"Oh look, little red onions."
"Here, taste these peas. They are so sweet."
Farmer Phil McGrath had just made his inaugural delivery of 25 boxes of fresh, organically grown fruits and vegetables to Sinai Temple, where organizers of the synagogue's new CSA (community supported agriculture) venture stood admiring and even sampling the boxes' contents.
"This is a pretty monumental day for McGrath Family Farm," said McGrath, 55, whose farm, in business in Camarillo since 1871, was participating in its first CSA, a partnership in which a group of people sign up in advance to receive a weekly allotment of fresh fruits and vegetables from a local organic grower. The participants essentially become shareholders in the farm's harvest, assuming both the risks and rewards.
It was also a monumental day for Sinai Temple, where CSA organizers, under the direction of site coordinator Lisa Rose, stacked the cardboard boxes in the shade, set out the sign-in sheet and weekly newsletter and prepared for participants arriving on the synagogue's Holmby Avenue side.
People started showing up almost immediately. Some came to pick up their boxes; others considering signing up or just curious about CSAs.
Sinai Akiba parent Lisa Lainer had learned about the CSA only the day before. "I don't have time to go to a farmers market. It has to come to me," she said.
Another temple member, Sandy Croll, came to fetch her box, which she is sharing with some friends. "I think it's a good cause, but I just want some recipes. I've never made a beet in my life," she said.
Sinai Temple first committed itself to starting a CSA in response to a Jewish Journal editorial about ethical eating by Editor-in-Chief Rob Eshman ("Moral Diet," Jan. 5, 2006). In a letter to the editor, Senior Rabbi David Wolpe wrote, "This kashrut initiative expresses that holy purpose of taking care of God's gift."
The initiative was put into action when Rabbi Ahud Sela joined the synagogue last July. He was familiar with Hazon, the New York-based community organization committed to sustainable farming and eating, and its Tuv Ha'Aretz CSA program, from his days at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He also discovered McGrath at the Santa Monica Farmers Market.
Sela hopes the CSA will educate participants about organic farming and instill a relationship to the land. "We have only a historical connection, because the agricultural component seems so irrelevant to our culture," he said.
Sinai Temple's CSA is the first in Southern California affiliated with Tuv Ha'Aretz, which is the first Jewish CSA program in the United States. Tuv Ha'Aretz, which has a double meaning, "good for the land" and "best of the land," began with one CSA in New York City in 2004 and now has 16 in the United States, as well as two in Canada and one in Israel.
Tuv Ha'Aretz works like other CSAs but incorporates Jewish learning and leadership opportunities. The organization provides participating synagogues and Jewish community centers with a comprehensive instruction manual, training at its annual food conference in December (scheduled December 2009 at Pacific Grove's Asilomar Conference Grounds) and ongoing support and networking.
Sinai Temple participants, who do not have to be synagogue members, must commit for one growing season, from April through December. The cost is $1,600, or about $40 a week, and boxes can be shared. Sign-ups remain open until early May.
But the program is more than a food delivery service.
Participants must volunteer to oversee two pickup shifts on Thursday afternoons from 2:30 to 5 during the season. In addition, they are required to volunteer at least once at either SOVA Food Pantry or Greater West Hollywood Food Coalition. Sinai Temple is the only Tuv Ha'Aretz CSA that requires this work commitment.
"We're concerned not only about the food going into our mouths but about feeding others also," Sela said.
Boxes that are not claimed are delivered to Liberty House, a sober-living facility in nearby Century City for people recovering from alcohol or drug addiction.
Additionally, there is an educational component headed by Sinai member Veronica Nessim, who is planning a field trip to the McGrath Family Farm on Monday, May 26.
"We want to show the families where the food comes from," she said. She is also distributing recipes and planning cooking classes because, she explained, not everyone knows how to steam an artichoke.
Other Southern California synagogues are looking into Tuv Ha'Aretz's CSA program, including Temple Isaiah, which is "exploring the possibility," according to Rabbi Dara Frimmer.
Meanwhile, the Westside JCC is celebrating the one-year anniversary in May of its CSA, run by the Tierra Miguel Foundation in San Diego County. About 12 to 15 families receive a box of organic fruits and vegetables on an annual or seasonal basis, costing about $40 a week, according to Brian Greene, JCC executive director.
But for all CSA shareholders and growers alike, the goals are similar.
"The whole thing about community supported agriculture is against globalization and fast foods," McGrath said. "This is what your grandfathers and my grandfather used to do. We're going back to our roots. No pun intended."
To become a shareholder or to obtain more information about Sinai Temple's CSA, contact Lisa Rose at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To become a shareholder in the Westside JCC's CSA, call (323) 938-2531.
McGrath Family Farms: http://www.localharvest.org/farms/M3498
Tierra Miguel Foundation: http://www.tierramiguelfarm.org/