The Lilith Blog 1 of 3

January 28, 2021 Meredith Cohen

A Southern Jewish Farmer?!

Photo credit: Jessie Gladdek

Questions that I’ve heard many times (mainly from other Jews, to be clear): Southern Jews? Jewish Farmers?? SOUTHERN JEWISH FARMERS?!? Hi, yes, nice to meet you, Chag Sameach. I am a southern Jewish farmer, and I started One Soil Farm, a Jewish community farm in rural North Carolina, 20 minutes (and 30 years) away from where I grew up as one of the only Jewish kids in our public school system (shout out to my li’l sis).

I first heard the term “Jewish farming” eight years ago, and at the time it was a revelation to me, too. A Google search led me to the Adamah Fellowship, with its video of young Jews standing in a circle on a mountain, singing in Hebrew. I wept at my computer. Then I packed myself up, moved across the country, arrived at Adamah for their summer fellowship, and didn’t leave for three years. Now, eight years after that Google search, I’m back home in North Carolina building a Jewish farm in the town where I grew up. You could say Jewish farming changed my life.

So . . . what is a Jewish farm? And what does being Jewish have to do with my farming? What does farming have to do with my Judaism? And—what’s more–what could being a Jewish farmer have to do with intergenerational healing?

Let’s talk about putting down roots. 

Or, rather, let’s start with a Jewish holiday about nature that falls in the middle of winter here in North America (Happy Tu B’Shvat!).

Tu Bshvat is the time of year when, as a Jewish farmer and educator, I am most in demand––since it’s a holiday when Jews are very explicitly invited to engage with nature, trees, and the species that sustain us. And a holiday that––in our North American seasons––happens to fall during the middle of winter, which provides an interesting challenge. It’s not the time of year when the garden is most showy or the harvest is most abundant. In fact, I’m often asked to provide produce I don’t have at this time of year. There’s not a lot out in the field, and what’s out there is growing slowly. But this is the time of year when a lot is going on underground, the time when many plants are focused on building and sustaining their root systems. Which I’ve been thinking a lot about, because this year on Tu B’Shvat I’m putting down my own roots in a new way, with the help of my local Jewish community, I have just bought the piece of land that will become the permanent home of One Soil Farm.

There are so many ways that learning to farm in Jewish community changed my life, and helped me heal parts of myself that had been obscured, damaged or confused by generations of anti-Semitism. Farming in Jewish community, I got out of my head and connected to my body in ways that I thought I could not… I used power tools, midwifed baby goats, worked outside in the buggy heat and the freezing rain, sang while I hoed or trellised or harvested for hours. Our hard work combined with the miracle of nature created experiences of awe in me that made our Jewish blessings come alive for the first time. I said Shehecheyanu standing in the orchard and holding the season’s first raspberry. I never had to question which fruit came from the earth or the vine or the tree, because I’d picked it. I felt that I truly belonged in Jewish community for the first time–– not too-Jewish, or not-Jewish-enough, or Jewish in the wrong way, but at home with other Jews. This is what “Jewish farming” means to me.

But perhaps the biggest gift of all is that my Jewish farming journey pointed me back home to the South, and made me long to put down roots in the place that, as a Jewish teenager, I could not wait to leave. As Jews of diaspora, we have so much healing work to do around putting down roots. I see us feel the pull to leave a place (mentally or physically) when things get hard – after all, there have been times in our history when it has been necessary to uproot. I’ve seen this tendency play out in my own life; I have transplanted myself many, many times, searching for the place that felt just right or the most exciting or the most like home or just…safe, for me. Where was my forever place, my forever people?

When I came to the Jewish farming community at Adamah after that Google search, I felt myself come home in new way. And I knew that my mission was to stay long enough in that place that I could carry a Jewish home within myself, and bring it with me back to my own homeland of North Carolina. 

Jewish farming also taught me what it meant to get to know a particular piece of land, and see it change over the seasons and the years, and to learn to steward an eco-system over time. For the first time, I longed to choose a place and stay and see what I could build.

Finding home is about deciding to belong enough to put down roots, and being brave enough to rely on the ecosystem of relationships around us as we figure out our own essential role. Building trust in community to tend to each other if the waters rise, the temperatures drop, or things start to heat up.

The South is where I grew up. My family is here. This is my home, and I choose it. I’m ready to see what can grow in more than a season, more than a few seasons. I’m ready to put down deep roots and see what blossoms.

Learn more about One Soil Farm, and contribute to our Farmraiser to help us build a permanent home for our Southern Jewish Community farm: