. And as school reconvenes in September, I hope they can come out again and see what their efforts last spring have yielded”; and that they know what a difference they are making in the lives of those that rely on the food pantry for nutritious meal options.
“Having items from our garden to supplement the non-perishables is brand new to us, but we can’t think of a better use for the items grown in a synagogue garden than feeding the hungry, it’s straight out of the words of the prophet Isaiah,” Rabbi Mark said. He’s quoting Chapter 58, where Isaiah tells us the God demands not just that we fast, but to feed the hungry, and to house the poor, and to cover the naked. That we actually do things.
So what happens when the summer ends and the vegetables have gone the way of the rest of the season? Have no fear, Mr. Ramer said. “We’ll continue to cultivate our summer crop, and in the next few days we will plant additional frost-hardy vegetables, which we should be able to harvest into the fall, maybe as late as November.
“This may make the garden a seven-month activity.”
And that is music to the JFCS food pantry’s ears.