by Marilyn Anthony
Standing at the Jewish Farm School (JFS) booth at the Philly Food and Farm Fest, Nati Passow, 37, welcomes a steady stream of visitors. His dreadlocks tucked up low at the base of his neck and his large, graying beard framing a broad smile, he handily picks up the child of yet another visitor. He trades stories about his own wife and two kids, who live communally with another family in West Philadelphia.
Passow’s easy bearing is the bridge that carries you into his deep thinking about the world. In a style he might call “Jewishly,” his engaging conversation blends food, farming and the Jewish faith—ideas “brew” or “percolate,” programs are “rooted” or “fallow,” and activities as simple as weeding are undertaken with kavana, which is Hebrew for intention.
Described by many as “super smart,” Passow’s wry observations often incite laughter that he is quick to share. With characteristic humor, Passow summarizes the JFS mission tweet-style: “Jewish Farm School: Teaching Jews to do stuff with their hands since 2006.” Passow, who serves as executive director of the organization, doesn’t take himself too seriously. He reserves gravity for what he’d like to accomplish.
Passow is part of a national wave of young Jewish social innovators who believe the Torah’s ancient ideas hold relevance today—about income inequality, food and social justice.
“When we table at events, we get a lot of strange looks,” he says, probably because people think “Jewish farmer” is an oxymoron.
Passow has taken a markedly different path than many in his family.
His two siblings are both rabbis, and his parents—both professors—raised them in an orthodox Jewish household in Bala Cynwyd. As a high school student in Lower Merion, Passow had already begun making connections between his faith and the physical world around him. He co-founded an outdoors club, then majored in religion and environmental studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He honed his outdoors and mentoring skills working summers at a Jewish wilderness camp in the Poconos and later at Vermont’s Institute for Social Ecology.
Passow’s grandfather, a Holocaust survivor, approved of Passow’s emphasis on learning hiking and camping and his burgeoning manual skills. “Finally,” he told Passow, “someone in this family who knows how to do something.”
It was during a stint teaching at Connecticut’s Teva Learning Center that Passow experienced a community built on profound connections to nature and the Jewish faith. His seminal experience at Teva suggested how Jewish laws could provide a framework for sustainable practices in Philadelphia.
Back in the city, through his work with high school students in West Philadelphia’s Urban Nutrition Initiative, Passow witnessed the social injustice and food insecurity that characterize the neighborhood, and his training and experience began to coalesce around an idea: Jewish Farm School would be a way to teach ancient Judaic agricultural principles, “The Order of the Seeds,” and to create a food system that would, he says, “ensure that the needs of all people are being met—and that they’re met with dignity.”
Though he feels that his path to activism combining Judaism, nature and sustainability can resonate with other young adults, Passow might not consider himself a religious leader, but he’s honoring the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, or performing acts of kindness that will “repair the world.”
Passow is the kind of person who seems to be at the center of gravity in any group, affably drawing everyone near to him and expanding his community at the same time—he is both firmly planted in place and in constant motion. Repairing the world is a lot of work.
Not just farming, not just for Jews
Passow co-founded Jewish Farm School with friend Simcha Schwartz, and it’s evolved well beyond what its name suggests. The pair originally planned a farm for summer youth programs and launched one with Eden Village Camp in the Hudson Valley. In 2013, when Passow returned to Philadelphia, he applied his considerable talents for cultivating partnerships. He found venues for Jewish Farm School’s sustainability education within communities of need, rather than operating in what he describes as a “Jewish bubble” of idealism.
JFS’ larger purpose strives to ensure survival through the creation of a pragmatic, inclusive social safety net. Philadelphia’s JFS offers skill-based workshops and farming opportunities to Jewish and non-Jewish young adults. Programming aims to give participants an awareness of our food system and its inequities, coupled with the practical “shtetl” skills to live sustainably—to grow your own food, build your own house or make your own clothes. It’s an approach with a long history in the region.
Jewish farmer education first took root locally in 1896 when Rabbi Joseph Krauskopf, acting on advice from Leo Tolstoy, purchased 100 acres of farmland in Doylestown to establish the National Farm School for young Jewish men, where students helped run the farm and grow their own food. The National Farm School became Delaware Valley University, where a farm remains part of the campus. Meanwhile, in 1909, young Eastern European Jewish immigrants founded the first kibbutz in present-day Israel to create a self-sufficient farm community. The kibbutz movement grew through the 1970s, attracting many Jewish-American teens to connect with their heritage by living and working on Israeli farms.
JFS’ summer program, Philly Farm Crew, coordinates volunteer labor for urban farms such as Teens 4 Good and Grow Philly. Philly Farm Crew is not just about weeding. JFS educators explain Judaic beliefs, exploring their relevance to social justice. Volunteer Dirk McGurk appreciates the insights into Judaism, though he admits beautiful sunsets, interesting co-workers and growing food also draw him to Farm Crew. Forager David Siller, self-described as “culturally Jewish,” teaches JFS workshops. Siller thinks that many young adults grew up like him, without a meaningful connection to nature. “Gardening to me meant weeding the patio,” he says. He believes JFS fosters real connections, regardless of religion.
Passow recently began hosting Shabbat and Jewish holidays like Sukkoth, the harvest festival, in the West Philly backyard his family co-owns with neighbors. The modest lot shelters raised vegetable beds, children’s play areas, and a community table for sharing meals. These events help convince Passow that JFS can connect with millennials in important ways—by creating a community of practice for those with a religious imperative, and by offering a rich, spiritual context for secular activists. Bridget Flynn, a Repair the World fellow at JFS who is not Jewish, feels that “Nati does a really good job of contextualizing Judaism in food justice, exploring universal values that everybody believes in... I’ve gotten to see how religion moves people and builds community in that sense.”
Mobilizing the next generation of advocates
Since 2006, more than 100,000 new millennials have made Philadelphia their home, which presents an opportunity for cultivating young social activists. Sarah Horwitz, a native Philadelphian, “took a year off from Judaism” as a City Year volunteer in Los Angeles. Wanting to reconnect with her faith and her hometown, she applied to JFS, where she realized that “the point of religion is to give you morals and ethics to live by, and it’s ethics and morals that guide people to create social change.” Horwitz’s colleague Flynn, a native New Yorker, adds, “I ended up falling in love with Philadelphia and all the great social justice work happening here.” JFS board chair Carly Zimmerman cites studies showing young adults’ lack of connection to Judaism. Millennials are not joining their parents’ synagogues or contributing to traditional philanthropies like The Jewish Federation. Startup Jewish initiatives across the country involve young adults in service-based nonprofits like JFS and Zimmerman’s organization, Challah for Hunger. Alternative Jewish philanthropies such as the Joshua Venture Group, a major funder of JFS, offer financial support.
“Those of us... in the nonprofit world believe that a powerful idea with people behind it can change the status quo,” says Zimmerman.
Passow wants to help all Philadelphians prosper. He hopes the Jewish Farm School can expand its influence by creating a nonsectarian “urban sustainability center”—a permanent location that can model new urban technologies, offer workshops, Shabbat and holiday gatherings, and provide an inclusive alternative to the traditional Jewish community center.
The young visionary looks forward to a time when ancient Jewish beliefs form the basis for contemporary social justice, a time, he says, when people say, “Oh, Jewish Farm School—that makes sense.”