On a day off from classes, a band of middle-schoolers gave up their morning of leisure to get their hands dirty for a good cause. About 10 of them gathered on May 25 in front of the headquarters of Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey in Elizabeth and helped set up the agency’s JFS Urban Community Garden.
The produce will add a fresh component to the food packages JFS provides to needy families and will be used for its kosher meals-on-wheels service to the homebound elderly.
JFS executive director Tom Beck said, “It will be something healthy and nice to provide for our clients, and it’ll be a way to cut costs. And we’re hoping the garden will be an inspiration to our neighbors and the people who drive by and see it.”
The date was carefully chosen; the holiday of Shavuot — which, in addition to celebrating the giving of the Torah, highlights the harvest and the injunction to give a portion of the yield to those in need — began the next evening.
Flowers will also be grown, but on Friday the students were planting practical stuff: tomatoes, cucumbers, string beans, and peppers. Beck, an avid gardener at home, was down on his knees with the teens, trowel in hand. He was joined by other gardeners, Seth Brown, JFS’s director of administration and finance, and Elie Bodner, its director of volunteer services and Friend Advocate Program.
Bodner, who is also youth director at the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, had enlisted the students’ help.
“I’ve done a bit of gardening and I just thought it would be cool to come help,” said student Tali Becker, who had come with her friend Sapir Kent. The girls, both from Elizabeth, are seventh-graders at the JEC’s Bruriah Junior High School for Girls.
Moshe Herman, a JEC seventh-grader, is the son of Rabbi Avrohom Herman, leader of the center’s Elmora Synagogue. His family does some gardening, he said as he readily dug through the weed cloth laid across the ground and gently inserted the young plants. The cloth was marked with a chalk grid that corresponded to a plan of what was to be planted where.
One student, Elliott Zornitsky, had come from Westfield to take part. The sixth-grader and his family are members of Temple Emanu-El, the Reform congregation there, but his stepmother, Michelle Rosen, has become an active supporter of JFS, and she suggested he take part. “My bar mitzva is in June, and we decided I’d help with the garden as one of my mitzva projects,” he explained. It was clear from the way Elliott deftly handled the seedlings that he had done this before. His family, he said, “has grown some fruit trees and some vegetables.”
Funding for the garden has come in part through a Kesher grant from the Jewish Federation of Central NJ. Conoco Philips gave a $1,000 grant that helped pay for a protective fence.
The JFS folk are hoping for a bountiful harvest. “We got a lot of help from Groundwork Elizabeth,” Beck said. The nonprofit, which links the private and public sectors with community volunteers to address challenges in urban areas, tested the soil in the strip of land in front of the Westfield Avenue building and devised a plan for the garden. They recommended the addition of mushroom-based mulch, and suggested that the beds be surrounded with a layer of hay, instead of wood chips, which might have proved toxic.
Though a soaker hose will provide regular watering, the new garden is going to take plenty of tending. Bodner said he hopes the youngsters — and plenty of other volunteers — will help.
Beck, acknowledging some inspiration from First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House victory garden, added, “We wanted to offer another way that our volunteers could get involved, and something that young people could do, and this seemed like the perfect solution.”