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Livingston native digs into Judaism’s roots

Livingston native digs into Judaism’s roots

Shani Mink leads national network of Jewish farmers

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Shani Mink is co-founder and executive director of the Jewish Farmer Network and adviser to Yesod Farm+Kitchen in Fairview, N.C. Photos courtesy Shani Mink
Shani Mink is co-founder and executive director of the Jewish Farmer Network and adviser to Yesod Farm+Kitchen in Fairview, N.C. Photos courtesy Shani Mink

On a typical morning, Shani Mink wakes up at 7 a.m. and lets the chickens out of their coop, collects their eggs, and makes sure they have food and water. Then she works the fields of Yesod Farm+Kitchen in North Carolina harvesting, pruning, trellising, and weeding. She manages other projects on the grounds such as mowing, moving logs, and mulching.

By noon she’s ready to head inside for lunch before transitioning to office work for the Jewish Farmer Network, an organization she co-founded in 2017 and is now its executive director.

“Being a farmer is one of the most Jewish things you can do,” she told NJJN in a late June Zoom interview. “Before we were the People of the Book, we were the people of the land.”

There was a time when the Livingston native kept her Jewish identity and her passion for cultivating the land separate. These days, she revels in the Jewish layers of her agricultural life — from farming according to Jewish principles to living fully within the rhythm of the Jewish calendar. And as she has discovered, she is uniquely positioned to help other Jewish farmers make the same leap.

“Most folks that are Jewish and are engaged in agriculture, they don’t know anyone else who’s a Jewish farmer,” she said. “In farming spaces, they’re the only Jew. In Jewish spaces they’re the only farmer, which lends to this general feeling of isolation and loneliness.”

Mink added another category: farmers who are Jewish but feel “alienated” from the community and think Judaism has “nothing for them” and is “not relevant” to their lives.

“It’s weirdly ironic, because our whole tradition is based in the agricultural cycles,” she said.

Yesod, sponsored by an anonymous donor, was envisioned as a working farm, community space, and a place to live an earth-bound vision of Judaism. Mink was hired as an adviser and she now lives and works at Yesod.

Because the pandemic put a halt on public programs, such as hosting retreats and celebrating harvest festivals, the five farm residents have instead focused on distributing their produce to those in need through a local organization, BeLoved Asheville.

When fall comes, Mink hopes she can again celebrate Sukkot at Yesod with other Jewish farmers from across the South. Last year, they built their sukkah out of wood, hung what she called “drapey, gauzy fabric,” and decorated it with local wildflowers featuring the hues of autumn: deep oranges, purples, and reds. “It’s an amazing time to celebrate at the end of the season,” she said.

There’s also plenty of discussion in her circles about how to reimagine the shmitta year, which arrives next Rosh HaShanah in 2021, for our modern American lives. Technically, the restrictions of the shmitta year, in which the land lies fallow and anyone can pick whatever grows, only applies to Israel.

Planting the seeds of a Jewish farm network

Shani Mink, who grew up in Livingston, pitches the Jewish Farmer Network at a conference.

The Jewish Farmer Network started on a whim at an annual Jewish food conference run by Hazon, an organization dedicated to environmental sustainability. Several farmers, including Mink, got together and decided to create a Facebook page for themselves. Within days they had 300 members, and it has since grown to over 1,000. They realized they had tapped into a latent need.

It wasn’t long before Mink quit her job to take on the Jewish Farm Network full time.

In February, just before the pandemic shut down activities, they held their first conference at the Pearlstone Center, a Jewish farm and retreat center in Maryland. It sold out with 165 participants.

Whatever proverbial hat Mink is wearing, her focus is not only to connect Jewish farmers, but also to explore what it means to farm according to agricultural principles based in Torah and Jewish law.

She rattles off a number of food justice principles — such as pe’ah (keeping the corners of the field set aside for the poor) and leket (whatever falls to the ground during harvest is given away) — that require farmers to provide for others, along with practices like the shmitta year that overlaps with regenerative land use trends. She marvels that assisting those in need is “not an afterthought” in Judaism; it’s “already in the system,” she said.

Mink, whose family has been in Essex County for five generations and are members of the Synagogue of the Suburban Torah Center, bemoans how divorced modern
Judaism is from its roots. She remembers saying Shachrit every morning while a student at Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy and having no understanding of the agricultural layers in many of the prayers.

As a child, she saw the counting of the omer as metaphor rather than the reality she enjoys now, counting the move from the barley harvest, which begins around Passover, to the more refined wheat harvest around Shavuot, which she said mirrors our process of spiritual refinement in preparation for receiving the Torah.

And she bristles at the memory she has of working on a Jewish farm during a pick-your-own event. Signs were posted suggesting patrons pick more than they need and leave it for distribution to people in need, according to the principles of ma’aser, Jewish tithing. She overheard a young boy from a very religious family express confusion about ma’aser on a farm.

“It’s not just about our money,” she said about charity. “It used to be about what we were growing.”

Grafting agriculture with her identity

Although she can’t pinpoint the genesis of her passion for agriculture, Mink knows exactly when she realized it didn’t have to be separate from her Judaism.

It was a summer job as a counselor at Eden Village Camp in 2013, following her freshman year at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, that changed her trajectory.

During staff orientation, the camp’s Judaics leader pointed out that Judaism is one of the oldest earth-based traditions still being practiced today. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about? My Judaism, the Judaism that I grew up with? You’re telling me that this is an earth-based tradition?’ I had this explosive moment where I realized that everything that I was looking for elsewhere was in my inherited tradition.”

That’s when she began to craft a life for herself, exploring what Judaism can teach about being in a relationship with the natural world.

Throughout college she worked at Even’ Star Farm, just down the road from her school. She returned to Eden Village to serve as a farm educator, and after college she participated in Hazon’s Adamah fellowship and then was part of Hazon’s inaugural cohort of the Jewish Outdoor Food, Farming, and Environmental Education (JOFEE) fellowship. She landed a job at the Pearlstone Center, where she stayed until she moved in October to Yesod.

In addition to her farm chores and leadership at the Jewish Farmer Network, this summer she began a program of study at the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management, affiliated with the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

“I grew up with this strong Jewish identity, and then, as a young adult, I developed values around food and the earth, and sustainability,” she said.

“Now I’m bringing those things together in a way that is meaningful for me and enacting change.”

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