Growing vegetables in deer country can by a frustrating endeavor. The volunteer farmers from Congregation Sons of Israel in Nyack learned that the hard way.
Four years ago, they dug up some of the grass on the shul’s expansive lawn with a rototiller and planted vegetables they hoped to share with the community.
“We have a gorgeous expansive campus in the middle of town, and I thought, ‘Here is this beautiful lawn full of sunshine. What a waste to plant grass on it,” Tamara Duker Freuman recalled.
Ms. Freuman, who grew up in Teaneck, joined Sons of Israel five years ago and revived its social action committee, which she now chairs.
“I saw this land as an untapped resource to give back to the community,” she said. “Seeds are cheap. Sunshine is free. A vegetable garden doesn’t take a whole lot of money and resources, and once it’s up and running, not a lot of time.”
But the first two years, the Giving Garden didn’t have much left to give. “We learned that the deer will completely knock over the fencing, and the garden was getting destroyed,” Ms. Freuman said.
The third year proved the charm. For his bar mitzvah project, Ian Roth of New City collected funds to build a raised container garden on the CSI lawn.
“He and his dad, Brad, came one weekend and built it,” Ms. Freuman said. “It’s sturdy, with a locked door. That’s been a game changer because we can really keep the pests out, and we can choose the soil we use. Brad added a trellis this year so we can grow cucumbers vertically.”
And that is how the bountiful harvest from the Giving Garden began providing fresh produce for the People to People Food Bank in Nanuet. It is Rockland County’s largest food pantry.
“Demand for food is at an all-time high now due to the pandemic,” Ms. Freuman said. “They’ve even been asking home gardeners to donate fresh produce.”
Composted with kitchen waste and nurtured by a multigenerational crew of CSI volunteers, the Giving Garden produces seasonal veggies in phases from May to November: bok choy, lettuce, carrots, rainbow chard, sugar snap peas, tomatoes, peppers, kale, cucumbers, basil, and more.
“Recently we picked and donated all the chard, kale and carrots, cleared out the spots and planted more carrots, beets, spinach, and watermelon radishes,” an heirloom variety of daikon radishes, Ms. Freuman said. “And we’re still harvesting loads of cucumbers, tomatoes, and peppers.
“Our modest enclosed container garden has been producing an unbelievable amount of healthy produce, and will likely continue producing through November, since we just planted seeds for cold-weather veggies,” she added.
“If every institution and person put up a garden like ours — it’s just 8 by 10 feet — you could feed a community. We can all combine our efforts and do something substantial. Even if our Giving Garden feeds only one family, that is one more family having healthy food because of us.”
Ever since the pandemic halted synagogue services in the egalitarian Conservative congregation of nearly 200 member units, the garden has provided a much-needed central gathering place for the CSI community, albeit in small rotating groups during covid times.
“We have a lot of older members, and gardening is a rare intergenerational activity,” Ms. Freuman said. “Especially before covid, when we were all there together, it really appealed to congregants of all ages.”
In all these aspects, the Giving Garden fulfills Ms. Freuman’s vision of Jewish social action. “I wanted to do more hands-on Judaism, living our values and praying with our hands and feet,” the 40-something mother of two said.
“The garden was my labor of love, and I plan it out every year. I make a diagram of what plant to put where, I order seeds, I get kids and retirees involved in sprouting the seeds in their houses before they get planted. I assign days of the week for each volunteer to do the watering and the weeding and checking for any issues.”
Ms. Freuman is a dietician at a gastroenterology practice in New York City—for now, she’s working remotely. She is the author of “The Bloated Belly Whisperer: See Results Within a Week and Tame Digestive Distress Once and for All.”
Therefore, food security is a top priority for her both personally and professionally. “Low-income people are more affected by a lack of nutritious fresh food, and I believe it’s important to fill that need in your community if you are able to,” she said.
“I have a garden in my backyard too, and I donate some of our vegetables, along with the synagogue produce. But it’s not as successful as the one in the synagogue; the groundhogs ate the zucchini and squirrels ate the tomatoes,” Ms. Freuman reported with a laugh. “The Giving Garden has much better conditions.”