From Victory Garden to congregational project
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From Victory Garden to congregational project

Synagogue cultivates a satisfying way of giving to the community

Ian Roth and his father, Brad, work on building the raised garden bed for Ian’s bar mitzvah project.
Ian Roth and his father, Brad, work on building the raised garden bed for Ian’s bar mitzvah project.

Three years ago, Tamara Duker Freuman of Nyack came up with a plan for a synagogue vegetable garden that would serve at least three purposes — enable her congregation to contribute to the community, provide much needed food to a local pantry, and instill a sense of pride in synagogue members. It has fulfilled — and exceeded — all those expectations.

“We have a beautiful giving garden,” Rabbi Ariel Russo, religious leader of the town’s Congregation Sons of Israel, said, citing the project’s many benefits. “All of the proceeds go to People to People’s food pantry. We have an intergenerational team of volunteer gardeners.” Even more, “The garden keeps growing, and producing more vegetables even into the fall. It is a real success story about how a synagogue can come together with a shared purpose.”

Ms. Freuman’s initiative began, as she admits, with little gardening knowledge but a great deal of enthusiasm. “I thought, we’re a smaller congregation” — there are about 175 member units — “and I wanted to find a way we could have a big impact on the community. We have lots of land and sunshine. Why not put some of this grass to use and grow things, gets kids involved, live our values?”

The first two years, “we put the plants into the ground, put up some mesh, fences, and poles,” she said. “We grew some things in June and July — but then the weeds took over and the deer trampled it.”

Happily, at the time, “The Roth family was thinking about a bar mitzvah project for Ian. He’s a Boy Scout and handy.” The family, she said, raised money for the project, built a sturdy structure that now houses a raised garden bed, and put it all together. “This year is the first with the container garden,” Ms. Freuman said. “It’s grown exponentially. We have pints of tomatoes every week, and in the early season we grew sugar snap peas, Swiss chard, kale, and zucchini. Then the tomatoes and cucumbers came in. And we’ve had basil the whole time.”

She is particularly proud of the ground cherries. “They’re a relative of tomatillos, which are expensive and fancy,” she said. “They really took off. Also, one of the members installed an automatic drip irrigation system on a timer, so the garden waters itself. We did square-foot gardening, which leaves very little room for weeds.”

Clearly, Ms. Freuman knows much more about gardening now than she did when the project began.

“Three years is the charm,” she said. “I learned a lot.

The garden yields colorful produce.

“We delivered produce twice a week in July and early August and we’re now going once a week.” The project, she said, was always meant to be “a social action project to grow food for the local food pantry. We give the food to People to People in Nanuet,” which accepts donations of all sizes.

In addition, “we’re sending a really important message to our children, who see how a small group of people with limited resources can have a big impact.” She has been making a collage with pictures of their weekly deliveries and will share it with the congregation when the growing season has ended. “We’ve given well over 100 pounds,” she said. “We’re fortunate to have enough food, and we had land that was sitting there, unproductive.” Now, she said, they are showing that “we can do something with it, and we don’t need much money or time.”

Her committee, “a rotating crew,” consists of seven members, who are involved in various ways. Over the summer, four volunteers each went once a week for just a short time to check on the plants and yank out any weeds. “It’s not that much work,” she said. “It’s fun. I feel like a miracle worker,” she joked, amazed at the large growth that resulted from putting seeds into the ground. “I’m proud of myself.”

Because she is a nutritionist, Ms. Freuman said, “I care about food insecurity professionally and personally. Pantries get a lot of non-perishables, but don’t necessarily provide a complete diet. There is a lot of nutritional value in things that are locally grown.”

She realizes that “in the grand scheme of things, this is a small contribution. But it’s very symbolic. Every person with a backyard can put it to use. It would make a big difference,” she said, acknowledging that her idea has much in common with the Victory Gardens that sprung up during World War II. “We can lead by example,” she said, adding that she hoped other religious organizations would adopt the idea. “If more groups did this, it would make a difference.”

When he was looking for a bar mitzvah project, Tina Roth of New City said, her son Ian was inspired by the efforts of a fellow Boy Scout.

That other Boy Scout built a raised garden bed for the Joe Raso Hospice in New City for his Eagle Scout project last summer.

Her son “understood its importance,” Ms. Roth said.

The Roth family just before Ian’s bar mitzvah; clockwise, from left, Brad, Tina, Ian, and Evan at Congregation Sons of Israel in Nyack.

Knowing that Ian “likes to build things,” the family hit on the idea of building a similar structure for Sons of Israel. “We saw the project there and knew it would be great for him,” she said, adding that the whole family — she, her husband, Brad; and Ian’s 12-year-old brother, Evan — joined Ian in working on the project.

“We worked from a kit, and my husband is very handy,” she said. “The four of us, and Tamara’s daughter, Stella, put it together.” The building took place in October. The vegetables were planted later, in the spring.

Ian is proud of the project. “It’s nice because all of the things grown in it are donated,” he said. While he is not an accomplished gardener, “When I was younger, I always helped plant vegetables and flowers.” He is also gratified that “the people who are part of the garden crew take care of it.”

The ninth-grader also volunteered to help out during the summer, he said, recalling that “the tomato plants were ginormous.”

“I went every Friday during the spring and summer to check on the irrigation system and take out the weeds,” he said. “It wasn’t really time-consuming. We used soil that would make the weeds not grow.”

“My mom started a Go Fund Me site and we put up flyers in the synagogue,” he added. The fundraising was so successful that it covered not only the costs of building the structure but “people were super-generous,” Ms. Roth said. “We had enough surplus to buy all the plants and write a check to the synagogue to continue to sustain it. It gives members a sense of pride.” The members of the synagogue’s garden club, who were frustrated with the original garden’s vulnerability to animals, are particularly happy with it, she added. “Members are very appreciative of it, knowing that we donate all the proceeds.”

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