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Bet Shalom’s midbar (desert) farm project goes to the chickens

Volunteers pitch in with chores at Congregation Bet Shalom’s Tu B’Shevat Farm Festival Feb. 9. (Courtesy Cong. Bet Shalom)

Congregation Bet Shalom’s first Tu B’shevat Farm Festival brought about 80 community members of all ages together, including congregants, University of Arizona Hillel Foundation students, youngsters, and young adults connected to local farms and outdoor education programs. “The Midbar Project is a way for our people to connect with Torah and with each other in simple yet meaningful ways outside the walls of our shul,” says Bet Shalom’s Rabbi Avi Alpert.

The project was about two years in the making. Former congregation president Anne Lowe introduced the initial idea of raising chickens on the synagogue’s spacious grounds as a way to engage young families. While visiting her 5-year-old granddaughter, she saw a chicken farm project at the Boulder Jewish Community Center. She described her granddaughter’s delight and fondness for the chickens she’d raised and thought it was a great idea to transplant to Tucson.

Julia Bernstein mulches materials for the garden.

The project broke ground in December 2018 with hand-digging eight sunken beds about three feet deep, in the Tohono O’odham method of farming in the Sonoran Desert. “It took a handful of volunteers a year to dig and fill with a mixture of native soil, compost, and coconut husks,” says Lisa Schachter-Brooks, congregation manager. The beds were complete in December 2019. Micah Chetrit is the farm manager, with Molly Block as the community program cultivator, and Jack Speelman as volunteer coordinator.   

To celebrate the New Year of the Trees Feb. 9, participants pitched in on the farm, painting the fence, weeding the seedbeds, leveling native soil in the sunken beds, pruning trees, making mulch, and planting crops of potatoes and dill. 

“I feel that it is very important for people in general, but especially for Jews, to reconnect with the land,” says Speelman, a UArizona linguistics student. “I believe that we are caretakers of the world and that each of us should strive to leave the world better than we found it; sustainable, in all meanings of the word. Jewish farming is essential to this.”  

“Jewish farming feels aligned with a general movement in Judaism I’ve been honored to experience and be a part of,” adds Block, a community newcomer. “There is a movement within Judaism toward a less structured, more radicalized exploration and expression of Judaism. We are deeply connecting with ancestral traditions as the foundation for seemingly evocative, embodied connections to the self, the community, and the divine spirit that runs within and through all beings.”

The event included the first official planting of the beds and launch of the community chicks in the chicken coop, says Schachter-Brooks. Leanne Rogers and Aaron Farber took the lead on the chicken coop project,  including donating materials. Many congregation volunteers built the coop including two Kurdish refugee families that Bet Shalom helped during their transition to Tucson several years ago. Prior to the event, 18 chicks went into the homes of four families, where they will stay for about a month until they are old enough to survive in the coop. During the event, the coop was painted and prepared to receive the chicks next month.

Lowe says four orange trees are awaiting planting along River Road. “Someday there will be free oranges on the roadside so the homeless can have fruit. There are lots of ongoing ideas but for now, we will focus on the garden and chickens,” she says. “I may no longer be president but I’m still totally in on this project.”

Festivities also included face painting, music, creosote crafts, and a Tu B’Shevat fruit seder.

“I was thrilled to see the turnout and engagement at the Tu B’Shvat celebration,” Speelman says. “Getting to work alongside kids, young adults from Hillel, and members of different Jewish communities across Tucson was an uplifting and enlightening experience.”