On Some Jewish Farms, Special Rosh Hashana Means a Year of Rest, Giving Back

By Dani Shae Thompson

ANNAPOLIS (Sept. 24, 2014)—On Wednesday, farmer Emilie Schwartz had a lot on her to do list.

Let the chickens out of the coop, milk the goats, gather the eggs and wash them – it all had to get done.

Schwartz works for the Pearlstone Center, a Jewish retreat center in Reisterstown, Maryland, where she is the animal manager of the center’s educational and sustainability-focused farm.

But Thursday, Schwartz is taking the day (and the next day) off for Rosh Hashana.

Rosh Hashana is a celebration of the Jewish new year, and runs from sundown on Wednesday until nightfall on Friday.

However, this year, 5775 by the Jewish calendar’s mark, is more special than others.

This year, the seventh in a seven-year cycle, is called the “shmita” — translating to “release” in Hebrew.

Just as Shabbat, or the Sabbath, is celebrated as the Jewish day of rest on the seventh day of each week, shmita is observed as a yearlong sabbatical mandated by the Torah for the land of Israel.

During shmita, all personal debts are forgiven and the land is left fallow — meaning no tilling or planting by farmers.

Although compliance with the shmita is not required in the United States, and Israel is nearly 6,000 miles away, Jewish farmers in Maryland are considering their own ways to observe the year of rest.

“Even though it only applies to the land of Israel, we are trying to creatively honor the values of shmita,” said Jakir Manela, executive director at the Pearlstone Center.

This year, the center has plans to take a year off from its farm apprenticeship program, sell some livestock, and give the staff days off to do community service.

For the 2015 growing season, the farm workers will also discontinue their community supported agriculture, or CSA, which allows local residents to pay a lump sum in exchange for a weekly delivery of produce from the farm.

“There are so many things that we need to do for the farm that we can’t usually get done, like building projects and weeding invasive plants,” said Josh Rosenstein, farm director at Pearlstone.

In a letter to subscribers, Manela and Rosenstein announced the CSA hiatus and said that they “intend to return in 2016 with renewed vision, rejuvenation, and momentum for the seven year cycle ahead.”

Other Jewish farmers in the area plan to carry out the shmita in their own way.

Michael Tabor, 72-year-old owner of 60-acre Licking Creek Bend Farm in Needmore, Pennsylvania, said he plans to increase his charitable giving as a way to recognize the shmita.

“This year we have had the best harvest we have ever had. If the next growing season is as good, I want to give back,” Tabor said.

Tabor doesn’t feel the need to stop growing because he already allows parts of his land to lie fallow every other year by planting in alternating fields.

“It’s an organic way of renewing the land,” he said.

For Jug Bay Market Garden, a small seven-acre CSA farm in Upper Marlboro, the shmita will likely not change much of their business.

Owners Tanya Tolchin and her husband, Scott Hertzberg, are planning to use the shmita year not to completely stop production, but to reflect and slow down.

“This is an opportunity for us to take a break and think about where we want to be seven years from now,” Tolchin said.

During the shmita year, farmers, animals and community members in Israel must survive on whatever grows naturally.

For this reason, Tolchin said, she also hopes to use this year to learn more about the wild plants on her farm, about planting to attract more pollinators and to plant more perennial crops.

Because their farm supports Tolchin and Hertzberg financially, it would be difficult to take an entire year off from their harvest.

Still, Tolchin said, it’s important for their family to think and have conversations about the shmita, because Judaism is a very agrarian religion.

“Because we live in the country, we aren’t as close to Jewish community. It’s important to incorporate these concepts as much as we can into our farming,” she said, “To bring the Jewish richness into our lives.”

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