Religion & Jewish Life

Farmer, rabbi and maple syrup maker, Shmuel Simenowitz melds Torah and environmentalism


Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz works his draft horses on his Vermont farm, circa 2002, with children Tova and Shlomo riding along. (Lloyd Wolf)

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — It’s easy to spot Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz at a Jewish food conference, an environmentalist gathering or any of the other progressive-minded confabs he frequents.

Just look for the Chasid in the room.

Simenowitz is an anomaly: a haredi Orthodox Jew, black hat and all, who is equally at home — and equally uneasy — in a roomful of dreadlocked 20-something eco-hipsters as at a Chasidic celebration. He takes flak from the Orthodox for “wasting time” with the foodies and is chided by progressive activists for his commitment to ritual observance.

“I see myself as a post-denominational Torah Jew with Chasidic sensibilities,” he tells JTA, with more than a trace of self-mockery. “I’m an equal-opportunity offender.”

More seriously, he says, not only is there no contradiction between living a Torah-true life and reducing one’s carbon footprint, the two are intertwined.

“I grow my own food, I grow organically, I am a good steward of the earth,” he says. “That’s Torah. I’m a Torah Jew, and my world values are seamlessly integrated into that.”

Simenowitz, 53, is part of a small but growing group of strcitly Orthodox Jews who are getting back to the land — farming organically, raising animals, living lightly on the earth and doing it in the name of Torah.

Fifteen years ago he walked away from a successful career as an entertainment and intellectual property lawyer and moved from the New York suburb of Long Island to an organic farm in Vermont with his wife, Rivki, and two young children. They were becoming newly observant, and thought the big house and fancy cars wouldn’t help them “grow spiritually” or raise their children with the values they were beginning to hold dear.

The couple planted vegetables, set up a chicken coop and began making maple syrup from the hundreds of maple trees in their 14-acre sugar bush, calling their project Sweet Whisper Farm. Simenowitz used draft horses to plow the fields and carry the maple sap from the trees to his sugar shack, which is modeled on an 18th-century Polish wooden synagogue — one of hundreds destroyed by pogroms, Nazis and years of Communist rule.

Jewish student groups, observant and non-observant, would visit from the big city, and Simenowitz would introduce them to farm work while imparting a little Torah wisdom.

“When I get the yeshiva guys up here, they know their Torah but they need to get their hands in the dirt,” he says. “And when I get the tree-hugging crowd, they say, ‘Wow, what a beautiful sunset,’ and I say, ‘That’s great, but we need to do some learning.’ We’re like spiritual dietitians, giving everybody what they’re missing, trying to bridge that gap.”

Two years ago Simenowitz and his family moved to Baltimore, and they now live in an Orthodox neighborhood of families interested in getting back to the land. One neighbor keeps bees. Another spins her own wool. A third has an organic farm — just the kind of integration for which he and Rivki had been looking.

But Simenowitz still travels to Vermont each spring to work his sugar bush.

About a decade ago, after a disastrous maple harvest season, the sap finally started running on the eve of Passover, right before the first seder, and neighbors poured in from all over to help collect it as fast as they could. But as sundown approached, Simenowitz put down his bucket and said work had to stop. By the time he was permitted by Jewish law to continue working, all the sap had spoiled in the unseasonably hot sun — hundreds of gallons, nearly his entire crop.

The story was featured in Oprah Winfrey’s O magazine, and “Someone passed a comment, saying, ‘What kind of God would let that happen when you’re out there doing his thing?’ ” Simenowitz recalls. “And I said, ‘Bottom line, you don’t get hurt doing mitzvahs.’ ”

After the story was published, people started calling from all over to adopt a tree in Simenowitz’s grove; his business was saved.

Simenowitz produces about 100 gallons of maple syrup in a good year, boiled down from 4,000 gallons of raw sap, which is collected from buckets he hangs from his tapped trees. He taps the trees in a pattern, he explains — a little higher or lower each year so as not to damage the tree. The sap is pumped into an evaporator inside the sugar shack, where the water is boiled off to leave behind the syrup, which is about 60 percent sugar.

The operation is kosher certified. There are two major kosher concerns with “pure maple syrup.” First, an observant Jew is required to turn on the evaporator because only an observant Jew is allowed to “light the fire” that cooks a kosher food item. Second, while the sap is boiling, farmers drip animal fat into the mixture to keep it from foaming over the top of its container.

“Traditionally they’d take a piece of pork fat, suspend it from a string and the foam would rise, touch it and go down,” says Simenowitz, who instead uses olive oil, pouring in a drop or two at a time.

Simenowitz, who sells all his maple syrup himself either in person or by mail order, says he sells out every year.

He makes his living as a traveling scholar-in-residence, lecturing about farming in Orthodox venues and teaching Torah to Jewish environmentalists and foodies through Ya’aleh v’Yavo, the Jewish  environmentalist project he directs. He also picks up the occasional legal case, to keep the bills paid, and has been tapped by the city of Baltimore to do a comprehensive energy audit on a new Orthodox-friendly commercial building, including designing some of its energy-efficient infrastructure.

Simenowitz doesn’t attend Jewish food conferences anymore, saying he is “tired of being the poster child for the Orthodox.” Jewish environmentalists and eco-foodies need to ground their work in Torah, he says, if they want the Orthodox world to take them seriously.

“The Orthodox are late to the parade,” he acknowledges, but that’s understandable.

“The environmental agenda is often grafted onto a liberal social justice agenda that the Orthodox community can’t accept,” he says. “Part of my program is to fill that breach.”

Simenowitz works closely with Kayam Farm, an organic farm and Jewish educational initiative at the Pearlstone Conference and Retreat Center just outside Baltimore. When he first visited several years ago, he learned that Kayam was based on his farm in Vermont, which the general manager’s daughter had visited as part of a group from the 92nd Street Y in New York City.

“That was really validating,” he says, “to see the seeds I planted take root.”