Arts and Culture | Local

Tucson International Jewish Film Festival’s ‘Feeding Our Souls’ documents local shul’s farm project

A Congregation Bet Shalom member shows off eggs laid by the shul's chickens, in the short film 'Feeding Our Souls." (Courtesy Tucson International Jewish Film Festival)

Congregation Bet Shalom members young and old — but mostly young — are featured in a short film, “Feeding Our Souls,” that will debut as part of the Tucson International Jewish Film Festival. But the chickens are definitely the stars.

Raising chickens has been a central part of the local synagogue’s farm project, documented in the film over the course of two years. Member families raised baby chicks until the chicks were old enough to be transferred to a coop that members designed and then built on Bet Shalom’s property.

“When we were Israelites in the Bible, we were farmers, we were shepherds, and we wanted to duplicate that feeling for our members. ‘Midbar’ is Hebrew for the ‘desert,’ and we are a desert community in Tucson,” says Anne Lowe, Bet Shalom’s president from 2016-2019.

The project, which also includes a vegetable garden, stemmed from “the idea that we need to do something radical to reach out to people, where it may be intimidating to come inside the synagogue,” Rabbi Avi Alpert explains in “Feeding Our Souls.” The farm project was funded in part by a special allocation from the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona aimed at enhancing synagogues’ youth and family education programs.

Bet Shalom broke ground on The Midbar Project in 2018, and the chickens moved into the coop in early February 2020. Now, “in the pandemic, everything that we’re doing seems to be virtual, except for this,” Alpert says.

Lowe, who takes her turn feeding the chickens every other Monday, told the AJP they give her “a surge of joy” when they come rushing to greet her. They know Lowe always brings a bag of greens to supplement their regular feed so they charge into their run through their solar door, which is set up to let them out into their yard at dawn and close automatically as night falls.

Members of all ages love to chat about the chickens, says Lowe. “We have had young families join just because of the farm, but the young families that were already part of our congregation have really loved this project. And it’s also older people,” Lowe says, noting that Honey Manson, who is in her 90s, always asks for a chicken update.

Raised among people from the start, the chickens are receptive to being picked up and cuddled. “They are so soft – when you touch them, it’s like velvet,” Lowe says.

Members of the Hesso family, who are Kurdish refugees, feed the chickens on Saturdays. Lowe says Hasan Hesso sometimes collects as many as 11 eggs in a single day. The usual haul is four or five, because the hens don’t all lay on a daily basis. “I guess the chickens really like to lay eggs on Shabbat,” she jokes.

The caretaker families keep the eggs they collect or share them with friends; there aren’t enough to be donated to food pantries.

Bet Shalom’s vegetable garden also was flourishing, until a herd of javelinas, animals that look like wild pigs but actually are peccaries, got inside the fence. They ate all the plants in the garden and the chicken feed in the shed, says Lowe. It was an educational moment. The farm now has a sturdier fence, with extra fencing planned before the vegetable garden is replanted this spring, to ward off rabbits and other creatures, as well as javelinas.

In the future, the congregation hopes to add a honeybee hive to the farm.

“Feeding Our Souls,” which runs eight minutes, was filmed over two years, with several cinematographers and even drones helping director and producer Anne Dalton capture the action.

The film festival is offering “Feeding Our Souls” in tandem with the feature film “The Samuel Project.”  The films will be available to stream Jan. 23-25 and may be pre-ordered. Viewers will have 48 hours to finish watching once they’ve started a film. The two films were paired, Lowe explains, because in “The Samuel Project,” Hal Linden’s character hid in a chicken coop during the Holocaust.

Lowe, a member of the film festival selection committee for five years, sat out the meeting where they screened and voted on “Feeding Our Souls.”

She will moderate a post-film panel discussion on the making of short documentaries, which will feature Alpert, Dalton, and Genie Joseph, president of Independent Film Arizona, who also is an Emmy award-winning producer. The post-film Zoom event will be Tuesday, Jan. 26 at 7 p.m., and is included in the cost of the film ticket.

More about the film festival is available here.