From the front, Devorah Brous’ modest San Fernando Valley home looks much like all the others around it. But go into the backyard, and it’s a different story. There you’ll find an urban farm, where Brous’ 2-year-old daughter, Sela, is holding a meek but healthy black-and-white speckled hen named Bella. Four other hens, all named and of various colors, run freely around the yard — when they aren’t laying brown eggs in their roomy chicken coop.
In Sherman Oaks, it doesn’t get much more free-range than this.
Next to the coop are compost heaps. Stabbing a pitchfork into the pile of chicken poop, orange rinds and other household discards, Brous layers the mixture and checks its temperature, urging a visitor to take a whiff.
The compost doesn’t reek as expected; rather it smells of the earth and post-rain fungus, evoking a childhood memory of the smell of autumn leaves.
Inside the garage, Brous, 41, opens a couple of shallow bins and takes delight in lifting up some of the rotting contents to reveal worms — lots of worms, looking like curled-up reddish-gray licorice pieces — that are turning kitchen waste, even junk mail and fliers, into dark-colored, earthy organic matter full of nutrients like carbon and nitrogen. These worms are nature’s alchemists, transforming discards into good-as-gold fertilizer.
Vegetable and herb patches also grow in the front and backyards of the home Brous shares with her husband, Laurence Weber, chair of the English department at Harvard-Westlake School. And a striking-looking persimmon tree stands laden with orange-colored fruit hanging from nearly every winter-bare branch.
There are, Brous says, 19 fruit trees in her front and backyards. She corrects herself: 18. After several recent frosty nights, a banana tree succumbed to the unusually cold weather. Brous sadly touches the now brown, lifeless fronds, clearly upset at the loss of this tree, which she planted and nurtured from seed.
Brous — like her sister, Rabbi Sharon Brous, spiritual leader of IKAR — not only walks the walk of her beliefs, she also talks the talk.
Blond, sporting a nose ring and fluffy vest and clearly filled with missionary zeal, Devorah Brous is the force behind Netiya (“plant” or “sapling” in Hebrew), a nonprofit, with a network of 32 faith-based institutions in Los Angeles, that preaches the gospel of urban agriculture and helps Los Angeles institutions — of any or no religion — create and maintain “nutritious food” gardens.
Theirs is a year-round Tu B’Shevat story, as Netiya’s members spend their time planting gardens for any synagogue, church, school or nonprofit organization that requests their help. They’ll also guide that institution in maintaining a healthy, pesticide-free garden. And Netiya encourages gardeners they assist to distribute their harvest to people in need: Not just 10 percent of the goods, but 90 percent, or even 100 percent.
Among Netiya’s goals is to inspire others to think about how food is grown — is it local? pesticide-free? grown under fair working conditions? fresh? — as well as how food gets to our tables. But even more fundamental is a larger aim: To promote the well being of the land and the well being of people who live off the bounty of that land — both producers and consumers.
The seeds for Brous’ passion were sown in the Holy Land. Nearly 20 years ago, after graduating from college, Brous moved to Israel. “When I first went there,” she said, “I’d never grown a vegetable. I was a Jersey girl, never had a strong connection with the land. I’d never even tasted a vegetable, not a real one, only watery cucumbers, for example.”
Soon, all that changed. As she learned Hebrew and Arabic, trying to establish roots in her new home and traveling around the country talking with city-dwellers and kibbutzniks, rabbis and imams, young and old, she found herself always coming back to one question: What makes this land holy to you?
“Wherever I went throughout Israel,” Brous said, “people were able to point out to me the names of plants, of trees, of flowers. ‘Oh, this is a Syrian olive.’ They were aware of all the stages of a plant’s life, whether a tree was in a dormant stage. It was transformative for me.”
In her mid-20s and still in Israel, Brous founded Bustan (“grove” in Hebrew, Arabic and Farsi), dedicated to environmental justice and civil rights in Israel. They planted hundreds of trees in Israel and in the Palestinian territories, as well as in Gaza and in Aqaba, Jordan.
While planting, she said, “it was very moving to see people kneel down and touch the earth as if they were praying. It was pure kavanah — intentionality.”
