Courtesy Elinor Hasenfratz
Elinor Hasenfratz tends to the Beth Weizmann Urban FarmCourtesy Elinor Hasenfratz
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Jewish Urban Farms Take Root in Australia

‘Jews were people of the land before we were people of the book’

Nomi Kaltmann
November 08, 2022
Courtesy Elinor Hasenfratz
Elinor Hasenfratz tends to the Beth Weizmann Urban FarmCourtesy Elinor Hasenfratz

Growing up in Sydney, with its year-round beautiful weather, Mitch Burnie loved spending time outdoors in nature and gardening. Today, at 29, Burnie has turned that love into a project serving the city’s Jewish community: an urban farm.

After high school, Burnie avoided going to university: “I wanted nothing to do with it,” he told me. “I had no intention of going.” Instead, he earned what he dubbed “life experience” working as an informal Jewish educator at the Emanuel School, a Jewish school in Sydney, and as a Habonim youth leader in the U.K., after which he started working with a Sydney-based organization called Shalom, tasked with creating community activities for young Australian Jews. “Through these activities I was growing community and building connection,” he said.

As part of his role at Shalom, Burnie looked at Jewish communities around the world to see if there were programs that could be emulated in Sydney. In 2018, he traveled to the United States, where he met with many Jewish organizations doing interesting things for young people, including Hazon, Moishe House, and Jewish Outdoor Farmer. After meeting those Americans, he realized that there was a growing movement focused on “connecting agriculture to Judaism,” he said. “To identity and community. To tzedakah. And when I saw all of this, I thought, this is it!”

After returning home, Burnie wanted to open an urban Jewish farm in Sydney, but there was a problem: “I didn’t yet have the skills or knowledge.” So, he took a short sabbatical from his job to seek out the training he needed. In early 2019, he was accepted to Hazon’s three-month Adamah Fellowship, a program for adults in their 20s and 30s that integrates organic agriculture, farm-to-table living, Jewish learning, community building, social justice, and spiritual practice.

“I was the first and only Aussie to have ever been on it,” he said. “Before I went, I spoke to the British person who runs the Jewish community urban farm in London. I realized this didn’t just have to be an American thing—it could be global as well.”

The fellowship, which he spent living in a tent on Lake Miriam in Falls Village, Connecticut, at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, was a formative experience for Burnie. “I woke up every day at 5 a.m. and sang the Shema with a group of like-minded Jews from across America,” he recalled. “We were all there learning about regenerative agriculture and how to link it to Jewish festivals. We were delving into our people’s history before exile.”

The main lesson he learned? “Jews were people of the land before we were people of the book,” he said. “We can only be people of the book if we understand the land.”

When the fellowship finished, Burnie had a clear vision for what he wanted to create in Sydney. “I reached out to Hakoah [a local Jewish organization] and asked if I could have a tiny weedy corner in the corner of their massive complex to start our urban farm. They said, ‘Yes, go for it.’”

Mitch Burnie, who founded Adamama, Australia’s first Jewish urban farm
Mitch Burnie, who founded Adamama, Australia’s first Jewish urban farmCourtesy Mitch Burnie

Adamama, Australia’s first Jewish urban farm, was born. Its name—a mix of the Hebrew word adama, meaning earth or soil, and mama—roughly translates as “Earth mother.”

“We brought lawn mowers and whipper snippers and started clearing the land. We spent the first three months of 2020 building all this momentum—but then the pandemic hit,” he said, recalling Australia’s strict nationwide lockdown. The pandemic eventually brought the momentum back, however, in an unexpected way: “When we eventually came out of the lockdown, everyone wanted to come check us out because Adamama was outdoors,” he said. “People wanted to learn about sustainable farming because food scarcity was on people’s minds. We had the perfect place for everyone to go.”

Since those early days, Adamama has continued to grow, hiring staff to expand its programs. Today, Adamama offers weekly volunteer sessions to learn about zero-waste cooking, community events around Jewish festivals such as celebrating Sukkot at the urban farm, and monthly classes.

Earlier this year, the urban farm moved to a new location in Sydney, to the suburb of Randwick, to premises subsidized by the local city council. “The [city council] said to me, ‘Mitch, if you bring Adamama here, if you bring schools and participants, we will promote it.’ And so, we did.”

Over 5,000 people have volunteered at Adamama across all their programs. At least 20 volunteers gather each Friday morning, and usually a dozen on Sundays. They learn practical, hands-on ways to engage in permaculture, creating healthy habits, soil regeneration, and urban farming. The workshops offered at Adamama focus on sustainable living, including compost making, garden design, pickling, or following the Jewish calendar in nature.

The pickling workshops are especially popular, with the pickles sold at local grocery stores using ingredients grown at the farm and any profit reinvested in the urban farm. “We do pop-ups [at schools and community groups] to teach people about preserving food: sour dill pickles and kraut,” said Burnie. Any excess food grown at the urban farm is taken by volunteers at the end of sessions, as well as interested members of the public.

Gary Samowitz, who works for Hakoah in Sydney and was helpful in organizing Adamama’s first space, is proud of the success that the urban farm has become. “It’s a great activity because its intergenerational—you have parents with kids and grandparents learning about farming,” he said. “Now there is a huge demand for people getting their hands dirty out in the sun, learning about some of the Jewish principles of farming from Mitch, so he has created a wonderful movement.”

Burnie’s model looks like it may soon be spreading to other parts of Australia.

In Melbourne, Elinor Hasenfratz is running Australia’s second urban Jewish farm, the Beth Weizmann Urban Farm, which has been operating for 18 months.

“Originally it was a traditional community garden model, where you would rent a box for a year, and you would have your single box that you had to take care of,” she explained. “That worked well pre-COVID—they had a teacher who would show people what to do.”

But during the pandemic, and after extended Australian lockdowns, the garden boxes became less well maintained. Hasenfratz, whose parents were avid gardeners, and who attended an agricultural high school in Adelaide, saw an opportunity. “When I saw there was a lack of direction,” she said, “I wrote a proposal to Beth Weizmann [the local Australian JCC] and I said: There [are] such good bones [for this urban farm], there is so much potential. You just need a coordinator for the gardens.” Beth Weizmann suggested that she take on the role as urban farm coordinator herself.

“Mitch in Sydney was incredibly helpful during that time,” she said. “That’s when it shifted from a community garden to urban farm.”

The Beth Weizmann Urban Farm is currently finishing its winter harvest: broad beans, Asian greens, parsley, and radishes. “We had the perfect mix of warmth and rain. The urban farm grew. It’s a veritable forest of greens,” Hasenfratz said.

While Hasenfratz has not yet had the chance to visit Adamama in Sydney, she knows that she will have a new friend waiting for her when she comes.

“It’s so great to see the idea spreading,” said Burnie. “Every Jewish neighborhood should have one.”

Nomi Kaltmann is Tablet magazine’s Australian correspondent. Follow her on Twitter @NomiKal.

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