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Resource: Food, Faith, Land & Sustainable Agriculture – Nati Passow

Nati Passow describes his work at the Jewish Farm School. This talk was part of a Food & Faith Convening event held in November 2018 at Duke University. The event was developed through a partnership between Duke Divinity School and the Rural Church Program Area of The Duke Endowment, the Duke World Food Policy Center (WFPC).  Convening discussions identified several themes that drive the work of faith communities: moving from charity to justice, food sovereignty, and equitable food-oriented development; moving from charity to justice for the land & environment; the need for bridging and relationship building between practitioners, funders, and the academy; and the need for bridging between faith communities and policy. Additionally, several academic themes for future research were identified focused on cross-faith comparative analysis and the broad impact of faith community-based food systems work..

About Nati Passow

Nati Passow is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Jewish Farm School. He has been a leader in the Jewish environmental movement for over 15 years. Nati is passionate about connecting Jews to the agricultural roots of our traditions and using that as a foundation for engagement in contemporary food and social justice issues. Nati was raised in a traditional Jewish home, attended Jewish schools throughout his youth, and believes that justice work is more impactful, meaningful, and sustainable when it is grounded in ancestral wisdom and practices. He lives in West Philadelphia with his partner Rachel, their two boys, Zamir and Niso, and an ever-changing array of housemates.


Good morning, everyone. Thank you so much for having me. This is quite an honor. I’m Nati Passow. I’m the co-founder and executive director of the Jewish Farm School based in Philadelphia. Jewish Farm School equips and mobilizes Jews to be part of building a more just equitable food system. We do that in three primary ways. We build the capacity of the Jewish community to live more sustainably. We support the work of urban farms and food justice organizations in Philadelphia. Then we ground these efforts in Jewish traditions and values and the cycles of the Hebrew calendar.

So, a question that I get a lot running an organization called the Jewish Farm School, aside from, “Huh?” is “What is Jewish farming?” Adrienne Krone did a great job earlier of highlighting some of, kind of the core practices. But, I kind of want to back up a little bit and share kind of my theological understanding of what Jewish farming is. To start, we start in the beginning. We start in the garden of Eden. Where God places, the Adam, the human, formed from the Adama, the earth, in the garden to work it and to protect it. And God says, “There is so much abundance in this garden for you. All I ask is that you show the tiniest bit of restraint.” We’re in the garden for like 20 minutes, and there goes the restraint.

The first time we kind of encounter farming or agriculture as a real practice. Different than say, tending a garden is in the repercussions of this act, right? “Cursed is the ground for your sake. In suffering, shall you eat of it all the days of your life. By the sweat of your brow, shall you eat bread.” That’s not the most sympathetic view of farming.   I started asking, “What does that mean? What does that mean for the ground to be cursed? What does this mean for farming to be some sort of either punishment or not part of the original design?” We know that when humans started farming, there were vast implications for what it meant to be human and the human experience. That we could outsource grown food to a small percentage of the population so that we could all be sitting around in this room right now. None of this would be possible if it were not for agriculture. There are obviously a lot of benefits to it. We also know that agriculture has some real challenges. And that historically, agriculture has been one of the most oppressive industries in human history.

I wanted to share kind of one way that I see agriculture manifesting as a curse, or what this struggle is referring to. It’s really rooted in the idea that agriculture allows us to grow a surplus. Which on the on the surface seems great. But, the question is who controls that surplus? How the people who control the surplus have enormous power over other people. This is highlighted in the story of Joseph who advises the Pharaoh. He interprets his dreams and says, “There is going to be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. And during the years of plenty, hoard all the surplus, bring it all in to the palace.” Then the seven years of famine hit, not even the seven years, the first year of the famine hits and all the people of the region come to the Pharaoh and they say, “Please give us some food. Take all of our money, take all of our animals.” In year two, they say, “Take all of our land, take our bodies because we are hungry. We are starving. We need this help.”   we see how quickly the consolidation of power can happen when you control the surplus. I see that as a little bit of a warning to the Israelite nation and the Jewish people and really the world as a whole. So the story continues and the Israelites are part of that. They go down to live in Egypt and eventually they become enslaved. After 200 years, they are freed. They wander the desert for 40 years, interestingly, reverting to a gathering way of life. Living off of the manna from Heaven.  they are about to enter into the land of Canaan. Land of Ancient Israel, and for the first time as a people they are going to become farmers. We’re told that the land that we are about to enter is not like Egypt. The land is different. Because in Egypt, because of the Nile, we could just water our gardens all year round. But, in this land, we’re going to be dependent on rain. We are also going to farm in a different way. We’re going to leave the corners of our field unharvested for the landless. We’re going to leave the gleanings and the forgotten sheaths of wheat. We’re going to center the needs of the most vulnerable members of our community; the poor, the orphan, the widow and the stranger. Why? Because we were strangers in the land of Egypt, and that becomes the foundation really of the entire Jewish moral code. And, in particular, the agricultural code.

There is another reason, because we do not actually own the land. We do not own its resources. We are here in a human design system and that system needs to meet the needs of all members of our community. The beautiful thing is that we have a way of knowing whether it’s working, and that’s the rain. When the rain comes in its proper time, we know that we are doing our job. The reign becomes an indicator of our collective moral wellbeing. And as a powerful tool, and one that having grown up in an Orthodox Jewish home and going to Jewish day schools in synagogue, was never really explained to me in that way, right? Because we were not farmers anymore. So the question – when we look at this blueprint again, what we see is that our tradition.

I try to distill out what are the underlying values that animate these practices in the first place? Then, how do we bring these values and these practices from a very different time and place in history into, in our case, a contemporary, culturally diverse urban context. We can expand that to just say: “How do we bring this into a contemporary context?” Where some of the issues are the same and where some are very different.   we’ve started to answer that question. What we found is by working side by side and in solidarity with people in our community, who are experiencing the most dire impacts of our food system, that is one way that we can channel the values that I draw from our tradition into our work in a contemporary context.

But, the question that I want to invite us all to think about, is how do we do that more broadly? I am blessed to live in a very, to be part of a very progressive Jewish community in West Philadelphia. It’s very different than most of the Jewish communities in the United States. I imagine there are similar in other communities of faith. So how do we work with our communities of faith, especially those who hold up these stories, hold up these traditions, these texts. How do we invite them to see these values and these practices as really central parts of our religious identity? Thank you.