Brous also planted trees in the Negev. Bustan established a medical clinic and school for Bedouins living in the desert.
“There was one man, Mohammed, a Bedouin elder,” she said. “He showed me how to harvest plants in the desert. I couldn’t see what he saw. Together we went out on the land to get food to live on for three days. Wild plants for medicine and food. He had such a deep knowledge of that land.
“Here was this man teaching me traditional tribal wisdom, on the land where his parents and grandparents had lived. I realized I didn’t have that connection to the land. This was an eye-opening experience for me, how well he knew the land.”
Brous earned two master’s degrees at Hebrew University — in development studies and Israel studies — and it was through all of this work that she came to feel she finally had her own answer to her question: What makes land holy?
“All land is holy,” Brous said. “There is no act more sacred than planting a tree. … There’s an aspect of food that’s essentially religious, and it has to do with giving back to the land and connecting with it. Connecting with what’s around and underneath us.”
And so, after living in Israel for 15 years, Brous returned to the United States in 2008, settled in Los Angeles and continued to explore the answer she’d come upon. She completed the UC Master Gardener and a master composter program, became certified in bio-intensive gardening and permaculture design, and embarked on other “green” projects — growing, fermenting, canning and pickling food for family and friends.
Then, in 2011, she was hired to head a new organization called Netiya.
Devorah Brous works her backyard compost pile. Photo by Roberto Loiederman
Noah Farkas, 33, is an energetic young rabbi who has been at Valley Beth Shalom four and a half years. When he first arrived, he was tasked with working on “green” issues for the shul.
“At that time, everyone was concerned about using the right light bulbs and recycling batteries, and I couldn’t help but think that there has to be a deeper conversation about the environment aside from replacing light bulbs. Those things are important, but what was needed was a conversation about spirituality, ecology and the space that we live in,” Farkas said.
“As I listened and talked with people, the idea of land [arose] … the idea of working with food, which is where land and human beings interact in the most basic and simple of levels.”
Realizing that food was an area where he “might have some impact,” Farkas came up with the idea for Netiya. “At schools and synagogues,” he said, “we would come together and plant these gardens and donate the food to food banks. The original history of Tu B’Shevat is actually about community equity … about collecting food and redistributing it to the poor. … So the original thrust of Tu B’Shevat is about social justice.
“In 2008, 2009, we did a listening campaign, and got [Netiya] going in 2010. Once we received some capital funding [from the Jewish Community Foundation], we partnered with the Federation and hired a coordinator who became the director: Devorah. … In 2011, we began to engage in educational projects, strategic planning projects, and started installing gardens.”
One of Netiya’s gardens is at Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, where Wendy Klier, vice president of community outreach, has worked on the project: “They came and helped us plant seven trees and three olive bushes and a little Havdalah herb garden.” Now, Klier said, “We’re working on Tu B’Shevat programming to bring people into the garden and teach them about it.
“Our goal is to grow fruit that we can donate to SOVA and other organizations in the Valley that need food,” Klier said. “We’ve gotten a positive response, and quite a few people want to help us in the garden. Netiya is going to bring in an arborist, who’s going to teach us how to organically pest-control the garden, and also pruning techniques. … We’ve planted lemon verbena, tarragon, rosemary, thyme, oregano, mint. We’ve begun harvesting the herbs and using them in our Havdalah service,” Klier said.
“We’re going to pick some of the herbs and put them in little bags and send these bags to people who have been sitting shivah — when shivah ends, send them to the bereaved families.”
Sending freshly harvested herbs to those in mourning — herbs that have been lovingly grown in the synagogue garden — seems not only touching and appropriate, it also adds another layer to the question: What makes land holy? Answer: It might provide a little comfort to those who are grieving.
“Netiya is part of a whole growing movement trying to counter the industrial process dominating our food system,” said Sue Miller, who’s on the Netiya Council and leads workshops where she “encourage[s] people to connect the dots between our personal food choices and larger social issues we all care deeply about, such as poverty, labor exploitation and hunger.”
Farkas also sees Netiya as part of the larger food/land/justice movement.
“I’d like to change the system that creates that injustice in the first place,” he said. “And the way you change the system is by modeling a community that’s different, putting a different idea in front of people and inspiring and encouraging them to make different food choices.”
Netiya and volunteers from the L.A. Jewish Federation install an edible and medicinal herb garden at Etta Israel on a community service day in 2011.
On a sunny Shabbat at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Studio City (UUCSC), Brous and Rabbi Ethan Bair of American Jewish World Service, met with more than 30 Reform Jewish teens, members of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY).
Brous told them that one of Netiya’s aims is to change the way we think about food. She talked about Just Foods, Just Gardens and Just Actions, Netiya projects aimed at getting people to think about food justice and food relief. She asked the students to consider what they eat at their shul, the sources of that food, and the contents of the bins that hold food donations: how these bins are often filled with cans or cartons that people find in the back of their pantries and just want to get rid of — beans, processed foods, lots of carbs, fat, sugar, sodium. She’s even seen boxes of stale, leftover matzoh.
What, she asked, if there were a food drive using fresh produce? What if at least some of that produce came from a pesticide-free garden maintained by the shul’s congregants? What if at its Oneg Shabbat, the shul used fresher, healthier food than what is being served now?
Full of enthusiasm, Brous spoke about even larger issues: how to build a “resilient, sustainable food system,” how to put back into the land, and not just take things out of it, how to deal with hunger and food relief and food insecurity — the experience of not knowing where next month’s food will come from. She talked about access to good food in neighborhoods with liquor stores and fast-food joints but very little fresh, green broccoli.
“There needs to be a clear, transparent line from food producers to consumers,” Brous said. “That tomato you’re eating … where was it grown? In China? In sewage water? With chemicals that are illigal in the U.S.? One of the things we want to do is support local farmers.”
Brous then proposed an exercise with the NFTY teens. “Let’s meditate silently in the garden.”
Netiya already has planted one garden at UUCSC, a team effort by the church and two shuls that rent space there: Tikkun Olam and Beth Ohr. As Brous led the students, she suggested they remain silent and try to feel their own connection with the land.
“This spot was crabgrass before the garden was planted,” she said. “Now it has chard, squash and other plants. Move slowly, and think about what it means to be alive here in Los Angeles, on Shabbat, in this garden, with these living things.”
The NFTY students moved about silently, slowly. At first they laughed nervously, distracted by squirrels and cell phones and car noises from Moorpark Street. But after a few minutes, at least some of the kids seemed to enter a meditative state, becoming aware of the holiness of the land beneath their feet.
Farkas is well aware that in the face of the scale of Los Angeles’ food and resource problems, Netiya’s efforts might be seen as naïve. “There’s no amount of food you could grow in a synagogue garden that’s going to alleviate hunger,” he said. “That’s not possible. But hunger is actually a symptom of a larger problem, which is poverty.
“With these gardens, we hope to inspire people. … If we’re able to create spaces like this and maybe even scale them at some point to be even larger, then maybe we can engage those who are on the receiving end of food relief to become involved and grow the food with us. And, by doing so, we might be able to create a more equitable system from the ground up.”
“We don’t want to be seen as naïve,” Brous added. “We in no way expect that by growing food in backyards and in pieces of public institutions like synagogues or churches are we going to end hunger. But what we want to do is create replicable models, an organization that has an educational aspect.
“In spite of the fact that land is our source of sustenance, it’s not treated as holy. We have an extractive attitude toward the land: We take out of it and don’t put enough back in.”
In other words, we need to recognize anew the holiness of the land, to regard our relations ship to it and to its produce as sacred — wherever we live.
“We, the Jews, have a rich agrarian history. But in the Diaspora, we’ve lost contact with the process by which food goes from the land to the table. We do have agricultural roots, and one of our aims is to regain and reclaim them.”
On Jan. 27 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., for Tu B’Shevat, Netiya will install a “just garden” at Project Chicken Soup, a nonprofit organization that prepares and distributes nutritious kosher meals to people in Los Angeles with HIV/AIDS, cancer and other serious illnesses. For more information, as well as a video and a link explaining how to volunteer or donate, please go to http://www.netiya.org/